In an insightful LinkedIn post Gareth Kerr, MD and owner of Fathom Systems (who make components for DSVs) raised a couple of important issues. Gareth noted:
As I recall, about 30% of the worldwide fleet is older than 30 years so when these vessels are scrapped (which will be soon) there will certainly be space at the table for a new generation of green, efficient and sensibly priced assets.
There is a lot going on in that sentence so let’s deconstruct it a little bit. Firstly, I agree with the fact that ~30% of the worldwide fleet is older than 30 years. The problem at the moment of course is that the global DSV fleet is nowhere near utilised at an economic level, so the safest assumption is that DSV owners will scrap tonnage when it cannot cover its economic cost of capital (eventually), and are unlikely to replace this tonnage until demand picks up signficantly and for a long period of time (and in reality there is a significant change in the financing market). The mistake Gareth has made here is only looking at the supply side of the market and not integrating it with the demand side.
Discussing the DSV fleet as a global market also makes no sense as it is in reality 3 regional markets with no inter-regional procurement. This lack of economies of scale in diving has confounded many people, most recently Harkand, who tried to claim they were building a global IRM business despite it being obvious that if people didn’t run procurement like that so there was no demand for such a business.
The three distinct markets are: 1) Norway, 2) North Sea other, and , 3) Rest of the World. I don’t intend to discuss Norway much as the total number of DSV days has fluctuated from about 480-620 for the past 10 years. It is a 2 vessel DSV market and will be forever, and I doubt anyone will ever build a new NORSOK class DSV without a firm commitment from an operator to cover the financing costs of the vessel (i.e. a 200-250 day charter for 10 years), but the reality is one won’t be needed. However, when it is very quiet in Norway these vessels trade down to the UKCS/North Sea sector.
Then North Sea other, a market that includes the UKCS, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands etc. Vessels can trade down from this market but ROW tonnage cannot trade up. It is therefore a supply constrained market in boom times and releases tonnage as the market contracts as the higher spec vessels seek to trade down and take work from other lesser spec boats.
From a demand perspective the outlook the North Sea region is grim: until shallow water construction returns to the region DSV rates will remain low. Construction work uses vastly more DSV days than IRM work and what made the market tight was the multi month construction work the North Sea fleet used to undertake. Now the same assets, that covered the 2014 boom year, are doing a reduced amount of IRM work. This isn’t going to change anytime soon as this data from Oil and Gas UK shows:
You get a sense of the drop from over £14bn in 2014 to c. £8bn in 2016 to a likely drop to under £8bn in 2017. It is not surprise that in 2014 IRM DSVs were going out at £180-200k per day (+ mob fees) and now the vessels are going out at £90-130k per day. Until that Capex number picks up the DSV fleet will not be fully utilised and an increase in IRM work. In 2014 Bibby had four North Sea class DSVs but the Harkand/ Nor vessels still had to go to Africa for work. The supply side was already peaking in the best year of demand.
It is no coincidence that the highest operating costs came in the regions with the highest DSV requirements that were pulled off maintenance work and into marginal construction projects:
The E&P company plans are to drive these costs down and the increasing supply of DSVs, relative to their demand, makes this easy. In an environment with this sort of cost pressure and volatility in demand the investment risk for new assets, that operate in the spot market, is insurmountable. The pressure on operations departments will be to reduce DSV costs for years not to get to first oil and that creates a completely different contracting environment.
Ultimately DSVs are an expensive plumber connecting the wellhead to other infrastructure so a good leading sign of future construction is drilling that could lead to further subsea projects. Again its all grim for the North Sea:
The industry is just not building enough well “stock” that will lead to subsea development projects. And the projects that will be brought forward for development are just not the small, shallow-water, step-outs/ tie-ins that keep the DSVs busy. Oil and Gas UK notes the most promising areas for investment:
the potential of the UK remains exciting, with opportunities such as the fractured basement plays west of Shetland; ultra-high-pressure high-temperature prospects in the central North Sea; and the carboniferous resources in the Southern Gas Basin.
These are not projects that will require much DSV time (but Subsea 7’s new pipelay vessel will be useful). Clair Ridge, Mariner, Bressay, all these high flow/high Capex projects need next to no DSV time and they are driving the construction stats in volume terms.
Now let’s look at the supply side of the fleet. I put the core North Sea fleet at this:
That doesn’t include the Vard 801 (2017 build) that at some point will enter the market. I have been generous to DOF putting the Achiever in, I have left off a Subsea 7 vessel that is in lay-up and can be reactivated, and I have left out the Boskalis Constructor/ EDT Protea and others that are mainly Southern North Sea/ Dutch sector. There are also assets that could return to the market (the Mermaid Endurer and Bibby Sapphire were all working in the region in 2014). Toisa also have some vessels (Pegasus/Paladin) that could, for a fraction of the new build cost return to the region.
