Brazil, The New Offshore, and Contractor Profitability…

“My salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood, To say as I said then!”

Cleopatra – Act 1, Anthony and Cleopatra

Bassoe Offshore had a very good and insightful article on Brazil this week. The key thing for me was the sheer drop in volume of rigs working in Brazil:

As we noted earlier this year, the number of drilling rigs in Brazil has gone from over 80 to under 30 during the past five years.  Currently, 26 rigs are on contract (all for Petrobras), but only about 20 are on full dayrate and drilling due to Petrobras’ reduced effective demand.  By the end of 2018 – assuming no new contracts or contract extensions – Petrobras will have 14 rigs working for them.  By 2021, this number becomes three. 

We estimate that Petrobras has a minimum requirement of around 20 rigs to sustain production through 2021.

Rigs are obviously the leading indicator of future subsea work and it’s worth putting some context on this as Bassoe Offshore did in April:

If you were an offshore rig owner back in 2010–2014, Brazil was the land of opportunity.  Petrobras offered long term contracts with solid dayrates.  Everyone wanted to be there.  Rigs were built; demand seemed insatiable. 

Petrobras even initiated Sete Brazil, a company with plans to build 29 Brazilian-content, deepwater semisubs and drillships, which was slated to be Brazil’s path to global prominence in rig construction and a boost to the country’s industry and economy.

And in order to keep production going from all the well work these rigs would be doing Petrobras went just as long on flexlay capacity. The strategy here was slightly different: Petrobras choose the two most capable subsea contractors in the world and signed them up for a vast investment campaign to buy specialist Pipe-Lay Support Vessels (PLSVs) and contract them for a period of c. 30% of their expected economic life. Technip, who always seem to call these things correctly, decided to share the risk 50/50 with DOF Subsea for four vessels, while Subsea 7 decided to build and own its three vessels.

There is a constant commentary about how high the margins are on these contracts, and it is true that during the firm period they look good, outstanding even, but there is a very real risk that some of these vessels will be re-delivered. A company that had 80 rigs working and went long on flex-lay capability with 7 vessels is unlikely to need that number in the future when it has c. 20 rigs working. For a whole pile of reasons the drop in demand is unlikely to be linear, but you only need to be directionally correct here to understand the scale of the issue.

Brazil also has proper emerging market risk characteristics in it’s local cabotage regulations that favour local tonnage as Subsea 7 found out this year when the Seven Mar had its charter terminated early,effectively for convenience, and therefore had to reduce backlog by USD 106m. So clearly the economic reason you get a good margin is because there is actually a fair bit of risk in building such a specific asset for such a unique (and having worked on a Petrobras contract I use the word in its most expressive sense) customer: the downside here is in 7 years you get a ship back quayside in Brazil that costs USD 15k per day to run and is only good for laying pipe in 3000m of water. All of a sudden that healthy margin for the last seven years doesn’t look quite so attractive, and this is a very real possibility here for at least 3 or 4 of these vessels.

This fact clearly had a massive impact of the ability of DOF Subsea to get an IPO away and is one of a number of huge strategic issues DOF Subsea has. The DOF Subsea investors were hoping to remove some of the risk of vessel redelivery, and the price the investors were offering to do this just wasn’t enough, or in sufficient volume, for a deal to be agreed. Given the binary nature of the payoff involved it is no surprise a mid-point on the two positons could not be reached: Because a downside scenario is that Petrobras halves the number of contract PLSVs it wants and Subsea 7 comes in with a low bid and the Technip/DOF Susbea JV has its entire fleet redelivered. It may not be likely but it cannot be ruled out either.

The greater IOC involvement in Brazil may also change what has been one of the great comparative anomolies of the market: the complete lack of a spot market (which made sense when Petrobras was the only customer). Should PB and the IOCs decide to bid flexlay work on a project-by-project basis the revenues for the purpose built PLSVs will be much less secure and the valuation assigned to them will be significantly lower to reflect this income volatility. These investments rightly required a very healthy margin.

