Ponzi finance and asset values…

When the present phase of the stock market is written, we believe it will be referred to as ‘the era of projected inflation’ … the period when enthusiasm for future profits obscured actual earnings to an excessive degree. We are on the way towards the age of reason of several years ago when stocks had to show substantial earnings power, reasonable book value, and dividend returns comparable to the cost of carry.

Barr, Cohen, and Co, October 21, 1929

Rainbow’s End: The Great Crash of 1929, Maury Klein

The financial instability hypothesis, therefore, is a theory of the impact of debt on system behavior and also incorporates the manner in which debt is validated…

For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principle or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell  assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes. A unit that Ponzi finances lowers the margin of safety that it offers the holders of its debts.

Hyman Minsky

Ponzi finance is happening in the rig market. And it is certainly the form of finance that McDermott got from Goldman’s (yielding over 14% today and essentially locking MDR out any future financing). This never ends well.

When this goes wrong it goes really wrong because unlike equity people thought they were getting their money back for 100c in the dollar. Banks in particular. When these rig and asset deals go wrong, and the banks shut down the loans books, and indeed contract the asset side of the balance sheet to compensate for the lost equity, things will really get tough in the financing market and force restructurings and supply side contraction.

A very small number of companies have been buying “assets” at inflated prices, cheered on by self-serving analysts, at rates that bear no relationship to their ability to generate cash. Some banks appear to be  lending against these nominal asset values when the underlying entities do not have suffient order book, yet alone cash flow, to pay them back. This is the classic dying throws of a credit boom and we know how this script ends. When someone asks you how do these moments of clear financial irrationality occur you are looking at one. No one wants to admit the madness or remove the punch-bowl.

Charle’s Ponzi’s original idea was actually legal and profitable… just not at the scale he wanted:

Ponzi emigrated to the United Sates in November 1903 moving from city to city working different jobs and serving prison sentences at least twice before settling into Boston in 1917. Employed as a typist and answering foreign mail, in August 1919 Ponzi discovered his path to the wealth he had always envisioned for himself. He was going to trade in postal reply coupons. What Ponzi identified was a flaw in the coupon system that he could use to his advantage. He realized the value of the International Reply Coupon (IRC) had been set at fixed exchange rates that had not changed since 1919, creating a market in which he could parlay the IRCs into profit if he exchanged coupons from countries with deflated valuations into the higher valued US dollars ostensibly buying low and selling high.

The flaw in Ponzi’s coupon scheme was that he probably could have earned a 400 percent profit on individual coupon redemptions but in absolute terms, the net would be infinitesimal. To amass the millions of dollars Ponzi alleged, an enormous amount of coupons would have to be traded. Two important reports were about to emerge that would ultimately lead to panic and a run on Securities Exchange Company. First, after examining Ponzi’s operation, financial analyst Clarence Barron reported that to be making the money that he was, 160,000,000 IRCs would have to be in circulation when, in fact, only about 27,000 were. Second, the United States Post Office announced that IRCs were not being purchased in large lots (Zukoff, 2006). Therefore, Ponzi could not hold the millions dollars of liquid assets he claimed. Charles Ponzi was arrested on August 12, 1920.

 

The same could almost be argued for the rig and asset deals going on… If you could sell these assets for 520 days a year at twice the market rate you could make a fortune. It’s the execution of this that is causing problems not the math…

But when loans are made, or rolled-over, to companies with no hope of paying them back eventually things stop. You can feel the credit noose tightening in the market now and the equity market is closed no matter how good the summer season. Expect the effects throughout the market to get progressively worse. 

I made this note today to remind me when I look back that some of the credit deals being announced for rig companies are literally insane. People who should know better who are simply not prepared to accept their original thesis of a recovery in rig market was correct and continue, again all the evidence to the contrary, to do anything other than continue to go long on something that cannot be true. Credit committee’s becoming equity investors by accepting that markets have to change before they can be paid back for a few hundred basis points above LIBOR. Nuts.

McKinsey came out with this recently for those who want a dose of big data rationality:

As non-national-oil-company operators shift focus to deepwater fields because of increasing break-even costs of shallow-water fields, jack-up demand should grow 1 percent per year through 2035. Following this trend, utilization will recover to above 80 percent by 2023, driven by a large number of retirements and continued deferment of the order book. The chronic jack-up oversupply appears set to end, as extensive retirements of older and lower-spec rigs in the near future are expected to lead to a 9 percent decline in the overall jack-up fleet by 2035.

