The slow fade to obscurity and Gell-Mann amnesia…

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida ætas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

(While we speak, envious time will have fled; seize today, trust as little as possible in tomorrow.)

Horace

For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian 

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that by stepping aside for a moment man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Michael Crichton

Fearnley Securities resumes OSV coverage as slow pickup starts to take shape…Analyst Gustaf Amle places buy ratings on Tidewater and Standard Drilling at a time market is experiencing a slow recovery…

Tradewinds

Energy companies and investors are focused on profits and reluctant to boost spending even after crude prices surged to four-year highs, a senior Goldman Sachs banker said on Thursday…

But this time round, the barriers for investments are high, with investors seeking returns of as much as 15 to 20 percent from multi-billion dollar oil and gas projects, Fry said.

“In the near term the focus is on returns as opposed to growth for the sake of growth,”

Big Oil still reluctant to open spending taps: Goldman

I haven’t written much lately a) because I have been busy with an LNG project I am working on, and b) because it’s a bit like Groundhog Day at the moment: a bunch of offshore companies come out with bad results and tell you it’s grim out there and then a bunch of Norwegian investment banks and consultants write reports about what a good time it is to invest. In the same way the relentless expansion of shale continues apace so to does the inevitable decline in value of the offshore fleet and the capital intensity required to maintain it.

Offshore supply is so grim, with such vast oversupply, it is not even worth the effort to rebut some of the more outlandish claims being made. But if you buy Standard Drilling shares expecting the World Wide Supply Vessels to reocver anything like 60% of their historical value I wish you luck, the money would probably be better spent on lottery tickets, but good luck. If you have relied on one of these above-mentioned reports it is likely you are suffering from Gell-Mann amnesia, forgetting the false positives these self-same analysts saw before (this time it’s different…)

On the contracting/subsea side in the North Sea a denouement slowly approaches regarding capacity and the number of firms. I am interested in the North Sea not only because I worked in that market but also as a quite specialised market, with a small number of players and potential assets, it is as close to a natural experiment in economics as you are likely to get. So when you see a load of small firms losing cash, charging rates below what it would cost them to replace capital equipment, and competing against diversified and well capitalised multi-national corporations, the most likely scenario is that sooner or later their private equity owners decide they are not worth putting money into and they are shut down.

It isn’t the only scenario: the investment industry is awash with liquidity, every PE house wants to be the hero that called the bottom of the market right before it boomed. This idea found its ultimate expression in Borr Drilling, but York Capital buying Bibby Offshore was based on a similar sentiment. The problem is that the price of oil has doubled and the amount of offshore work has remained relatively fixed. Next year (apparently?) the oasis in the desert will appear…

Despite the music journalist from Aberdeen claiming that the management reshuffle at Ocean Installer a few months back was just a small thing and all about focus, this week the ex-CEO left to join DOF Subsea. No one would have had more share options in OI than Steinar, and I bet DOF Subsea wasn’t buying any out: when insiders know the shares are worthless you can bet they are. Even a PE house as big as Hitec Vision has to admit sometimes they cannot keeping pumping money into such a marginal venture as OI with such clearly limited upside for an exit? McDermott and OI couldn’t agree on price and unless another bidder can be conjured up to pay more for a business than you could build it from scratch then it’s days are surely numbered?

OI is a subscale business with a few chartered vessels and is exposed to their charter rates rising if the market booms. The downside is limited to zero for equity and but the upside effectively capped. It is no one’s fault it is just a subscale firm in a remarkably unattractive industry from a structural perspective. Eventually, just as with M2, the grown-ups take charge and face reality. As my shore-based offshore engineering guru reminded me: only a well-timed exit from the Normand Vision kept the business open as long as it has been in all likelihood.

But in the long-run OI has no competitive advantage and will be lucky to earn a cost of capital beyond Reach or other such comparable firms, certainly not one to move the needle on a PE portfolio for Hitec. Is there a market in Norway big enough to keep OI as a Reach competitor? I doubt that despite it being a favoured Equinor outcome.

DOF Subsea revealed in it’s most recent numbers that it only makes a ~9% EBITDA margin on projects (excluding the long-term pre-crash Brazil boats).

DOF pre-post.png

That one graphic shows you the scale of the change in the industry: contracts signed pre-2014: profitable, business post that? Uneconomic. No firm in the market will be making much more than DOF Subsea in IMR  and that is loss making in an economic sense: a signal to the market that there is severe excess capacity in contracting.

The Chief Strategy Officer of Maersk Supply recently went public and admitted even an oil boom won’t save them (a relatively frank admission for a company seeking a buyer whose only interest must be seeing MSS as a leveraged play on an oil boom!). For Maersk Supply the future is charity projects (waste collection), decom (E&P forced waste collection), deepsea mining, and a crane so clever it will make windfarms more than a zero sum game for the vessel provider. The chances of that being as profitable as helping an oil company get to “first oil” are zero. But still with a big corporate parent Maersk remain there supplying capacity at below economic cost and ensuring “the great recovery” remains an elusive Loch Ness styled creature.

A slow descent into obscurity would seem the best case scenario for OI while the worst case is clearly a suddent stop in funding when the investors realise 2019 will just be another drain on cash. Something the ex CEO and CFO have acknowledged in their career choices…

I fear the same thing for Bibby. Clearly York are delaying spending on the re-branding (required by their acquisition) because they were hoping to sell the business before the year was out. The financial results released make it clear how hard that will be. Not only did they overpay to get into the business they then, despite Bibby having spent £6m on advisers, had to pump in £15m more in working capital. When you have to put 30% more investment into working capital don’t believe the line about customers paying slowly: it was a simple, yet dramatic, complete misundertsanding about how much cash the business could generate and would therefore need. If you really believed Polaris, Sapphire, and the ROV fleet were worth 80m you would take the money and run…

Like OI the most likely, but not the only scenario, is that Bibby is simply ground down by Technip, Subsea 7, and Boskalis. At the moment North Sea DSV day rates are such that they do not come close to covering the funded purchase of a new DSV (likely to be USD 170m), and yet Bibby have a relatively old fleet. The 1999 built Polaris for example only has 10 years life left in her: on a DCF valuation model that means she has a finite life and not a capitalised value. In all probability Polaris simply cannot earn enough money in the next ten years to pay for the deposit on a new-build to replace herself (particularly given the dearth of bank financing). When I talk of capital leaving the industry this is a classic case of how this will happen. Boats can be chartered now but then the value accrues to the owner, a situation Volstad are only too aware of and will take advantage of when the Topaz charter comes up for renewal.

