The narrative in capital allocation moves to shale…

I use the term narrative to mean a simple story or easily expressed explanation of events that many people want to bring up in conversation or on news or social media because it can be used to stimulate the concerns or emotions of others, and/or because it appears to advance self-interest. To be stimulating, it usually has some human interest either direct or implied. As I (and many others) use the term, a narrative is a gem for conversation, and may take the form of an extraordinary or heroic tale or even a joke. It is not generally a researched story, and may have glaring holes, as in “urban legends.” The form of the narrative varies through time and across tellings, but maintains a core contagious element, in the forms that are successful in spreading. Why an element is contagious, when it may even “go viral,” may be hard to understand, unless we reflect carefully on the reason people like to spread the narrative. Mutations in narratives spring up randomly, just as in organisms in evolutionary biology, and when they are contagious, the mutated narratives generate seemingly unpredictable changes in the economy.

Shiller, 2017

News that BP had started production at Quad 204 (Schiehallion) led curmudgeonly FT columnist Lombard to note  yesterday:

If anything, then, Monday’s news is more of a last hurrah for BP in the North Sea, and for the UK Continental Shelf more broadly. With the strongest capital flows — and investor buzz — focused on unconventional US resources, traditional offshore oil can seem as fashionable as a set of free “crystal” tumblers from a 1970s petrol station. With a big shield logo.

I have mentioned here before that behavioural finance is starting to examine the narrative in economics (see initial quote), and at the moment this is the narrative in London and other capital markets. This ties in nicely with an excellent piece from Rystad earlier in the week looking at the future of the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico (I recommend reading the whole thing). For service companies Rystad notes:

After such a deep cut in this market it will take some time before the industry experiences a full recovery. Even with oil prices of $90/bbl to $100/bbl for the next decade, the market will not be back to 2014 levels before 2024.

The link for me is that offshore is going to bifurcate into huge developments (Quad 204, Mariner, Bressay, Mad Dog 2) and “the rest”. The rest are unfortunately going to be much smaller in number and less frequent. Rystad specifically mentions the lack of tie-back and tie-in projects in these regions. These projects are the investments that really compete with shale: 8-12 000 bpd that were ignored by larger E&P companies. The larger developments with high flow rates, and multi-decade economic plans, are vital for security of volume and a core underpinning of E&P profitability, and they are very economic, playing to super-major strengths of vast capital requirements combined with astounding engineering capability; but smaller developments in the USD 50-200m range are at a real risk of grinding to a slow halt for all except the companies currently committed to this space.

The North Sea, and to a lesser extent GoM, always had a significant number of smaller players (think Ithaca Energy (recently sold to Dalek) or Enquest), that raised (relatively) small sums of money and then sought to regenerate an exisiting area or develop smaller finds. Access to financing for that market simply doesn’t exist at the moment on anything like the scale it did before. Those Finance Directors who used to traipse around fund managers in London, Vancouver, New York etc with a deck of slides explaining their proposed developments are simply not getting a hearing. Not only that the tried and tested business model of developing a few fields and selling out with a takeover premium when they had built sufficient scale isn’t credible any more as potential acquirers focus on more on tight oil. Now those fund managers are meeting with guys who have a deck of slides that start with a shale rig, emphasise the relatively low upfront capital (as opposed to the higher OpEx) and their ability to rein in variable costs should price declines occur. The meme in financial markets now is all about shale, and rightly or wrongly, influential columns such as the one above help set this “dominant logic”.

Inside the big E&P companies managers, who are cognizent of the fact they must deal with analysts in the financial community and the investor base who follow the same narrative, are adapting and spending more time to examining potential shale investments. Offshore is getting less airtime. When was the last time you hard someone say “all the easy oil is gone” – which was taken as fact only 5 years ago. From this myriad of individual meetings and actions the macro picture of slowing capital flows into offshore and increased investment in shale is being driven, and it will be very hard to reverse without some exogenous event.

As behavioural economics teaches us humans are “boundedly rational” not the perfectly rational homo economicus so beloved of the efficient markets crowd. What this means is that potential investors can only process so much information, if you combine this with the fact that institutional investors “herd” (i.e. invest where their competitors do), you can see the current investment vogue is short cycle shale which makes even getting funding hard even for compelling offshore investments. Those who have heard the word “Permania” used to describe the boom in Permian basin will relate to this quote from the IMF on investment herding:

[p]rocyclicality in asset allocation can make swings in financial asset value and economic activity more intense. From an individual investor’s point of view, procyclical behavior can be rational, especially if short-term constraints become binding or if the investor can exit earlier than others. However, the collective actions of many investors may lead to increased volatility of asset prices and instability of the financial system..

Eventually the shale mania will wain as people overpay for land and productivity improvements slow. The problem for offshore is the amount of OpEx people will have to burn to get to this point and the consistently increasing productivity of shale.

Big players in the North Sea region like Apache, Taqa, and Sinopec will conitnue to develop offshore fields but they are not doing as many projects. The threshold rate for investment will be higher, because experience has taught us that you can get 5 years of low oil prices and many of these projects only have economic lives of 5-10 years (risk models are great at solving previous issues). These companies have less access to capital markets than their shale competitors because the high-yield desk has the same meme as the equity investors, higher equity costs and more risk averse bank funding raise project return requirements even more. Even state -backed companies like Taqa must vie for funding internally. Outside of the North Sea and GoM these developments are likely to remain dominated by National Oil Companies who may not rank projects on a strictly economic basis but will take the expected spot price of oil into account in their investment decisions. But as Rystad makes clear the North Sea and GoM volume increases will all be driven by a smaller number of larger projects.

This affects contractors differently. As Rystad notes EPIC work will decline proportionately less than other work.  For DSVs and ROV operators and vessel owners) this is grim . Until construction work, that uses far more DSV and ROV days than maintenance work, improves the supply side of the industry will take the adjustments both in day rates and utilisation levels. The supply chain is going to change into a few large integrated contractors in these regions with a vast choice of assets to service their needs and they are likely to reduce their comitted charter tonnage . These large contractors will make an economic return but part of it will be done by ensuring the smaller companies in the supply chain make only enough economic profit to survive and the equity value (if any) in these companies and assets looks set to be depressed for an extended period. Consolidation on a scale only dreamed of at the moment amongst vessel owners looks certain.

Demand will not return for smaller projects until the market price for oil stabilises at a substantially higher price than now, and does so for long-enough to give potential funders confidence that the upturn isn’t temporary. The uplift will likely be less severe because shale has introduced a “kink” in the supply curve. Projects take time to pass through engineering, funding etc before meaningful offshore work occurs. This is a long-term issue: Demand may have stabilised at current levels but recovery for the supply chain that is based on the realistic prospect of higher days rates and utillisation looks some way off.  For an asset base built to supply a 2013/14 demand curve the outcome looks uncomfortably obvious.



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