Shale, productivity, and American exceptionalism…

‘You see, Tom,’ said Mr Deane, at last, throwing himself backward, ‘the world goes on at a smarter pace now than it did when I was a young fellow. Why, sir, forty years ago, when I was much such a strapping youngster as you, a man expected to pull between the shafts the best part of his life, before he got the whip in his hand. The looms went slowish, and fashions didn’t alter quite so fast – I’d a best suit that lasted me six years. Everything was on a lower scale, sir – in point of expenditure, I mean. It’s this steam, you see, that has made the difference – it drives on every wheel double pace and the wheel of Fortune along with’ em…….

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Jeffries came out with a good research note this week that covers many of the themes I have discussed in the past year on shale productivity noting (click on the shale tag if you are interested):

U.S. activity recovery has been very broad based, which suggests a systematic move up the learning curve. Nearly 50 incremental operators have added rigs across all major US unconventional oil basins since the end of February when current oil price volatility began. Further, US onshore total (ex-CBM)/oil-directed well permits increased by 29%/43% in May vs. April…  Perhaps surprisingly relative to our sense of investor expectations, only ~32%/8% of 2017/18 oil production for 38 US E&Ps tracked by Bloomberg is hedged. Although we think capital raises in 2016 and oil industry expectation of oil price increases spurred activity recovery, in this evidence of continued growth we suspect we are seeing greater comfort in sustained progress along the US unconventional learning curve and in turn greater comfort in a business model that can subsist in a $40-45/bbl WTI oil world.

In hindsight the years between 2001-2014 simply looked too good for offshore, a steadily increasing oil price and a limited ability to increase production from land-based resources led to an investment boom to access the offshore oil. Rigs, vessels, ROVs and associated kit were all hit with a huge increase in demand and there followed an enormous increase in the fleet. Like all investment bubbles there is normally a very good rationale in the beginning for their appearence, but the longer they continue the greater the risk they overshoot. It is probably impossible to spot a bubble before it bursts, although there a clear indicators that normally come through the credit channel of the economy. But deep down everyone in industry felt uncomfortable about specialist vessels selling for far more than implied book value, 25 year assets earning enough in cash flow terms to pay off in 7 or 8 etc, people building USD 100m vessels for the spot market… There was a good reason, the hockey stick graphs in the presentations all went north, but surely it couldn’t go on for ever (I claim no foresight here).

When looking at the impact of increasing energy costs from the 1970s researchers found:

… rather striking features. In particular, it appears (i) that the oil price increases in the 1970s were followed by a large and persistent increase in energy-saving and (ii) that there is a marked medium-run negative co-movement between energy-saving and capital/labor-saving. These observations suggest that our economy directs its R&D efforts to save on inputs that are scarce, or expensive, and away from others. We thus interpret our findings as aggregate evidence of directed technical change”

What that means is that following the price shocks of the 1970s people worked at ways on increasing energy efficiency and finding ways of using oil more efficiently, but it takes a long-time for things to change and the technilogical progress to follow. The long boom in the oil price, and therefore offshore energy, sowed the seeds of the shale revolution as the high cost led to technical innovation. Economic systems are adaptive in the long run.

Shale is in its formative years. I have no idea, and nor does anyone, what the future potential is. We do know the US indepedents have history:

US Wildcat Productivity

Source: Juan Blanco and Houshang Kheradmand, 2011, from Wene (2005). (The 1989 change relates to advances in seismic technology).

The oil price needs to be viewed in the very long run in terms of how long it takes complex production technologies time to adapt. However, given time they do.

But shale is a manufacturing process and no economy in the world is more adept at harnessing the power of potential in this area than the US.  Broadly speaking this “American Exceptionalism” in manufacturing is defined in four attributes:

  1. Stadardized products
  2. Assembly line production
  3. Long production runs
  4. Resource-using technologies

These qualities might look tautological now but they have a long history and weren’t always that obvious with the roots steeped in the antebellum US Civil War economy. At the US display at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851 the “American System” of manufacturing (for small arms) was displayed: interchangeable, high quality precision parts then assembled en masse. In 1853 the English went to the US to investigate and ended up purchasing some of the small arms machinery they went to see. At this stage this was unique to this area of the US economy and was completely different from the cotton revolution on which the UK manufacturing was based (for another post). One of the great controversies of modern economic history was solved when James and Skinner demonstrated that higher wages were the result of more skilled workers with this machinery.