A quiet winter and a couple of dry-docks later in June 2019 and it is going to be hard to convince an investor to put another £15m because the customers just keep paying slowly (sic). A bidding competition to renew the Topaz charter would in effect render the business worthless.

There are other scenarios for these firms. I sometimes think optimism is a mineral in Lofoten. A veritable army of Norwegian investment bankers are no doubt trudging around with pitchbooks and research reports showing that if you just pay them a transaction fee in cash these contracting companies will bring you untold wealth (next year). But the most likely scenario is that a dramatic reduction in demand is followed by a large reduction in supply and at the moment only the first of these outcomes has occured as the previous cyclical nature of the industry has encouraged hope for a demand led revival. “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand” as John Cleese famously remarked.

But it is starting to feel like the end of the road… Solstad has become a national embarrasment, OI a vanity project, and Bibby simply a mistake (to name just three examples). Eventually, when all the other possibilities have been exhausted mean reversion and cash needs will begin dictate economic reality.

One of the most bullish offshore data firms recently published this forecast:

IMG_0992

Just remember as a general rule: the larger the orange bar at the bottom (particularly in a relative sense) the less your offshore asset is worth.

[Graph in the header from this Seadrill presentation. Not a graph I suspect that will appear in one from Borr Drilling soon].

Anecdote is not the singular of data…

“As regards the scope of political economy, no question is more important, or in a way more difficult, than its true relation to practical problems. Does it treat of the actual or of the ideal? Is it a positive science concerned exclusively with the investigation of uniformities, or is it an art having for its object the determination of practical rules of action?”

John Neville Keynes, 1890, Chapter 2

Music journalists know a lot about music… if you want some good summer listening I would advise taking them seriously. However, as a general rule, their knowledge of finance and economics is less sound… ‘Greatest Hits’ have for example included complete confidence that EMAS Chiyoda would be recapitalised right before they went bankrupt… or that the scheme from Nautilus to put ancient DSVs in lay-up wasn’t stark raving mad because the Sapphire couldn’t get work either… I digress…

On a logical basis it is very hard to argue that a majority of companies in an industry can consistently be under margin pressure and and that they will exist indefinitely regardless of cash flow losses. It might make a good album cover but as economic reasoning it leaves a lot to be desired.

Let me be very clear here: if the total number of firms in an industry are operating at below cash break-even only one of three things (or a combination of) are possible:

  1. Some firms exit the industry. Capacity is withdrawn and the margins of the remaining firms rise to breakeven (a supply side correction).
  2. The market recovers or grows (a demand side correction).
  3. An external source injects funds into the loss making companies or they sell assets (a funding correction).

There are no other options. I write this not because I want people to lose their jobs, or because I hate my old company, or because I didn’t like the Back Street Boys as much as the next music journalist in Westhill, I write it because it is an axiomatic law of economics. To write that firms, backed by private equity companies, who have a very high cost of capital, will simply carry on funding these businesses indefinitely is simply delusional.

A deus ex machina event where a central bank provides unlimited liquidity to an industry only happens in the banking sector generally (in the energy space even Thatcher made the banks deliver in general on their BP underwriting commitment). Subsea appears to flushed out the dumb liquidity money, convinced of a quick turnaround, and being turning toward the committed industrial money now.

The real problem for both York and HitecVision, or indeed any private equity investor in  the industry isn’t getting in it’s getting out (as Alchemy are demonstrating). Both have ample funds to deploy if they really believe the market is coming back and this is just a short-term liquidity issue, but who do they sell these companies to eventually? It was very different selling an investment story to the market in 2013 when all the graphs were hockey sticks but now anyone with no long-term backlog (i.e. more than a season) will struggle to get investors (even current ones). The DOF Subsea IPO, even with their long-term Brazil work, failed and the market is (rightly) more sceptical now. Every year the market fails to reover in the snap-back hoped for each incremental funding round gets riskier and theoretically more expensive.

Private equity firms have a range of strategies but they generally involve leverage. Pure equity investment in loss making companies in the hope of building scale or waiting for the market to develop is actually a venture capital strategy. Without the use of leverage the returns need to be very high to cover the cost of funding, and if the market doesn’t grow then this isn’t possible because you need to compete on price to win market share and by definition firms struggle to earn economic profits, yet alone excess profits, that would allow a private equity investor to profit from the equity invested. For private equity investors now each funding round becomes a competition to last longer than someone else until the market recovers. In simple terms without a demand side boom where asset values are bid up significantly above their current levels the funding costs of this strategy become financially irrational.

In this vein HitecVision are trying to exit OMP by turning it into an Ocean Yield copy. The GP/LP structure will be ditched if possible and the investment in the MR tankers shows the strategy of being a specialist subsea/offshore vessel company is dead. Like the contracting companies it isn’t a viable economic model given the vintage year the funds all started.

Bibby Offshore may have backlog but it is losing money at a cash flow level. The backlog (and I use the 2013 definition here where it implies a contractual commitment) it does have beyond this year consists solely of a contract with Fairfield for decom work. This contract is break-even at best and contains extraordinary risks around Waiting-On-Weather and other delivery risks that are pushed onto the delivery contractor. It is a millstone not a selling point.

Aside from the cost base another major issue for Bibby is the Polaris. Polaris will be 20 years old next year and in need of a 4th special survery: only the clinically insane would take that cost and on if they didn’t already own it (i.e. buy the company beforehand). Not only that but at 10 years the vessel is within sight of the end of her working life. Any semi-knowledgeable buyer would value her not as a perpetuity but as a fixed-life annuity with an explicit model period and this has a massive impact on the value of the firm. In simple terms I mean that the vessel within 5-10 years needs to generate enough cash to pay for a replacement asset (to keep company revenues and margins stable) that costs new USD ~165m and for a spot market operator might need to be paid for with a very high equity cheque (say ~$80m). Sure a buyer can capture some of this value, but not much and they don’t need to give this away.