Over the course of 2019, floating-rig demand will drop slightly because of unstable oil prices, but growth—to the tune of 6 percent per annum between 2019 and 2027, then 2 percent per annum until 2035—is expected to follow. Key growth regions will be Africa, Brazil, and the Gulf of Mexico. We anticipate that supply will remain relatively stable through 2026, leading utilization to recover to 80 percent by 2026 and long-term floater-supply growth to reach about 13 percent by 2035. [Emphasis added].

Most rig companies will be bankrupt long before those recovery times at current day rates.

When all these guys stop running around congratulating themselves for buying rigs at 70% of their build cost, when day rates have gone down by 50% and utilisation the same, and actually have to pay for them, chaos is going to ensue in the financing market. The start of which is clearly visible now.

Presenting the results, Van Eden gave a plain spoken account of how Anglo had come to rack up such losses. ‘There was no substance behind the borrowers,’ he said. ‘They had nothing but the collateral (property assets) they were providing. There was no equity in the system. They took all the equity out of deals and replenished it in new deals. It was one big leveraged play. It was one big Ponzi scheme’.

Anglo Republic: Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland, Simon Carswell

[This blog is largely becoming a storage post for what I hope will be a PhD in economic history that argues the offshore boom was largely the conjunction of a commodity boom but also, and importantly, a credit boom combined with structural industry change. The consequences a credit boom are well understood for asset heavy industry backed by high debt and it is not a comforting picture for anyone long in assets at the moment.]

Zombie offshore companies… “Kill the zombie…”

“I’ve long said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell. But it’s hard to see any good news in this.”

Frank Borman

“In a business selling a commodity-type product, it’s impossible to be a lot smarter than your dumbest competitor”.

Warren Buffet

The Bank for International Settlements defines a Zombie Company as a “firm whose interest bill exceeds earnings before interest and taxes”. The reason is obvious: a firm who is making less in profits than it is paying in interest is likely to be able to eke out an existence, but not generate sufficient profits to invest and grow and adapt to industry changes. A firm in such a position will create no economic value and merely exist while destroying profit margins for those also remaining in the industry.

The BIS make clear that zombie companies are an important part of the economic make-up of many economies. I am sure sector level data in Europe would show offshore comfortably represented in the data.

Zombie Firms.png

Conversable Economist has an excellent post (from where I got the majority of my links for this post) on Zombie Companies and their economic effects, which timed with a post I have been  meaning to right about 2018 which I was going to call “year of the zombie”. Zombie companies have been shown to exist in a number of different contexts: in the US Savings and Loans Crisis zombie firms paid too much in interest and backed projects that were too risky, raising the overall costs for all market players. Another example is Japan, where post the 1990 meltdown Hoshi and Kashyap found (in a directly analogous situation to offshore currently):

that subsidies have not only kept many money-losing “zombie” firms in business, but also have depressed the creation of new businesses in the sectors where the subsidized firms are most prevalent. For instance, they show that in the construction industry, job creation has dropped sharply, while job destruction has remained relatively low. Thus, because of a lack of restructuring, the mix of firms in the economy has been distorted with inefficient firms crowding out new, more productive firms.

In China zombie firms have been linked to State Owned Enterprises, and have been shown to have an outsize share of corporate debt despite weak fundamental factors (sound familiar?). The solution is clear:

The empirical results in this paper would support the arguments that accelerating that progress requires a more holistic and coordinated strategy, which should include debt restructuring to recognize losses, fostering operational restructuring, reducing implicit support, and liquidating zombies.”

The subsidies in offshore at the moment keeping zombie firms alive don’t come from central banks but from private banks, and sometimes poorly timed investments from hedge funds. Private banks are unwilling to treat the current offshore market as anything more than a market cycle change, as opposed to a secular change, and are therefore allowing a host of companies to delay principal payments on loans, and in most cases dramatically reduce interest payments as well, until a point when they hope the market has recovered and these companies can start making payments that would keep the banks from having to make material writedowns in their offshore portfolios.

Now to be clear the banks are (arguably) being economically rational here. Given the scale of their exposure a reasonable position is to try and hold on as the delta on liquidating now, versus assuming even a mild recovery, is massive because of the quantity of leverage in most of the offshore companies.

But for the industry as a whole this is a disaster. The biggest zombie company in offshore in Europe is SolstadFarstad, it’s ambition to be a world leading OSV company is so far from reality it may as well be a line from Game of Thrones, and a company effectively controlled by the banks who are unwilling to face the obvious.

