The New Offshore… it looks a lot like Italian and Spanish banking…

The oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, founded in 1472, came under government control today. The bank, founded as the “Mount of Piety”, has been through numerous capital raisings and life support packages since 2008/09, and finally, even the Italian government and the ECB could no longer pretend it was solvent. I have lost count over the years of the number of times the ECB has declared the banks solvent (only last December the MdP fundraising was announced as “precautionary”), but shareholders who have previously be forgiving have had enough as has the Bank of Italy. There are some clearly analogous lessons for offshore in this.

European banks and offshore oil and gas contractors share many of the same issues. For years now central banks around the world have kept the price of the core commodity that banks trade in (money) low, interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (“ZLB”) has become the new normal and banks struggle to the margin they used to between the money they borrow and the money the lend.

Another clear similarity between the banks and offshore contractors is excessive leverage. Banking is actually a pretty risky business (which is why banking crises and state bailouts are increasingly common), banks borrow short and lend long in a process known as maturity transformation. What this means in practice is that when you go into your friendly branch of DNB with your Kroners and deposit them you are lending the bank money and they are making a loan contract to pay you back a fixed number of Kroner. DNB then package up all the Kroner in the branch and turn it into a ship in the form of loan contract which they use to pay you back. The problem arises, as it did recently for DVB, when the value of the ship, or just as importantly the income from it, is worth less than the value of all the loan contracts the bank used in financing the ship. One or two doesn’t matter but if all the ships are worth less then the bank has a problem. This mismatch between the obligations that banks take on to finance assets that can vary hugely in value is the feature of nearly all banking crises, certainly in shipping as the German banks know well, but also the cause of the 2008/09 global financial crises. This is the fundamental instability mechanism in an economy that fractional reserve banking introduces.

Offshore has a similar instability mechanism and it too is a function of leverage. As the volume of work has dried up the fixed commitments owed to banks, bondholders, and other fixed rate security holders who were used to purchase vessels, assets, or finance takeovers has remained constant while the asset value has cratered and the revenue has done the same. Like a bank the asset side of the balance sheet is being severely strained at the moment as the revenues and profits simply cannot support historic commitments. It was this model of viewing the creditor run on Ezra/Emas as comparable to a bank run that made me sure there was no route to salvation for them. This transmission mechanism is destabilising all asset owners as banks are not lending on assets of uncertain value and the size of some of the writedowns is an issue for the banks. These sort of self-reinforcing loops are very hard to break.

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