In order to fund her replacement capital value the Polaris needs to bank ~USD 22k per day on top of her earnings. Good luck with that. When I talk about lower secular profits in  the industry and the slow dimishment of the capital base that is it in a microcosm: an expensive specialist asset that will be worked to death, above cash flow breakeven in a good year, with no hope of generating enough value in the current economic regime to pay for a replacement. This is how the capital base of the industry will shrink in many cases, not the quick flash of scrapping, but the slow gradual erosion of economic value.

Ocean Installer also have limited work although it is installation work and firmly grounded in Norway. Like everyone else this is not a management failing but a reflection of market circumstances.

McDermott and OI could not reach a deal on  price previously. MDR realised they could just hire some engineers, get some vessels (and even continue to park them in an obscure Norwegian port if needed by Equinor), and recreate OI very quickly. All OI has worth selling is a Norwegian franchise the rest is fantasy. An ex-growth business with single customer risk and some chartered vessels has a value but nowhere near enough to make a venture capital strategy work in financial terms.

Now at both companies there are some extremely astute financial investors are doing the numbers and they must either send out letters to fund investors requiring a draw down to inject funds into these businesses, explaining why they think it is worth it, and putting their reputations on the line for the performance. It may have been worth a risk in 2016, and 17, but really again in 18? Really? [For those unaware of how PE works the money isn’t raised and put in a bank it is irrevocable undertaking to unconditionally provide the funds when the investment manager demands. Investors in big funds know when the money goes in generally and what it is being used for.] And again in 19? And the more they draw down now the higher the upturn has to be to recover. (In York’s case I think it’s more subtle as the investment exposure seems to have moved from the fund to Mr Dinan personally given the substantial person of interest filings).

But whatever. If they do this all the firms do this forever then they will all continue to lose money barring a significant increase in demand. And we know that this is not possible in the short-term from data supplied to the various regulatory agencies. And for the UK sector we know production starts to decline in two years (see graph). So in the UK two years just to keep the same available spend in the region the price of oil will have to go up or E&P companies will have to spend more proportionately on the service companies. This is not a structurally attractive market beset as it is with overcapacity.

Aside from the major tier 1 companies are a host of smaller companies like DOF Subsea, Maersk, Bourbon, and Swire, long on vessels and project teams, and with a rational comnmitment and ability to keep in the market until some smaller players leave. I repeat: this is a commitment issue and the companies with the highest cost of capital and the smallest balance sheets and reources will lose. These companies don’t need to win the tie-backs etc. that OI (and Bibby) are really aiming for: they just need to take enough small projects to ensure that the cost base OI and Bibby have to maintain for trying to get larger projects is uneconomic and expensive in short-term cash costs. It is a much lower bar to aim for but an achievable one.

So the private equity funded companies are left with option 3 as are the industrial companies. The problem is that the industrial companies have a Weighted Average Cost of Capital of ~8-15% and private equity companies who like to make a 2.5x money multiple have about a 25-30% (including portfolio losses) The magic of discounting means the nominal variance over time is considerably larger.

And for both OI and Bibby the fact is they face a very different market from when they started. Both companies went long on specialised tonnage when there was a shortage, taking real financial and operational risk, and growing in a growing market. That market looks likely never to return and the exit route for their private equity backers therefore becomes trying to convince other investors that they need to go long on specialist assets that operate in the spot the market with little visibility and backlog beyonnd the next six months. As someone who tried raising capital for one of these companies in downturns and booms I can tell you that is a very hard task.

So if you want some easy listening summer music I suggest you take advice from a music journalist. On the other hand if you want a serious strategic and financial plan that reflects the market please contact me.

Ocean Installer and SolstadFarstad… endless financial winter..

Ocean Installer held a “must attend” townhall this morning. The CEO moves out to a BD role and the CFO is out altogether. In comes an increasingly realistic HitecVision who now must know that the current losses are unsustainable and there are very few suitors in sight who can bail them of this investment.

OI’s problem is that the summer hasn’t come in terms the quantum of work or the rates at which projects are being contracted. Last year shareholders (and creditors) across the subsea contracting industry wanted a business plan which showed them breaking even at worst in 2018 and then a significant recovery in 2019. So in  2017 those business plans were dutifully delivered to the various stakeholders by management. The problem of course is they had no basis in reality and now as the summer has come, schedules are firm, contracts have been signed, and there is now no place to hide from the reality that this is going to be another terrible financial year for many companies. No other plan would have been acceptable to put before the Board, but now it hasn’t been achieved, and there is no realistic chance of doing so, something has to be done.

This scenario is happening now repeatedly across the industry and the bet the industry would recover this year has proven to be wrong. For those with exposure to boats, or business models based on vessel operations, this is a miserable summer.

And who actually can see a catalyst for change that will make 2019 any different? The oil price is higher than most could have hoped for 6 months ago and while it is leading to more work it just isn’t on the scale required to allow a PE house to recover what has been a considerable investment in OI. It is all well and good saying the North Sea semi-sub market is going crackers but that means it is years away before this will flow through to the subsea construction market. The tier one contractors will be there for that work, whether OI will be is another story altogether.

I don’t think there was a problem with the management of OI but rather with the business model. When founded OI took time risk on scarce vessel assets and made a margin on this risk. It was a sensible and sound idea given the market fundamentals at the time. But the cash costs were huge as it took  on engineers at the peak of the market to bid work and try and get market share. Brazil, Perth, and Houston were all significant loss making offices with a lot of engineers at costs of up to USD 1000 per day… Like Ceona the ramp up costs and timeframe to realistically build a sizeable contractor were I think dramatically underestimated (along with not having a rigid reel strategy).

Now why does OI exist? Would you start it tomorrow if you could? If you can’t answer those questions easily in this market, and you don’t have a lot of cash, then the answer is unfortunately you won’t exist eventually. Just taking someone elses vessels and making a tiny markup on them is an okay business model, except for the fact it’s risky and low margin with no hope of scaling up without more investment if a market recovery happens. One wrong bid with a fixed price contract and you are paying for a vessel to finish the job at a rate that quickly wipes out any potential profit from the original job.

All “boatless” contractors, and the majority of ROV operators taking contract risk, have a strategy that is the equivalent of trying to pick up pennies from in front of a steamroller: the risk reward is totally disproportionate now.