A little context on the financial position of SolstadFarstad makes clear how serious things are:

  • Current interest bearing debt is NOK 28bn/$3.6bn. A large amount of this debt is US$ denominated and the NOK has depreciated significantly since 2014, as have vessel values. SolstadFarstad also takes in less absolute dollar revenues to hedge against this;
  • Market value equity: ~NOK 1.73bn/$ 220m;
  • As part of the merger agreement payments to reduce bank loans were reduced significanlty from Q2 (Farstad)/Q3 (Solstad) 2017. YTD 2017 SOFF spent NOK ~1.5bn on interest and bank repayments which amounted to more than 3 x the net cash flow from actually operating all those vessels. While these payments should reduce going forward it highlights how unsustainable the current capital structure is.

The market capitalisation is significantly less than the cash SOF had on the balance sheet at the end of Q3 2017 (NOK 2.1bn). Supporting that enormous debt load are a huge number of vessels of dubious value in lay up: 28 AHTS, many built in Asia and likely to be worth significantly less than book value if sold now, 22 PSVs of the same hertiage and value and 6 ageing subsea vessels. The two vessels on charter to OI cannot be generating any real value and sooner or later their shareholders will have had as much fun as they can handle with a loss making contracting business.

But change is coming because at some point this year SolstadFarstad management are in for an awkward conversation with the banks about handing back DeepSea Supply (the banks worst nightmare), or forcing the shareholders to dilute their interest in the high-end CSV fleet in order to save the banks exposure to the DeepSea fleet (the shareholders worst nightmare and involves a degree of cognitive dissonance from their PSV exposure). Theoretically DeepSea is a separate “non-recourse” subsidiary, whether the banks who control the rest of the debt SolstadFarstad have see it quite that way is another question? It would also represent an enormous loss of face to management now to admit a failure of this magnitude having not prepared the market in advance for this?

Not that the market seems fooled:

SOFF 0202

(I don’t want to say I told you so).

SolstadFarstad is in a poor position anyway, the company was created because no one had a better idea than doing nothing, which is always poor strategic logic for a major merger. What logic there was involved putting together a mind numbingly complex financial merger and hoping it might lead to a positive industrial solution, which was always a little strained. But it suited all parties to pretend that they could delay things a little longer by creating a monstrous zombie: Aker got to pretend they hadn’t jumped too early and therefore got a bad deal, Hemen/Fredrikson got to put in less than they would have had to had DeepSea remained independent, the banks got to pretend their assets were worth more than they were (and that they weren’t going to have to kill the PSVs to save the Solstad), and the Solstad family got to pretend they still had a company that was a viable economic entity. A year later and the folly has been shown.

Clearly internally it is recongised this has become a disaster as well. In late December HugeStadSea announced they had doubled merger savings to 800mn NOK. The cynic in  me says this was done because financial markets capitalise these and management wanted to make some good news from nothing; it doesn’t speak volumes they were that badly miscalculated at that start given these were all vessel types and geographic regions Solstad management understood. But I think what it actually reflects is that utilisation has been signifcantly weaker than the base case they were working too. Now Sverre Farstad has resigned from the Solstad board apparently unhappy with merger progress. I am guessing he is still less unhappy though than having seen Farstad go bankrupt which was the only other alternative? I guess this reveals massive internal Board conflict and I also imagine the auditors are going to be get extremely uncomfortable signing vessel values off here, a 10% reduction in vessel value would be fatal in an accounting sense for the company.

The market is moving as well. In Asia companies like EMAS, Pacific Radiance, Mermaid, and a host of others have all come to a deal with the banks that they can delay interest and principal payments. Miclyn Express is in discussions to do the same. This is the very definition of zombie companies, existing precariously on operating cash flows but at a level that is not even close to economic profitability, while keeping supply in the market to ensure no one else can make money either. Individually logical in each situation but collectively ruinuous (a collective action problem). These companies have assets that directly compete with the SolstadFarstad supply fleet, with significantly deeper local infratsructure in Asia (not Brazil), and in some cases better assets; there is no chance of SolstadFarstad creating meaningful “world class OSV company” in their midst with the low grade PSV and AHTS fleet.

Even more worrying is the American situation where the Chapter 11 process (and psyche) recognises explicitly the danger of zombie companies. Gulfmark and others have led the way to have clean, debt free, balance sheets to cope in an era of reduced demand. These companies look certain to have a look at the high-end non-Norwegian market.

SolstadFarstad says it wants to be a world leading OSV company that takes part in industry consolidation but: a) it cannot afford to buy anyone because it shares are worthless and would therefore have to pay cash, and b) it has no cash and cannot raise equity while it owes the banks NOK 28bn, and c) no one is going to buy a company where they have to pay the banks back arguably more than the assets are worth. SOF is stuck in complete limbo at best. Not only that as part of the merger it agreed to start repaying the banks very quickly after 2021. 36 months doesn’t seem very far away now and without some sort of magic increase in day rates, out of all proportion to the amount of likely subsea work (see above), then all the accelerated payment terms from 2022 will do is force the event. But still is can continue its zombie like existence until then…

In contrast if you want to look at those doing smart deals look no further than Secor/COSCO deal. 8 new PSVs for under $3m per vessel and those don’t start delivering for at least another 18 months. Not only that they are only $20m new… start working out what your  10 year old PSV is really worth on a comparative basis. There is positivity in the market… just not if you are effectively owned by the bank.