I always find it amusing to read statements like “the investors think this is an even better investment” and then read the latest accounts and come across comments like this:

In the 2nd quarter the Group has seen improvement in both numbers and activity compared to 1st quarter, however the general market conditions within our industry are challenging, especially in the Atlantic region and the North America region…

During the quarter, the Group has seen a low utilisation of the vessels Skandi Constructor, Skandi Neptune, Skandi Achiever and the JV vessel Skandi Niteroi… In the Subsea/IMR project segment the idle time between projects has increased, however the Group saw an increased project activity toward the end of the quarter.

Ah… the famous greenshots of recovery… at the end of every quarter everyone always sees activity picking up… not quite enough to make it into the current results… but jam tomorrow…

Which led to these numbers:

DOF Subsea Q217

So you might believe it’s a “real out performer”, but in a financial sense it’s a very hard case to make. All the key indicators are going South.

DOF Subsea is an extremely hard investment case to make (to highlight just the three most obvious examples):

  1. Is it a contractor or a contractors’ contractor? A falling out with FMC Technip would devastate the business yet it is hard to see where the clear division of capabilities and competencies at the lower end between the two is? Are DOF Subsea really going to put the Achiever to work against the Technip North Sea DSVs? Even if you really believe they will do this how many jobs would they have to win off Technip before Mons got a call asking what was going on?
  2. The pay-off from the Brazil PLSV project is highly uncertain but it is almost certain that the current margins will drop from their current levels
  3. DOF Subsea has all the costs of being an international EPIC contractor with none of the associated scale benefits. The scale benefits of being international require large diameter pipelay and its associated margins, a move into this area is financially impossible given their current constraints and would clearly precipitate a major ruction with FMC Technip

I think DOF Subsea is just the wrong size to compete as a global contractor and I mark it as likely to underperform significantly in the future. I see a world where FMC Technip, Subsea 7, McDermott, and maybe Saipem, become almost unassailable as the profitable global SURF contractors for mid-sized field development up. Each with a very strong base in one geographic region, with an asset base that can trade internationally enough to gain scale economies from other international operations, and with the balance sheets to invest in capabilities that will standardise and drive SURF costs down. DOF Subsea, despite having a lot of nice ships and clever people, is by an order of magnitude behind these companies.

These Tier 1 contractors will make disproportionate margins to the rest of the supply chain where overcapacity is rampant and balance sheets are weak. These Tier 1 contractors will need to own only core enabling assets and simply contract in all commodity tonnage, which will remain oversupplied for years. Tier 1 margins will improve as they need proportionately less CapEx, or operational leverage, now the OSV fleet has more options. It is not all salad days as apart from MDR the Tier 1’s have some issues from the boom years, but on a project level, for larger SURF work, they are creating a very strong competitive position. You will able to have a strong regional presence/competitors, but the gap between the few global SURF contractors and the “also rans” is going to become very wide indeed as backlog declines going into 2018.

Expect DOF Subsea to remain privately held for a good while longer if the investors really believe it’s undergoing a current period of out-performance that no one else is clever enough to see.

DOF Subsea IPO looks like a market bellweather of what financial investors believe…

Successful investing is anticipating the anticipations of others.

John Maynard Keynes

I was always sceptical of the DOF Subsea IPO, any subsea company raising capital at the moment would need an exceptional value story and this never offered that. I saw it as insiders selling out aware of how the future could look, so news that it was canned doesn’t come as a huge surprise. First Reserve wanted out but not at any price, and so the IPO was pulled. Let’s be clear this wasn’t a casual conversation, bankers will have had sounding out conversations with key investors who either gave a steadfast refusal, or said they would only buy it really cheap. The investment narrative is moving to shale in financial hubs at the moment, no one is paying full price for assets at the moment, and as the numbers make clear this is an asset business. The DOF Subsea Q1 numbers also make really clear that talk of a recovery at the moment just isn’t substantive.