The maximum price anyone would be prepared to pay for OI should really be capped at what is would cost to replicate the company. The major assets are its relationship with Statoil and …. Anyway it has a good relationship with Statoil. All the other aspects of the business: access to vessels, an engineering pool that cannot cover it’s fully loaded costs, its international network with no economies of scale etc can all be replicated for minimal costs. This is an easier business to get into than get out of.

Solstad Farstad also announced a small extension to their situation today and they have the same problem as OI: the business plan simply isn’t real. I have no wish to repeat ad infinitum my constant critique of Solstad Farstad. The extension to the Deep Sea Supply fiascof***up unfortunate situation will now not be revealed until June 30. This is a very bad sign. There is clearly no agreement and probably no plan with apart from hope… which has worked badly so far.

The same problem infects it as with OI: the lack of credibility of a demand side recovery on which the entire Solstad Farstad plan was based on. I repeat: a major restructuring is needed if the company is to survive and 4 week extensions on one portion of the business in no way reflect the operational or financial reality of the company. Having taken on the operational responsibility of the Deep Sea Supply  fleet there is no credible way for the banks to do anything other than firesale the assets now or hand their lay-up over to another ship manager. Such a scenario would require a dramatic revision of the actual cost savings the merger had achieved, but a scenario where Solstad Farstad continue to spend time and money on the Deep Sea Supply fleet is also unsustainable and untenable under the current financial structure.

I would be amazed if a final solution is rolled out in four weeks. Expect major delays here as the banks face up to the scale of the losses. The new Solstad balance sheet is likely to look dramatically different to the 2017 final version published recently, and whether OI is a customer when they come to publish it is also a debatable question. Expect more of the same as a summer of weak demand in the North Sea rolls on unabated.

The New North Sea…

[Pictured above a sneak preview of the new (TBC) York Capital/Bibby/ Cecon OSV]

Subsea 7 came out with weak results last week and specific comments were made regarding the weakness of the North Sea market. I have been saying here for well over a year that this UKCS in particular will produce structurally lower profits for offshore contracting companies going forward: you simply cannot fight a contraction in market demand this big.

In Norway spending has remained more consistent, largely due to Statoil. But it is worth noting how committed they are to keeping costs down:

Statoil Cost reduction Q1 2018.png

A 10% increase in production is balanced with a 50% reduction in CapEx and a 25% reduction in per unit costs. Part of that is paid for by the supply chain… actually all of it. What I mean is only part of it is paid for by productivity improvements and lower operational costs… the rest is a direct hit to equity for service companies.

But as a major offshore player this presentation from Statoil highlights how efficient they have become in the new environment (and how offshore will compete going forward):

Statoil drilling efficiency.png

Cutting the number of days per well by 45% not only vastly reduces the costs for rigs it clearly reduces the number of PSV runs required to support the rig for example. The net result is that offshore is more than competitive with shale/tight oil:

Statoil break even.png

In fact Statoil is claiming its breakeven for offshore is USD 21 ppb on a volume weighted basis. It’s just a timing and economic commitment issue on a project basis to get there, but the future of offshore in demand terms is secure: it is an efficient end economically viable form of production. Especially when your supply chain has invested billions in assets that they are unable to recover the full economic value from. Demand is clearly not going any lower, and is in fact rising, just nowhere near the level required to make the entire offshore even cash breakeven.

Statoil has also changed its contracting mode which is probably part of the reason Subsea 7 is suffering from margin erosion in the North Sea. Statoil has clearly made a conscious decision to break workscopes into smaller pieces and keep Reach and Ocean Installer viable by doing this (and helping DeepOcean but it is clearly less vital economically for them). Part of this maybe long term planning to keep a decent base of contractor infrastructure for projects, but part of it maybe rational because previously for organising relatively minor workscopes larger contractors were simply making too much margin. A good way to reduce costs is to manage more internally in some circumstances, and especially in a declining market. I doubt you can be a viable tier 2 size contractor in the North Sea now without a relationship with Statoil to be honest, it just too big and too consistent in spend terms relative to the overall market size (Boskalis is clearly a tier 1 if you include its renewables business).

I still struggle to see Ocean Installer as a viable standalone concept. At the town hall recently the CEO stated that Hitecvision were in for another two years as they needed three of years of positive cash flow to get a decent price in a sale. But what is a buyer getting? They have no fixed charters on vessels (not that you need them) and no proprietary equipment or IP? All they have is track record and a Statoil relationship. In a volatile market even investors with as much money as Hitecvision must want to invest in businesses with a realistic chance of outperforming in the market?

The UKCS is a different story. Putting the Seven Navica into lay-up is an operational reflection of a point I have made here before: there is a dearth of UKCS CapEx projects. Demand is coming back in the IRM market overall but the diving market remains chronically oversupplied and this is likely to lead to much lower profits in a structural sense regardless of a cyclical upswing.

As I have said before Bibby, surely to be renamed soon if York cannot sell the business, remains by far in the weakest position now. Bibby appear to have won more than 70 days work for the Sapphire but that is just the wrong number. Bibby are caught in a Faustian pact where they need to keep the vessel operating to stop Boskalis getting market share, but they have no pricing power, and are not selling enough days to cover the cost of economic ownership on an annual basis. The embedded cost structure of the business overrides the excellent work on the ground the operational and sales staff do.

Boskalis with a large balance sheet are clearly using this year to get out and build some presence and market share. The operating losses from the Boka DSVs won’t please anyone, but would have been expected by all but the most optimistic, and all that is happening is they are building a pipeline for next year. Coming from Germany and the Netherlands, areas more cost-focused, gives them an advantage, as does their deep experience and asset base in renewables. Boskalis know full well the fragile financial structure of Bibby and this is merely a waiting game for them.

The problem for Bibby owner’s York Capital (or their principals if the music journalist from Aberdeen is to be believed)  is the lack of potential buyers beyond DeepOcean or Oceaneering. I spoke to someone last week who worked on the restructuring and told me it was a mad rush in the end as EY were £50m cash out in their forecast models of the business (which makes the June 17 interest payment comprehensible). This makes sense in terms of how York got into this it doesn’t help them get out, and frankly raises more (uninmportant) questions, because it was obvious to all in the offshore community Bibby was going to be out of cash by Nov/ Dec 17 but not to the major owner of the bonds? Bizzare.