One of my themes here, highlighted by the graph at the top, is that there has been a structural change in the market and not a temporary price driven change in demand. Sooner or later, and it looks likely to be later, the banks are going to have to kill off some of these companies for the industry as a whole to flourish, or even just to start to undertake a normal capital replacement cycle. Banks, stuffed full with offshore don’t want to back any replacement deals for all but the biggest players, and banks that don’t have any exposure don’t want to lend to the sector. In an economy driven by credit this is a major issue.

I don’t believe recent price rises in oil will do anything for this. E&P budgets are set once a year, the project cycle takes a long time to wind up, company managers are being bonused on dividends not production, short cycle production is being prioritised etc. So while price rises are good, and will lead to an increase in work, the scale of the oversupply will ensure the market will take an even longer time to remove the zombie companies. At the moment a large number of banks are pretending that if you make no payments on an asset with a working life of 20-25 years, for 5 years (i.e. 20-25% of the assets economic life), they will not lose a substantial amount of money on the loan or need to write the asset down more than a token level. It is just not real and one day auditors might even start asking questions…

I don’t have a magic solution here, just groundhog day for vessel owners for a lot longer to come. What will be interesting this year is watching to see the scale of the charges some of the banks will have to make, a sign of the vessel market at the bottom will be when they start to get rid of these loans or assets on a reasonable scale.

Kill the zombies for the good of the industry, however painful that may be.

Incremental Oil Production Growth… Shale versus Offshore …

Interesting graph from Oceaneering that shows the growth of incremental production. Like all these charts they need to be viewed as directionally correct only, but it makes clear the scale of the change that shale has wrought on the offshore industry.

That brown/ shale area would simply not have existed 4 years ago and ties in with my argument about shale becoming an important industry narrative which drives how actual investment decisions are made in companies. There are large questions about shale productivity (depletion rates etc), I am not  geologist or well engineer so can offer no insight into this from a technical perspective, but the economist in me is an inveterate technical optmist and I think the investment resources being signalled towards this form of E&P activity will lead to increased productivity and recovery in the future.

Many investors into offshore in prior to 2014 saw that brown area as one that offshore would have covered. Clearly offshore production will still remain an important part of the energy supply chain, but only niches within it will be profitable as opposed to the whole market uplift that drove the previous boom. Services over assets would be a good general rule. As would another point I have made previously that offshore developments are likely to be driven by a smaller number of mega developments.

“Short-cycle production” could be about to get an economic test…

The dots clearly show that oil prices and oil production are uncorrelated…

Caldara, Dario, Michele Cavallo, and Matteo Iacoviello

Board of Governers of the Federal Reserve System, 2016

The number of US oil rigs went down by 5 last week to 744 rigs, while the number of US gas rigs increased by 4 to 190 rigs. In terms of the large basins, the Permian rig count increased by 6 to 386 rigs, while both the Eagle Ford and Bakken rig counts declined by 3 each to 68 and 49 rigs respectively. 

Baker Hughes Rig Count, Sep 25, 2017

 

The multi-billion dollar question is: Can shale handle an increse in demand? Closely related: Is shale in a boom that is unsustainable and not generating sufficient cash to reward investors for the massive risk they have taken? Because if the latter is correct the former must be answered in the negative. The above quote is slightly mischevious and merely highlights economic research that supply factors have historically had a far bigger impact on the oil market than demand factors  (whether this is true going forward is not for today).

The NY Fed today reports that it is supply shortages now that are driving the price (and I have no idea about the construction of the model but the reduction in the residual leads me to believe it is broadly accurate), so this is a supply driven event not a demand driven event:

Oil Price Decomp 25 Sep 2017.png

If, as Spencer Dale argues (speech here), we are in the midst of a technical revolution then this is what we would expect. Hostoric levels of inventories should come down because supply is more flexible, these short-term kinks in demand caused by natural or geopolitical events should merely spur an increase in the rig count or a change in OPEC quotas. Other senior BP staff today were on message:

“Rebalancing is already on the way,” Janet Kong, Eastern Hemisphere Chief Executive Officer of integrated supply and trading at BP, said in an interview in Singapore. But OPEC needs “definitely to cut beyond the first quarter [2018]” to bring inventories down and back to historically normal levels, she said…

“If they extend the cuts, yes it’s possible” to achieve $60 a barrel next year, she said. “But it’s hard for me to see that prices will be sustainably higher,” she added.