DOF Subsea is a good company, and they are strong in Brazil and Norway which strategically is as good as it gets in macro terms for offshore, but they simply cannot be immune to the enormous retraction in demand the industry is experiencing. DOF Subsea also has the DOF problem which they blithely dismiss but which no one can get past: are they a contractors’ contractor or a contractor? As the industry consolidates it is increasingly hard to see someone being able to be both. It is also hard to believe that when all the flexlay vessels come off contract with Petrobras they will be employed at anything like the current rate creating a huge residual value issue on entry for stockholders (unless they were relying on the greater fool theory).

A quick look at at the Q1 results shows why the IPO was always going to be tricky:

DOF Subsea Utilisation Q1 2017

Despite what the Ops guys try and tell you about the boat stuff being black magic voodoo knowledge that simple people can’t understand subsea (and offshore supply) is a utilisation business, just like a hotel. Even at the top end of projects the value added by the marine delivery assets outstrips all the other costs of the SURF installations and therefore the performance of the vessels dictates the cost base and obviously the financial results of offshore contractors. Offshore contractors have high fixed costs on a depreciating asset base, vessel days are “disposable inventory” that if not sold have a set cost. Given DOF Subsea only have 1 chartered vessel so fleet utilisation shown above is clearly declining massively. This dropped straight to the bottom line:

DOF Subsea Q1 2017 EBITDA

It is a really simple business model: when the ships work you make money. DOF Subsea has a load of liquidity and has no immediate issues, but if anything goes wrong in Brazil then there is a massive problem. Petrobras are too long on flexlay capability and are unlikely to simply get rid of Subsea 7 only.

Despite the name and it’s ambitions DOF Subsea is still essentially a supply company:

DOF Subsea EBITDA Segment

Project accounting is notoriously complicated but in short in the six months from Oct 16 to Mar 17 DOF Subsea turned over NOK 1.5bn in subsea project delivery and made only NOK 96m EBITDA (as a rough cash proxy). The cash conversion rate is down substantially from 2016, whereas chartering vessels, by far the vast majority of EBITDA on a smaller number of vessels, drops with remarkable efficiency to EBITDA (c.80%).

I am always perplexed then to read comments like this:

DOF Subsea AS (“DOF Subsea”) and its shareholders have decided to start reviewing the opportunity for DOF Subsea to apply for a listing on Oslo Stock Exchange.
Proceeds from the primary issuance will provide flexibility for DOF Subsea to decisively pursue further organic and strategic growth opportunities and enhance the Company’s competitive position ahead of an anticipated market recovery.
You would think announcing numbers like the above you would want a better explanation before just casually dropping in a market recovery story/theory. Maybe even a data point or two? But no… straight in with this:
The Board of Directors is disappointed with the financial numbers for 1st quarter of 2017, especially with the performance in the North America region and the high number of vessels facing idle time between projects and downtime due to maintenance.
The real problem would appear to be believing that subsea vessels now have different economic drivers to offshore supply vessels. Maybe DOF would be better of just combining with DOF Subsea and accepting its all about scale now? Subsea vessels used to command a premium but not for the foreseeable future, a point bizzarely HugeStadSea have implicity accepted. I note that no ROV information is provided at all. Everyone in the ROV space is complaining about pricing pressure and with 69 systems DOF Subsea are a big player, you can read into that blank what you want.
At some point not everyone can benefit from this increasingly distant, and potentially mythical, recovery. With the amount of tonnage delivered a demand side recovery will also not translate directly into a supply side boom.  Investors paying full price for assets that were ordered for a different era are a rare breed at the moment as it is hard to argue that asset values have not been permanently impaired. Whether this is structural or cyclical downturn is for individual investors to decide (I saw an email last Friday from  the senior management at one offshore company stressing again the fervent hope that the market would turn eventually), clearly in this case investors decided they needed to see a different set of numbers.