Internally staff don’t believe the business is in anything other than “available for sale mode” because the cost cutting hasn’t come, the fate of the Business Excellence Dept is seen as a talisman for the wider firm, and there is no question of money being spent on the needed rebranding by year end unless required. A temporary CFO from a turnaround firm continues without any hint of a permanent solution being found for a business that continues to have major structural financial issues.

Managers at Bibby now report complete a complete lack of strategic direction and stasis, it would appear that winning projects at merely cash flow break even, with the potential for downside, is making the business both hard to get rid of and the current shareholders nervous of where their commitments will end. Any rational financial buyer would wait for the Fairfield decom job to finish and the Polaris and Sapphire to be dry-docked before handing over actual cash, but there is a strong possibility the business will need another cash infusion to get it to this stage. And even then, with the market in the doldrums, all you are buying is a weak DSV day rate recovery story with no possibility to adding capacity in a world over-supplied with DSVs and diving companies. An EBITDA multiple based on 2 x DSVs would see a valuation that was a rounding error relative to the capital York have put into the business. All that beckons is a long drawn out fight with Boskalis who will only increase in strength every year…

On that note Boskalis look set to announce an alliance with Ocean Installer. In a practical sense I don’t get what this brings? Combining construction projects with DSVs from different companies is difficult: who pays if a pipe needs relaying and the DSV has to come back into the field for example? But the customers may like it and having a capped diving cost may appeal to Ocean Installer… it’s more control than most of their asset base at the moment.

Subea 7 and Technip just need to keep their new DSVs working. They are building schedule at c. £120k per day and peak bookings at c.£150k per day and are winning the little project work there is. Although even the large companies are having to take substantially more operational and balance sheet risk to do this. The Hurricane Energy project, where Technip are effectively building on credit and getting paid on oil delivery, highlights that what little marginal construction work there is in the North Sea will go to companies with real balance sheet and field development integration skills. I have real doubts about this business model I will discuss another day: the solution to a debt crisis is rarely more leverage to a different part of the value chain.

But services are clearly holding up better than owning vessels. The contrast between the supply companies and the contracting companies continues the longer the downturn for vessels continues. The  old economic adage that organisation has a value is true. Technip and Subsea 7, along with McDermott and Saipem, have not needed to restructure as many vessel companies have. The worst years of the downturn were met with project margins booked in the best year of the upturn giving them time to restructure, hand back chartered ships, and reduce costs to cope with a new environment. There has been a natural portfolio diversification benefit the smaller companies and supply operators simply haven’t had.

Subsea 7 for example is a very different business to 2014 (investor presentation):

Subsea 7 cost reductions.png

Staff costs down 60% and a very decent effort at reducing vessel costs despite declining utilisation (and despite reducing vessel commitments by 12 vessels):

Subsea 7 vessel utilisation.png

In the past people in susbea used to say they were in the “asset business”. Without assets you couldn’t get projects. And that was true then. Now the returns in subsesa will come from adding intellectual value rather than being long on boats, and that is a very different business. In the North Sea it will lead to a clean out of those businesses who effectively existed only as entities that were willing to risk going very long on specific assets. I count Reach, OI, and Bibby in that group. Historically the returns to their asset base, or access to it, vastly exceeded all other economic value-added for these companies. The Norwegians went long on chartered vessels, Bibby chartered and purchased them, but it doesn’t matter in the end because service returns for such generic assets as OI and Reach run are minimal and easily repliacted, and the returns on DSVs are economically negative due to oversupply in Bibby’s case. Rigid reel pipe, full field development, long term embedded flexlay contracts in Brazil, all these provide sufficient economic return to ensure long term survival (very high organisational and commitment value), and a return that will exceed the cost of capital in an upturn. But for the smaller companies there isn’t a realistic prospect of replicating this now their returns from commoditised tonnage have been so dramatically lowered.

Outside of diving Bibby, OI, and Reach all do exactly the same thing: they charter ships only when they win work, after having dumped a ton of money tendering, and bid the same(ish) solution against each other. Bibby are even using an (ex) core OI asset for a break-even decommissioning job. In the end, regardless of the rhetoric, the compete on price doing this and it is a business model with low margins because it has low barriers to entry (i.e. a lot of people can do it). Eventually in a declining or very slowly growing market that leads to zero economic margin. And as subsea has shown in Asia what eventually happens is someone takes too much contractual risk with a vessel and gets wiped out in a bad contract. This is how the North Sea will rebalance for the marginal providers of  offshore contracting supply without a major increase in demand. That is as close to a microeconomic law as you can get. They simply do not have the scale in a less munificent market to compete.

Goiung forward balance sheets, intellectual capital, visible market commitment and financial resources will all be as important as the asset base of a company. Services will be important in economic terms, they will provide a positive economic return going forward, but not all services, and not in a volume likely to outweigh historic investments in offshore assets. There is a far more credible consolidation story for offshore contracting than for offshore supply with a smaller relative asset base spread over a global service provision set to tilt to regional purchasing by E&P companies.

For the North Sea as whole, a market that provided disproportionate structural profits due to the environmental requirements of the asset base and regulatory requirements, there is also the slow but gradual realisation that the supply chain will have to exist in a vastly less munificent environment than before. Scale will clearly be important here. A market that has contracted in size terms like the North Sea just doesn’t need as many marginal service companies, or assets, and that is the sad fact of life.

Private equity, boatless contractors, and Carillion… The future is in the east…

The death of private equity has been predicted many times before and this recent article is no exception. What is also not in question is that more people than ever are throwing money at private equity and alternative asset providers and that thay are expecting less from them:

“The investors have accepted the idea of lower returns as OK,” said the head of a private equity group. “It used to be that investors would earn 20 per cent net internal rate of returns. Now they are happy with 14 per cent or 15 per cent net internal rate of returns.”

What is not in question as well is that with ever more private equity money looking for returns the risk meter is being dialled up, which in offshore may present opportunities on the services side of the business, but with vessels and rigs, private equity money  will end up leaving the industry I think. An inability to get debt, lack of asset price inflation, and no other buyers for exit will be the core reasons.