Or is Permania simply the result of the Federal Reserve flooding the market with liquidity that is allowing an unsustainable production methodology to continue unabated storing up yet another boom and bust cycle? Bloomberg this week published this article on Permania, where the incipient signs of a bubble are showing in labour and infrastructure shortages and the outrageous cost overruns:

Experienced workers are harder and harder to find, and training newbies adds to expenses. The quality of work can suffer, too, erasing efficiency gains. Pruett said Elevation Resources recently had a fracking job that was supposed to take seven days but lasted nine because unschooled roughnecks caused some equipment malfunctions.

By this point, “we’ve given up all of our profit margin,” he said, referring to the industry. “We’re over-capitalized, we’re over-drilling and, if prices don’t rise, we might be facing a double dip in drilling.”

If I was being cynical about offshore production I would note that he was two days over with a rig crew while in the same calender week Seadrill and Oceanrig had collectively disposed of billions of investment capital and will still have the inventory for years. This guy is literally two days out of forecast and he is worried about being over-capitalized (and also that wiped his profit margin? Hardly redolent of a boom?) Offshore drilling companies are like 10 years and 100 rigs out of kilter… Anyway moving swiftly on…

Bloomberg also published this opinion on Anadarko noting:

Late on Wednesday, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which closed at $44.81 a share, announced plans to buy back up to $2.5 billion of its stock; which is interesting, because almost exactly a year ago, it sold about $2 billion of new stock — at $54.50 apiece.

(That’s pretty clever, they sold stock at $54.5 and are buying it back at $44.8, like Glencore never buy off these people when they are selling, at heart they are traders. More importantly most research suggest companies nearly always overpay when buying stock back so if the oil price keeps creeping up they are going to look very smart indeed.)

But the real point of the story is that capital is slowing up to the E&P sector, well equity anyway no mention of high-yield:

Equity US E&P Sep 2017

Meaning that maybe people are getting sick of being promised “jam tomorrow”. However I can’t help contrasting this with productivity data, Rystad on Friday produced this:

Rystad Shale Improvement Sep 17

So despite the anecdotal evidence on cost increases in the first Bloomberg article the productivity trend is all one way.  And the stats seem clear that a large part of deepwater is at a structural cost disadvantage to shale:

ANZ cost structure 2017

Frac sand used to be c.50% of the consummables of shale, but surprise:

Average sand volumes for each foot of a well drilled fell slightly last quarter for the first time in a year, said exploration and production consultancy Rystad Energy. Volumes are expected to drop a further 2.5 percent per foot in the current quarter over last, Rystad forecast…

Companies including Unimin Corp, U.S. Silica Holdings Inc (SLCA.N), and Hi Crush Partners LP (HCLP.N) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new mines to address an expected increase in demand.

On Thursday, supplier Smart Sand SND.O reported it shipped less frack sand in the second quarter than it did in the first. Rival Fairmount Santrol Holdings Inc (FMSA.N) forecast flat to slightly higher volumes this quarter over last.

In the last six weeks, shares of U.S. Silica and Hi Crush are both off about 30 percent. Smart Sand is off about 43 percent since June 30…

Some shale producers add chemical diverters, compounds that spread the slurry evenly in a well, and can reduce the amount of sand required. Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) and Continental Resources Inc (CLR.N) are reducing the distance between fractures to boost oil production. The tighter spacing allows them to extract more crude with less sand.

Technological innovation and scale: Less sand used and increased investment going on that will reduce the unit costs of sand for E&P producers. This is the sort of production that brought you the Model T in the first place and the American economy excels at. Bet against if you want: just remember the widowmaker trade.

Shale is a mass production technique: eventually it will push the cost of production down as it refines the processes associated with it. To be competitive offshore must emulate these constantly increasing cost efficiencies. I have said before that shale won’t be the death of offshore but it will make a new offshore: a bifurcation between more efficient fields, low lift costs, and economies of scale in production that make the “one-off” nature of the infratsructure cost efficient, and smaller, short-cycle E&P of shale (and some onshore conventional).

Offshore is going to be here for a long time, it is simply too important in volume terms not to be. But what a price increase is not going to see is a vast increase in the sanctioning of new offshore projects in the short-term. These will be gradual and provide a strong base of supply, as there longer investment cycle represents, while kinks in short-term demand will be pushed towards short cycle production. Backlog, or lack thereof, remains the single biggest threat to all offshore contractors.

