Shell and Bourbon: a tale of two cities

“In short,” said Sydney, “this is a desperate time, when desperate games are played for desperate stakes.” 

A Tale of Two Cities

Despite oil prices remaining above US$50 a barrel during the 1st quarter of 2017, activity is yet to recover in the Shallow water offshore and Deepwater offshore sectors”

Jacques de Chateauvieux, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BOURBON Corporation.

I am absolutely not going to turn this blog into one that goes through the financial results every quarter (and even less so one that follows the oil price), but I do think now is an interesting time because on a volume basis they make up a large percentage of the total offshore CapEx so their spending plans are important. The most important forward number the contracting community needs to focus on is backlog, for the simple reason that in volume terms it drives the number of days utilisation. Shell reported today as did Bourbon, and I believe that they support the view I have taken here and here with BP: we are looking at a structural change in the offshore contracting industry and the likelihood of a supply crunch saviour is unlikely at best.

The massive supply crunch that the IEA forecasts doesn’t appear to be showing up in the physical market (with oil down nearly 5% today although I believe daily prices are a close to a random variable) or the futures market. This IEA forecast is starting to look chimerical:

Global oil supply may struggle to match demand after 2020, when the pinch of a two-year decline in investment in new production could leave spare capacity at a 14-year low and send prices sharply higher, the International Energy Agency said on Monday.

Investors generally are not betting on a sharp rise in the price of crude oil any time soon, but the contraction in global spending in 2015 and 2016 and growing global demand means the world could well face a “supply crunch” if new projects are not soon given the go-ahead, the IEA said in its five-year “Oil 2017” market analysis and forecast report

Firstly the Shell numbers: unsurprisingly there was a massive growth in profit as the oil price went straight to the bootom line. Like BP its all about the CapEx and the dividends:

Shell Dividends

Despite a massive drop in earnings Shell sells stuff and borrows more to pay shareholders the same. And like BP it will massively cut back CapEx compared to historic periods:

Shell Capex.png

The cut from 2013 to 2016 is nigh on 50% for upstream, It is also worth looking at the drop in Europe. Yes, Shell sold a large proportion of the portfolio to Chryosoar, but from a market perspective it will take the new company some time to develop and execute its plans, and there is more chance than not that they take more time to develop as a new management team and shareholder base come to grips with the scale of what they have purchased and match their asset to their strategic plans. Some quick wins maybe, huge CapEx developments… Unlikely. For European contractors that is bad news.

Shell also made plain in their strategy presentation last year that:

Capital investment will be in the range of $25-$30 billion each year to 2020, as we improve capital efficiency and ensure a more predictable development funnel for new projects. Investment for 2016 is expected to be $29 billion, excluding the purchase price of BG, some 35% lower than the pro-forma Shell-plus-BG level in 2014. In the prevailing low oil price environment we will continue to drive capital spending down towards the bottom end of this range; or even lower if needed. In a higher oil price future we intend to cap our spending at the top end of the range.

As I said I believe their shareholders have made clear the dividend is sacrosanct and the management get it. This is what economists call a time consistency issue, and in this case the incentive to keep the commitment is the same as the incentive to make the commitment. In other words, they are likely to keep this promise because everyone is incentivised just to take the money if oil prices suddenly shoot up.

Shell also noted geographically their commitment to deepwater:

Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico represent the best real estate in global deep water. We are developing competitive projects here based on this advantaged acreage. Shell’s deep-water production could double, to some 900 thousand barrels of oil equivalent per day (kboed) in 2020, compared with 450 kboed in 2015.

The fact is that operating costs are lower in these regions compared to the North Sea: e.g. PSV runs have lower spec vessels, cheaper fuel, cheaper crews, and lower CapEx. It’s all about driving unit production costs down now, just like a manufacturing business every process will be examined and reviewed and an attempt made to lower the cost.

To that end Shell have approved the Kaiskias development for a 40 000 bpd field (them picture here). Like BP on Mad Dog Phase 2 Shell got a near 50% reduction in development costs and replicated previous design knowledge. These companies are using large offshore projects as the baseload for their production needs and building shale capability as the marginal production that flexs as market needs dictate.

And shale is flexible:  the Baker Hughes rig count hit 697 rigs last week, up 9 on the last week, but up an astonishing 365 year-on-year (91%). It’s just the right growth rate, not so high cost goes mad, but high enough to substantially affect the market price and keep investment incoming. Goldilocks growth. Right now those rig and service companies are adding more capacity, training more people, learning how they can extract more per well, and lower the running cost. Every day they learn more and apply more in a self referential cycle that is the hallmark of standardisation and lowering unit costs. Bet against it at your peril.

The other side of this production revolution could been seen as Bourbon also reported today. Revenue down 28% year-on-year! Bourbon is so big it is a bellweather for those exposed to assets without the project execution capability that others have. The contrast with Shell couldn’t be more obvious. Poor utilisation and management highlighting only they had negotiated with ICBC to taper lease payments. There is no light at the moment for subsea – which is consistent with what GE said this week. The common theme here is that subsea is structurally unattractive compared to other development opportunities. High upfront exploration and appraisal costs relative to flow rates make it harder to attract upfront funding and capacity utilisation at below economic levels for vessel operators still not lowering costs enough to bring the market into equilibrium.

You don’t need to run a regression to understand what is happening here: investment is pouring into shale and ignoring offshore for all but the most certain bets. Until CapEx from the E&P companies comes back any hope of a “recovery” for those long on tonnage is a mirage. CapEx drives utilisation in a way IRM just cannot. At some point the offshore community is going to have to stop pretending the only possible solution here is a market “recovery”. There has been a fundamental and structural change in the market. Multi-year commitment to low CapEx is not what the global fleet was built for, it was built for 2013 when Shell Upstream alone chucked a cheeky USD 24bn at improving production, not a measly USD 12bn per annum capped.

I think this highlights what a massive mistake Solstad has made here by taking on Farstad and DeepSea. A supplier of high-end CSVs may have had an independent future, but exposing yourself to commodity tonnage, predominantly in structurally unattractive regions suffering declining investment, without enough scale to generate pricing power, is looking more and more like a poor move every day (not that it ever looked good). Minorities in Solstad must be livid.

Clearly those contractors who can deliver large offshore projects in deepwater have a viable business model if they don’t have too much tonnage. For the rest it will be years of sub-economic returns unless restructuring brings a new capital structure.

3 thoughts on “Shell and Bourbon: a tale of two cities

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