Saying the offshore vessel industry is in chronic oversupply is really the same thing as saying there is too much capital in the industry. To rebalance some of this capital will leave via scrapping vessels, but some will also leave as investors can no longer justify holding their positions that require new equity to keep funding operating losses, or they realise they hold something unsellable. The question for the private equity firms in offshore is how they get out of investments where they are long on vessels? First Reserve are clearly doing all they can to get out of DOF Subsea and they have been some of the smartest energy investors around.

At the other end of the spectrum are York Capital and Hitecvision. Both initially backed start-up contracting companies looking to go long on vessels, then the market turned and they changed strategy to be vessel light, and now York have doubled down by buying more vesssels via Bibby. Hitecvision on the other hand have renogtiated with Solstad to reduce their exposure, closed out on Reef Subsea, and have tried to sell OI to MDR but failed.

The link here is how do these companies get out from these investments? The deeply related question is do you need a boat to a contractor? I mean obviously you need a vessel to deliver work offshore, but do you need a vessel under your control 365 via ownership or a time charter to be a contractor? The answer of course is that it depends… but if Asia is any clue to how the North Sea will go, in a situation where construction vessels are commodities, then things will be increasingly difficult for these two investors even as the market picks up. In Asia the reason margins have been structurally lower than the North Sea for years is solely because there were more competitors, and there were more competitors because there was a bigger choice of vessels, and therefore a relatively larger number of project managers who would charter one for a one off project.

But it is clearly the case is that a “boatless” contractor is more a lifestyle business than a serious economic or investable proposition. Without a vessel barriers to entry are low and all the business is really is a project management house charging 10-15% on the PM & Engineering, and then, when the market is good, some margin on the vessel. Such a company has only intangible assets, no intellectual property, can borrow virtually nothing, and its growth options are limited to how many engineers and project resource it is committed to hire. This is what is called a constant returns to scale business: no matter how much capital you throw at it you get back a 10-15% operating profit on the output which increases marginally to scale as the business becomes huge. There is also a fair bit of risk as when the market is weak, like now, and you have to bid lump sum and it runs over, the cost of the vessel is way beyond any margin you made elsewhere. It is exactly the business model of Carillion.

Now that the vessel market for OSVs is oversupplied, once pricing on certain projects gets above a certain level, any number of project management houses are likely to enter the market. In the old days when this wasn’t the case the rewards for going long on chartered (or owned) vessels was immense: as days rates increased annually those on long terms charters got an uptick in the charter rate but still only made 10-15% margin on the PM & Engineering. Now, if you are lucky, you get a 10% markup on the vessel and some operators are askling for direct pricing of the vessel or direct procurement.

There is no better example of this business model than Cecon Contracting (“Cecon”). Now don’t get me wrong Cecon is a great little business, but it is a lifestyle business. By that I mean it is a collection of guys in a shed at Arundel (a lovely shed btw I have been to a few times and they do a nice lunch) who meet at the office, and annually, if they are lucky, do a project in Angola, Tunisia, or some other exotic location. It is a lot like a boys golf weekend with a lot of pre-meets at the pub for planning, followed by the actual trip.  But there is nothing replicable or scaleable about this, and there is no forward order to book so to speak of. There is therefore nothing of value to sell. It’s a great little business for the guys involved, I wish I owned it (although being from NZ I don’t play golf), but it will be a lifestyle business forever. It is worth noting that one of the two projects they did last year one was the seafastening calculations for their own (or really Revers’) partially built vessel to get to cold stack, a project that on the open market would rank in the few tens of thousands (and maybe pay for the golf weekend). But Cecon has no operational shipping assets to speak of in its current incarnation (whereas Rever appears to have an asset in warm stack in Malaysia… like a lot of other people).

The entire asset base according to the Cecon website is a tensioner and stinger. In 2013 when  no one had one you may have been able to profit from the lack of supply with this asset base on the back of a Maersk R class, but the fact Cecon are offering it out for hire now should tell you where the market is at.  The Cecon vessels, ordered by Cecon AS (the original Cecon that went bankrupt), are so far from completion that at current rates of progress they will serve as a replacement for the Polaris when she retires in 10 years

So talk of merging it with Bibby Offshore to “enhance capabilities”, from Bcon to Cecon, just aren’t serious. I haven’t seen the “merger” documents (obviously), but I am assuming the legal form is the Norwegian company buying the assets of the UK Bibby Offshore (maybe it’s the other way I don’t know why though?). The only reason for doing this are either tax (yawn), to engineer some sort of default on creditors of the Bibby Offshore UK company (potentially the T&T tax authorities and US offices), or to obsfucate the investment value in Bibby Offshore (or some combination of all three) as the investors in the transaction work out how to get out of this. Based on Cecon’s published projects for last year in 2014 and 2016 the boys didn’t go golfing at all, and in 2017 a small marginal development (flowline 1 mile, moorings, a buoy, and a riser and one of the larger jobs they have done historically) was the only project. In the low single millions given the client and location I expect. There is no “industrial logic” for such a combination. If you need to merge with 5 guys in a shed in Arundel, with an asset base that consists of a stinger and tensioner, to enhance your capabilities, then you have a big problem.

Hitec’s position with Ocean Installer (“OI”) is no less easy. When it was set-up the relationship with Solstad, and OI’s willingness and ability to go long on vessels, but also the flexible lay systems on these vessels which were also in short supply, was a differentiator. But in addition to the growth in vessel numbers since 2012 there has been a boom in the associated supply of ancillary equipment for vessels, and that includes lay equipment. Companies such as Aquatic and MDL supply systems that were unavailable only a few years ago, and can be mobbed cost effectively on chartered tonnage. I am not saying they are suitable for every job, but the problem is lay spreads used to be used to make a ton of money of some jobs and more marginal money of others, now the some of more marginal jobs have gone for those committed to lay spreads 365 and therefore it is just not as profitable to have lay capability. Hitec/OI took some real equity risk here, and as happens sometimes, it didn’t work out.

Hitec/OI, like DOF Subsea, is a clear tier 2 contractor in every market it operates in, where procurement is all done regionally, and there is no economic benefit to being in all the markets it operates. It needs to pull out of everywhere apart from Norway/UKCS where Statoils’ desire to not get fleeced by Subsea7 and Technip has led it to favour smaller contractors, and just charter its 2 remaining vessels out when not working for OI in the North Sea. Because in every other market it is basically a Cecon without the golf but with a corporate overhead (and Stavanger just doesn’t have the views of Arundel).