But it is obvious to even the casual observer that there has been a massive capital investment in the fleet and that this is a relatively new fleet for assets that can work for at least 20-25 years in the region before seeking more benign conditions. Since this fleet upgrade started day rates have dropped from c. 180k per day to c.90-120k (a 30% reduction) yet the cost of the vessels has increased from ~$100m for the Topaz in 2007 to ~$160m for the Vard 801 (a 60% increase). In that time the two independent operators and new builders of North Sea class DSVs have had their equity wiped out (Harkand and Bibby) and the assets trade at substantially below depreciated book value and has ensured debt providers have also taken a hit. This is not a market where it will be easy to order or finance new assets.
So you can hold all the positive meetings you want in Bergen and discuss cool diving technology, but the economics of this are pretty obvious: neither the demand side or the supply side will push for any new build North Sea class DSVs for at least the next 5-7 years. I don’t see any new buildings in this market commissioned without some sort of contract underwriting the financing cost, and even then it could well be a decade or more before someone (other than Helix) commissions one.
The one thing I can guarantee is that there is almost no chance of any of the sepculative builds in Asia entering the North Sea market. If Technip and Subsea 7 ever want a new DSV (as opposed to a project one) they will get a contract with a yard that has export financing and they will see the pickup in construction activity early enough to order it early enough such that it arrives in time for another boom and not too early. At this stage it is more rational to wait to order a DSV and lose some market share in IRM if they need to and bag the construction work at a higher margin, than to order or commit to a $150m vessel that only trades in the spot market. The high fixed costs and barriers to entry virtually ensure no new market entrants will follow Boskalis into the market, and the vastly reduced industry spend makes it questionable whether there is even room for more than three substantial SAT dive contractors.
The ROW market is almost irrelevant in supply terms. There is sufficient new tonnage for years and as the market booms there sre substitute products in the form of modular diving systems that will reduce the pressure on day rates. As I have said before there is a very obvious reason why no one has been building North Sea spec vessels for Asia: No one will pay for them. There are more than sufficient high-end DSVs to cover for demand and there are no signs that the market is coming close to absobing the new tonnage coming. Yard Inc. is rapidly becoming the biggest owner/financier of new tonnage in Asia with the Southern Star, all the UDS vessels, the Keppel new build, and others all being owned by the yard effectively.
Old DSVs will work out in Asia because the marginal cost of operating them i.e. the cost of one extra diving day, is substantially below the cost of building a new one and comparable in productivity terms to a modular system with a PSV. Day rates are substantially below the North Sea and vessels like the Mermaid Endurer simply don’t command a sufficient price premium to regional tonnage (although they have utilisation advantages). It is a cheap market for cheap ships and until customers pay more then it will remain so.
It is just not credible to suggest that in a market like Asia, where there is substantial overcapacity, rates at Opex breakeven on a full year basis, and massive utilisation risk for owners/charters/operators, that age alone will provide the route to new build demand. These assets have to be paid for and the assets in Asia are not generating an economic return and until they do they cannot be financed. The future could well be India where old assets eke out a living more or less indefinitely.
All the indications from brokers in Asia is that UDS is as desperate as anyone else to get work. They cannot achieve a price premium for these assets and the assets operate at substantially below economic return levels. A wave of new buildings will only occur if Chinese yards decide they want to build DSVs that they then operate at below economic levels more or less indefinitely. I just don’t see that going on for more than the ordered vessels at the moment.
Gareth also asks the question:
We have all seen the industry restructure over the past 3 years where companies were losing money at >$100 oil but are now making profits at $60 oil. Why should the DSV market be any different?
I think I can answer that question. The major reason is that at $60 oil companies sell 100% of their output above the cost of production, overhead, and finaning and at a rate that allows them to meet dividend commitments. At $60 oil, and with an increasing amount being produced via US tight oil, there is not enough DSV demand to cover the cost of operating the vessels and associated overhead, yet alone making an economic return. Gareth has again made the mistake of looking at only the supply side of the market.
So let’s leave the ‘black magic’ diving stuff to the people who know best (clearly not me). But let’s also let discussions on likely future demand for extremely expensive capital investment decisions be guided by economics and data rather than meaningless prayers of hope for the future. The fact is the DSV industry needs less capital not more in order to help the market to equilibrium.