Or this thesis is wrong and I, and to be fair people far cleverer (and more credible) than me, are spectacularly wrong, and a new boom for offshore awaits in the not too distant future…

Bourbon results offer no comfort or light

Bourbon released numbers this week that were bad, this isn’t an equity research site so I don’t intend to drill through them. Bourbon is a well-managed company and there is little it can do given the oversupply. But I can’t look at these stats without feeling like the HugeStadSea merger was too early. And quite how NAO, with 10 PSVs, raised money at USD 15m per vessel when the industry is at this level also looks like a triumph of hope over data. Subsea looks just as bad.

First, I think the graph below (from the Bourbon presentation) is telling and worrying for offshore. One of my constant themes is productivity. Shale is generating increasing productivity (i.e. constantly reducing unit costs) from all this investment, offshore fundamentally isn’t. The cost reductions from offshore are the result of financial losses, not more outputs from unit inputs.

Capital Investment Forecast: Shale versus Offshore

Capital Outlook

Clearly, the capital increase is good for vessel owners, but as this graph shows, the fleet was built for much better times.

Global E&P Spending

Global E&P Spending

And as the Bourbon numbers show, demand isn’t going to save offshore because the supply side of the market is too overbuilt.

Stacked vessels

The subsea fleet globally looks just as bad. Rates are only just above OPEX if you are lucky and nowhere near enough to cover financing or drydocking costs. The hard five-year dry-dock is the real killer from a cash flow perspective.

In order for this market to normalise not only vessels, but also capital, needs to leave the industry. I was, therefore, surprised that NAO raised USD 47m to keep going. NAO have 10 vessels, and are clearly subscale by any relevant industry size measure, are operating well below cash breakeven including financing costs (USD 11 500 per day), and still, they plow on. I understand it’s rational if you think the market is coming back (and the family/management put real money into this capital raise), but if everyone thinks like this then the market will never normalise. And when Fletcher/Standard Drilling can keep bringing PSVs back into the market at USD 8-10m, that do pretty much the same thing as your 2016 build, and 1/3 of the fleet can be recommissioned, the scale of a spending increase needed to credibly restore financial health to operators looks a long way off. Someone is going to have to start accepting capital losses or the industry as a whole will keep burning through new infusions of cash on OPEX. ( I know PSV rates, in particular, have increased this week but this looks like a short-run demand as summer comes and vessels come out of lay-up than a recovery.)

Specialty tonnage, such as DSVs, are in a worse position because as Nor/Harkand are showing people are reluctant to cold-stack due to the uncertainty of re-commissioning costs. Project work simply isn’t returning to at anything like the levels needed to get vessels and engineers working. Subsea construction work significantly lacks rig work, and companies are delaying maintenance longer than people ever thought possible.

Rig Demand

I think restructuring, consolidation, and capital raising are clearly the answer don’t get me wrong. I just think some falling knives have been caught recently (the Nor/Harkand bondholders being the best example) and the industry seems reluctant to admit the scale of the upcoming challenge. And again I am perplexed why the Solstad shareholders allowed themselves to dilute their OSV fleet with greater exposure to supply, when the dynamics are clearly so bad? The subsea and offshore industries appear to be facing structurally lower profits for a long time, and more restructurings, or a second round for some, seem far more likely than an uptick this year and next.

 

“This time it’s different…”

“The four most expensive words in the English language are, ‘This time it’s different.’”

Sir John Templeton

In investment theory a key part of recognising that a bubble is close to bursting is the logic that “this time it’s different”, the internet boom of 1999-2000 being the classic case. The core argument is actually regression to the mean: eventually all profits drop back to normal levels, but this time, they won’t.

In oil services, particularly offshore, there seems a view that this downturn is the same as others. Everyone wants to believe that next time will be the same. Somehow, magically, demand will equal supply, day rates will rocket, and everyone will go back to building USD 100m vessels with USD 20m equity, to put on the spot market and and that will be the new normal. I think the narrative is driven by the extremely mild (in hindsight, it didn’t feel like it at the time) dip in 2008/9, and the strong recovery in 2000, where people who had invested early, and took serious risk, made some exceptional returns (Integrated Subsea Services springs to mind). It might happen, but I doubt it.

For one thing the daily fascination with the oil price seems entirely inappropriate for offshore contractors. The industry is wallowing in a sty of capacity: it’s the supply side that important in the short-run here not the demand side. As everyone in the industry knows (deep down) the number of project staff laid-off will ensure it would take a long time for the E&P companies to ramp up projects even if they wanted to.