The OI problem is the Cecon problem simply of greater scale and potentially of greater losses over the years. The price any rational buyer for OI would pay is surely capped at the cost of assembling a similar group of people, chartering similar assets, and winning some backlog. The “vessel premium” for having gone long assets at the right time is gone and the replacement cost is well below the original assembly cost. Hitecvision’s apparent insistence that OI must stand on its own financially now marks the understanding that this investment is about limiting the loss here rather than a realistic proposition of making money on the deal. Hitecvision had a great business model, where they took smart Norwegian companies international and they picked up an increase in both the multiple on sale and the quantum it was based on, but there is nothing in OI that allows them to do this.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some combination between OI and BeCon at some point. The problem for Hitec will be taking on the operating losses of BeCon but no doubt the respective owners can convince themselves that two loss-making donkeys can make a thoroughbred… for a short time anyway.

Private equity and offshore: Bibby/York Offshore, DOF Subsea, and Ocean Installer and “stuck in the middle”..

Realism provides only amoral observation, while Absurdism rejects even the possibility of debate.

FRANCES BABBAGE, Augusto Boal

 

The firm stuck in the middle is almost guaranteed low profitability. It either loses the high-volume customers who demand low prices or must bid away its profits to get this business away from low-cost firms. Yet it also loses high-margin businesses — the cream — to the firms who are focused on high-margin targets or have achieved differentiation overall. The firm stuck in the middle also probably suffers from a blurred corporate culture and a conflicting set of organizational arrangements and motivation system.”

Porter, Competitive Strategy, p. 41-42

 

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Bibby/York Offshore, DOF Subsea, and Ocean Installer are all tied into the same economic dynamic in the offshore market: the improvement in the market is coming in IRM spend (marginally), large-deepwater projects, and  step-outs associated with existing deepwater infrastructure, not the markets that made these firms viable economic entities (although the DOF Subsea question is just as much about leverage and overcommitting to assets). These companies highlight that although offshore spending may increase in 2018 over 2017, though DNB notes risk to the downside, a recovery will not benefit everyone equally: asset choice and strategy that recognise different market segments are important to identify.

I have read the Bibby Offshore “Cleansing Document” that was sent out as part of the takeover/recapitalisation notice. A cleansing document is required when investors, who are classed as “outsiders”, gain confidential information as part of deal and therefore become “insiders”, who learn confidential information, and must make all the investors aware of what they know. It’s an extraordinary presentation, a business plan so outrageous that it can’t be taken seriously. The document obviously has its origins in the EY attempted distress M&A transaction, that couldn’t be funded, and when you read this you can see why. Worringly the new investors must accept something similar or they are involved in a gigantic scheme to knowingly lose money.

The most obvious affront to intelligence is the 2017 growth rate for revenue pegged at 52%!!! Seriously, in this market someone is telling you they are going to grow at 52% and they actually have enough chutzpah to put it to paper… words don’t often fail me. Not only that they then double down and state it will rise 50% again the year after. I can tell you there is a 0 (zero)% chance of that happening. There is more chance of drydocking the Sapphire on the moon to save money. It’s not just the fact that IMR spend, the core Bibby/York offering, is set to grow at 3.3%, or the fact that total market spend is due to grow at 6.7%, that is just a common sense point: if the market grows at 6.7% and you are growing at 53% then 46% of your growth is coming from winning market share. Does anyone really think Bibby’s competitors are just going to wake up one day and allow them to be the only company in the entire industry that can grow that fast and let them take all that market share? Really?

Fictional Revenue and EBITDA Forecast

Lewis Carrol

Source: Lewis Carroll

To be clear the previous best year of growth was 2013-2014 when Bibby chartered in tonnage, in the greatest North Sea DSV boom ever, and it grew a measly 46%… seriously you can’t make this up.

North Sea Outlook

The fact is this forecast shows the core Bibby/York IRM market declining after 2019 and all the growth is coming in windfarm work. A portion of the windfarm work is likely to be bundled with installation workscopes, and that leaves Subsea 7 and Boskalis well positioned with their topflight installation capacity. And I have said many times the lack of oil and gas construction work (the light grey bar EPCI) will leave a surplus of DSVs as there are no multi-month construction projects to soak up capacity. There is an even more absurd graph later on designed to show a market shortfall in a few years that ignores latent capacity in meeting supply challenges.

Bibby/York will turnover £85m if they are lucky for 2017. In this market, if they have an amazing year next year they will turnover £95-100m, and if they have a bad year they will come in at £70-75m. And the risk is on the downside here because the first six months of 2017 included ROVs in Asia that were sold, most of which were working. But in offshore contracting in general some jobs will go your way and some won’t, so everyone in the industry budgets a modest increase and some get lucky. But what definitely won’t happen is putting 15 Red on at the casino and winning 30 times in a row, and talk of £130m in revenue is more unrealistic mathematically than that.

Even more the Sapphire now looks to be going into layup! So not only is turnover going up 53% but DSV capacity is going back 33%. It’s a miracle I tell you! That’s not profitability that is top-line!

The US office is of course a giant millstone and is put in the presentation as a “Diversification” play rather than as a cost centre – and certainly no spefic financiakl data on the office is offered. The US must be costing Bibby/York c.USD 250k per month in cash terms and now has no boat to bid. That puts them Bibby against DOF Subsea and OI for any significant project except they don’t have a boat? Zero chance. Literally less than zero. Only someone who really didn’t understand, or didn’t want to, the reality of the current market would sanction such move. Operating margins of similar competitors, following exactly that strategy are less than 10%, which means you will be losing cash forever. Nuts. Not needed and not wanted in an oversupplied market, it is simply a matter of time before that office is closed.

But I don’t want to get into it in a micro level because it degrades the wider point: in this market businesses don’t grow organically at 53%. It is a preposterous statement and needs to be treated as such on that basis only.

Not only that, Bibby claim they will make an EBITDA of ~£12m on the 2 x DSVs in the North Sea, and a staggering c.£11m using vessels of opportunity. So not only are they betting they will take enormous amounts of market share off their competitors they are also planning to do it at margins way above anyone else in the industry. And this from a management team, with exactly the same asset base, who presided over a revenue decline of 56% in 2016 and is on target for a 45% decline in 2017. The first few people who got this presentation must have phoned up and asked if the printer had had a typesetting error, not believing that intelligent people would send them this.