This system was a lineal antecedent of the system that became American Manufacturing and was Rosenberg argues a quirk of the procurement process of the Army Ordance Department who realised the scale of the task they were trying to achieve. The number of companies involved was limited but in particular The Remington Firearm also became the Remington Typewriter (whose economic importance in its own right is the QWERTY debate) and thus this system was transferred to other areas of the economy. It took time but it really was that niche in the beginning (the typical manufacturing firm had 10 employees or less c. 1840-50).

At the time businessmen were aware though that the American economy was on the verge of something profound in terms of economic transformation:

US Commodity Output

US Commodity Production History

It is important to sidetrack for a minute here an seperate out this industry level change from what economists call General Purpose Technology, such as the steam engine or microprocessor, that effect the whole economy. We are talking innovation within an industry and it led to dramatic declines in cost as output rose:

US Oil Industry Cost Reductions 1865-1884

Prices per barrel NOM

Chandler, Schumpeter and others have used this to put the corporation at the heart of economic change. Markets are created and developed by corporate entrepreneurs. This was the age of the ‘Robber Barons”, yet monopolies are supposed to raise prices and restrict innovation, and this is the opposite of what happened. Standard Oil, predeccessor to ExxonMobil was at the heart of this with Rockerfeller as its larger-than-life founder and creator. As Chandler described in The Visible Hand:

The market remained the generator of demand for goods and services, but modern business enterprise took over the functions of coordinating flows of goods and services through existing processes of production and distribution, and of allocating funds and personnel for future production and distribution. As modern business enterprise acquired functions hitherto carried out by the market, it became the most powerful institution in the American economy and its managers the most influential group of economic decision makers. The rise of modern business enterprise in the United States, therefore, brought with it managerial capitalism. (Chandler 1977, p. 1.)


This lineage is important: out in plains of America right now shale companies are working out how to drill each well a little bit better and cheaper, how to move the rig a little faster, use a little less sand, and find a little more oil, and they are doing this constantly. Behind them stand the rig companies who are seeking to add more productivity to their customers wells, to a host of suppliers you have never heard of (i.e. Hi Crush Partners, a $1.2bn sand supplier) that are all learning a small incremental amount each day about how to improve the fracing process. Make no mistakes about the profundity of this change.

This growth is also at the perfect rate, 3-7 rigs each week (out of 889 as of last week) joining the fray across the whole industry mean finance directors don’t panic, rig crews can be swapped around, learnings from one rig shared with another crew etc. This is non inflationary growth that allows the supply chain to add capacity in a cost efficient manner without adding “kinks” that add cost pressure. I am no expert in this area but already brief research shows that the new standard for mud pump (faster drilling) is moving from 5000hp to 7500hp… this is something the American companies excel at: greater productivity and the virtuous cycle of lower costs that only scale can bring. The more rigs they build the better each generation wil become and the greater the scale and cost reduction each unit will bring. You bet against this at your peril. Yes there is likely to be be short-term inflationary pressures at certain points, there are concerns about the price being paid for land in the Permania craze at the moment, but these would not appear to threaten the overall direction of change here.

Innovation and Incremental Improvement in the Shale Manufacturing Process

Shale innovation.png

Source: Anterro Resources, Oct 2016

I think one of the reasons that productivity in shale has been underestimated is the hedonic adjustment in the quality of shale equipment that has in effect changed the production possibility frontier used in most forecast models of shale potential. [Hedonic adjustment is when economists have to cope with technical and product change in their output models by making adjustments for longevity and quality of the products. It is notoriously unrealiable and hard to calculate, particularly when the industry is at such a nascent stage of development. The UK Government added liquid soap to the CPI measure in 2014 replacing bars of soap: they offer different price points and benefits and aren’t strictly comparable, but they reflected the change in how the market worked so the change was made. Try doing this to rig output when new rigs offer completely different production possibilities, many of which are unproven.] As Solow quipped (on the IT revolution) “[p]roductivity shows up everywhere but the statistics”.

The shale industry is at the start of a dramatic decline in cost and potentially a vast increase in output per unit of capital employed. Everyone in offshore should be examining their business model.

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