The oil production industry is clearly undergoing a structural shift with the impact of shale. It won’t be the end of deepwater and offshore, but it seems unlikely to return as before. I wrote before about the changing economics of shale and the extraordinary drop down the cost curve that has affected that industry. My core point is that when you can drive standardisation you get massive efficiencies that can transform the cost curve, and therefore, the underlying economics of an industry.

In that vein, inspired by this piece from the FT (which is broadly dismissive of electric vehicles), I read this from the Grantham Institute. The report focuses on the Solar Photovoltaic and Electric Vehicle cost reductions that come from scale improvements in the manufacturing process and producitivity of the units (particularly battery efficiency for electric cars). Under their model oil demand peaks in 2020:

E[lectric] V[ehicle]s account for approximately 35% of the road transport market by 2035 – BP put this figure at just 6% in its 2017 energy outlook. By 2050, EVs account for over two-thirds of the road transport market. This growth trajectory sees EVs displace approximately two million barrels of oil per day (mbd) in 2025 and 25mbd in 2050. To put these figures in context, the recent 2014-15 oil price collapse was the result of a two mbd (2%) shift in the supply-demand balance.

Now there are a number of caveats in the research and I also get that they have an agenda. So of course does BP. No one is lying here,  it’s just that humans are “boundedly rational“; they can only process so much, and what they do therefore is referenced in cognitive analogies and models. The arguments form part of a “dominant logic” of analysis and decision making. Both are statiscally sophisticated models with regression analysis at the core and therefore one is reminded of the Great Man’s warning (to Koopman’s) on the problems with this sort of analysis:

Many thanks for sending me your article. I enjoyed it very much. I am sure these matters need discussing in that sort of way. There is one point, to which in practice I attach a great importance, you do not allude to. In many of these statistical researches, in order to get enough observations they have to be scattered over a lengthy period of time; and for a lengthy period of time it very seldom remains true that the environment is sufficiently stable. That is the dilemma of many of these enquiries, which they do not seem to me to face. Either they are dependent on too few observations, or they cannot rely on the stability of the environment. It is only rarely that this dilemma can be avoided.

Letter from J. M. Keynes to T. Koopmans, May 29, 1941

The point is I guess that somewhere between BP and the Grantham Institute we are likely, barring a major technological development, to see the outcome. But directionally the Grantham Institute research seems to be right side of change, and that is important when you see this graph:

Global Oil by Sector

In the long run I favour productivity and technical improvement over most other drivers in the economy. You can pass an inflection point where the whole economics of an industry changes. Shale has had it, and solar and EV might have it as well. But a core point is it requires standardisation and scale combined with technology improvements, and my worry for offshore is it has none of these except the potential of marginal improvements.

As I have argued offshore energy isn’t going to go away: in volume terms it too much of an important part of the supply chain for that. But is it going to be on the scale and have the importance it did before? BP and the other oil companies are right to keep investing, that is their business and their shareholders believe that, it’s capitalism, and a very efficient market mechanism. These productivity improvements are marginal at the moment, and car replacement cycles are long, competition is never stagnant etc. But it is hard to see a dramatic fall in the price of oil extraction productivity given it’s maturity (blended across production sources), and the same cannot be said for electric vehicle productivity. I accept that I have said that about shale, and there appears to be much further to run down the productivity curve, but subsea production is subject to dimishing returns, high capital utilisation, and asset productivity limits. Subsea is very efficient at scale but it is not easy to transform the limits of that scale, which isn’t true for manufacturing electric batteries and their potential capacity increases and price decreases (in real terms), and also to a lesser degree shale, which is limited by a high-service/labour input element.

There are issues with this negative theory: production that ends is harder to track and much less visible, I think I am biased by being amazed how quickly Tesla seems to to be growing, resource constraints could be found in battery manufacture etc. But it feels to me like we are passing a stage where after having been dependent on one source of energy for so long, admittedly a remarkable one on a calorie/output efficiency basis, other technologies are catching-up.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but going long on 25 year assets like drilling rigs and vessels, on the logic that it will always bounce back, because it did before, unless it’s part of a portfolio investment, strikes me as more risky than at anytime in the past 25 years. Whatever the industry will looked like in five years from now I doubt offshore will look like it did in 2013 ever again.

“Short cycle” E&P production, offshore demand, and future industry structure…

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.” 

Paul Krugman

There was an excellent article in the Telegraph this week on the economics of shale (“short-cycle”) investment that is so important for the future of offshore demand. This comes at the same time the IEA is raising concerns that lack of current investment could lead to a “sharp increase” in prices and effectively says shale is not the solution. I back the economics of marginal supply over future concerns that large mega-projects are not occurring.

I note the IEA itself says:

The demand and supply trends point to a tight global oil market, with spare production capacity in 2022 falling to a 14-year low.