The only certainty of this plan is that it will fail. Statements around its release confirm the company ~50 days of work for 2018 yet they are planning 78% utilisation (up from 53% in 2017), yet if the first quarter work isn’t booked in now it won’t happen in a meaningful sense.  And once you are chasing you tail to that extent a dreadful dynamic sets it because you have committed to the cost and the revenue miss means you know early in the year you are facing a massive cash flow deficit. The fixed cost base is so high in the operation that a miss on the revenue side produces catastrophic financial results; just like a budget airline, the inventory is effectively disposable (i.e. after a possible days sale has passed) yet the cost base is committed. This of course explains how the model was created I suspect: a revenue number that magically covered the costs was devised, how real management believed that number to be at the time will be crucial by March (only 12 weeks away) when the plan is revealed as a fantasy. I’m not saying it’s deliberate, humans are strange, it took Hiroo Onoda until 1974 to surrender, so if you want to you can believe a lot of things, and unless you believe the revenue number then the whole economic model falls apart.

York clearly got into this late in 2016 and early 2017 not believing the scale of the decrease going on in the business in revenue terms, and without clearly understanding how the competitive space was directly supported by the construction market. Instead of pulling out they have doubled down and appear set to pump more in working capital into the business than the assets are worth (one of which is going into lay-up for goodness sake). York appear to have confused a liquidity problem with a solvency one.

The funds this come from are large but this is till going to be a painful episode for York while doing nothing to solve the long-term solvency issues at Bibby who now only have a 6 month liquidity runway based on current expenditure. At an Enterprise Value of £115m it values a business with one DSV on lay-up and a cost centre with no work, and an operation with a 1999 DSV and one chartered asset, losing substantial amounts of money and with historic liabilities, way above a the operation Boskalis are building with 2 x 2011 DSVs at a blended capital cost of ~USD 80m. Good luck with that.

I still wouldn’t rule out a Swiber scenario here where as York get close to the drawdown/ scheme of arrangement date they get lawyers to examine MAC clauses (e.g. Boskalis buying the Nor vessels), or simply not pay and worry about getting sued by the administrator. They must know now this is a terrible financial idea.

DOF Subsea on the other hand have the opposite issue: First Reserve looked to reduce their position earlier in the year via an IPO and couldn’t. Now DOF are slowly diluting First Reserve out in  the latest capital raise… there is no more money coming from First Reserve for DOF Subsea. I get the fact that some technical reasons are in  play here: it is difficult for late-life private equity funds to buy inter-related holdings, but they always seem to manage it on the up but never on the down.

DOF Subsea might be big but the problem is clear:

DOF Subsea Debt repayent profile Q3 2017

 

DOF Subsea EBITA Q3 2017

DOF Subsea isn’t generating enough cash to pay the scheduled debt repayments. And in these circumstances it is no surprise that the private equity fund is reluctant to put more equity in. DOF Subsea could sell its crown-jewels, the flexlay assets, to Technip but that would involve a price at nothing like book value; or maybe DOF/Mogsters’ bail them out but that will further dilute First Reserve. Either way First Reserve, some of the smartest energy PE money in history on a performance basis, have decided if you can’t get someone else to buy your equity then dilution is a better option.

Ocean Installer is a riddle wrapped in a mystery. OI has some chartered tonnage and some smart people. But it is subscale in nearly everything and I doubt it was even cash flow positive in the boom years as they were “investing” so much in growing capacity. The company had takeover talks with McDermott, that failed on price, and seems to exist solely because Statoil is worried about having an installation duopoly in Norway. It can’t continue like this forever. Rumours abound that Hi Tec have now installed staff in the Aberdeen office and are seriously looking at how to cut the burn rate.

There is nothing in OI that you couldn’t recreate for less in todays market, and that unfortunately means the equity is worth zero. Hi Tec, whose standard business model of taking Norwegian companies and opening a foriegn office, expanding both the quantum and size of the acquisition multiple (admittedly a fantastic idea in the boom), will not work here. Now it’s hunker down and build a substantial business of scale or exit. All the larger players have to do is sit this out, no one needs to pay an acquisition premium, buying work at a marginal loss, which will eventually reduce industry capacity, is a far more rational option.

Not all of these companies can survive as they are simply too similar and chasing the same projects that are also now being chased by the larger SURF contractors. Clearly DOF Subsea is in the best position as OI and Bibby/York have a very high cost of capital and owners with unrealistic value assumptions.

All these firms suffer from two problems:

  1. In strategic terms they are “stuck in the middle”. In 1980 Michael Porter wrote his famous text (“Competitive Strategy“) positing that a company chooses to be either low cost or value added; firms that didn’t  were “stuck in the middle” and destined to low profitability forever. In subsea the deepwater contractors are the value-add and the contractors without a vessel, or the regional companies with local tonnage,  are the low cost. Bibby/York, DOF Subsea, OI are stuck in the middle – not deepwater/rigid reel to add value and with too high a cost base to compete with the regional low cost operators – given their funding requirements this will not carry on indefinitelyPorter stuck in the middle
  2. The projects that made these companies profitable (if OI ever was) have suffered the largest fall in demand of all the market segments. Small scale field development, with flexibles as the core component, just aren’t big enough to move the needle for the the larger companies and the smaller E&P companies can’t raise the cash. All the FID stats show these developments to be almost non-existent. These were projects commissioned at the margin to satisfy high oil prices and therefore are the first to fall off as the price drops. That is why these companies have suffered disproportionately in the downturn: they have lost market size and market share (Bibby Offshore revenue has dropped by 77% since 2014 where as Subsea has (only!) dropped 45%

The subsea/SURF market is an industry that private equity/ alternative asset managers struggle with: a market with genuine advantages to industrial players with economies of scale, scope and knowledge. In an age of seemingly endless debt and leverage these equity providers are not used to coming across industries where their organisational advantages of capital and speed cannot work. But for the next few years, as the industry requires less capital not more, the smart money here will be on the industrial companies. It wasn’t the distressed debt investors in Nor Offshore who made money on the liquidity bond (issued this time last year), it was Boskalis when the reckoning came for more liquidity. That is a parable of this market.