In the next few years, oil supply is growing in the United States, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere but this growth could stall by 2020 if the record two-year investment slump of 2015 and 2016 is not reversed. While investments in the US shale play are picking up strongly, early indications of global spending for 2017 are not encouraging.

[emphasis added]

I have to admit to being slightly perplexed having read the IEA release on this report (and not the whole report) because I am not sure I get why a tightening of supply would lead to increased volatility in prices? Surely it would mean a gradual increase in investment to meet the tightening supply? Or maybe a period of underinvestment would lead to rising prices (but would surely be a signal for investment)? It may be true that large mega-projects are not replacing the previous number of similar projects, but that is exactly the point shale producers make, their production is more marginally driven.

Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “But this is no time for complacency. We don’t see a peak in oil demand any time soon. And unless investments globally rebound sharply, a new period of price volatility looms on the horizon.”

I understand the IEA may want low prices for consumers permanently but that isn’t rational for E&P companies who need a return on capital? Volatility would surely come as a result of large changes in the supply or demand in an industry with a relatively long-run supply curve for larger increases in marginal demand? Volatility in prices is the result of one side of the market being unable to respond to the other and there is limited evidence of that at the moment.

Not investing isn’t necessarily complacency it looks like rationality. E&P companies projects are fundamentally riskier when the variation in oil prices can be anywhere from USD 30 to USD 130 pboe, they need greater returns to cover that risk. The lesser investment could well lead to higher, more stable prices, on lower supply because that is the rational way to behave given past overinvestment cycles. E&P companies certainly don’t have to worry that the offshore supply chain could not assist in raising production very quickly, given the severe over capacity, a situation very different to past downturns.

Shale has become a manufacturing process like any other and subject to declining unit costs and experience curves as the Rystad Energy graph makes clear. For well over 150 years the US economy has been defined by an ability to reduce unit costs through productivity increases. Given the opportunity to make money in shale by continuing to do this I see no reason why this trend should not continue.

OGFJ_FEB17_1_wellhead_be

As a comparison:

US Steel Stocks versus Output

Offshore energy has advantages with larger reserve access and lower per unit costs. But the big disadvantage offshore has is that by its very nature it is non-standardised and it is very unlikely in the future this will change given the engineering challenges. The price reductions at the moment are the result of overcapacity and financial losses, not an increase in productivity, as is occurring in shale. This is not sustainable and prices for the supply chain will have to rise for the offshore supply chain to be viable again.

This ties in with the behavior that supermajors have been making in their investment programmes e.g. Chevron announced yesterday that offshore CAPEX would be USD ~12bn, a 30% drop from 2016, but still 67% of the total budget, which is down 12% YOY. Exxon has announced USD 25bn of CAPEX for 2017 with 1/3 for shale rising to 1/2 in a few years. The higher constant capital cost for shale, but shorter lead times, may mean marginal demand and supply are more easily balanced via pricing than has traditionally been the case in the past. E&P companies are not ignoring offshore but are using it for a large base of supply while having flexibility at the margin to change their capital and operating costs in a way offshore simply cannot offer.

The losses that have been sustained in the offshore supply chain by investors, and the growth of shale, point to a few constant themes to me here:

  1. There will need to be a “boom” to encourage new investment in offshore. When oil prices can be significantly below project forecasts for ~5 years then you need to make a higher return as an investor. That won’t be a boom it will be a return to a rational economic pricing level where supply and demand meet.
  2. A smaller number of offshore mega-projects could supply the base of new energy supply while shale picks up the more variable, and uncertain, demand.
  3. In order to ensure unit costs are lower the offshore supply chain is likely to be significantly more integrated into E&P companies than is currently the case. It is simply not viable to build USD 700m rigs and USD 100m vessels and have them on the spot market. Banks and financiers will insist on a better risk sharing mechanism (slowly and over time) or the capital required for these units (and therefore the day-rates that E&P companies pay) will become irrational and uncompetitive.  Brazil, so long an outlier for the lack of spot market, may, in fact, become a model for the sort of integration required to make offshore more competitive (in theory not fact as anyone who has worked for Petrobras can testify).
  4. This new industry structure will favour larger companies with a more diversified asset base.
  5. The real worry for basins such as the North Sea is that in size the projects are more akin to shale, but in economics closer to deep water, and therefore as a risk/return basis they look unattractive. That is not the end of the North Sea but it does mean all but the most attractive small fields are developed. It is very bad news for the supply chain which has built a fleet for far greater demand.
  6. Given current supply levels a “boom” offshore production is unlikely to flow through to the supply chain given current capacity levels.