The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reasons and understanding, by which we are capable of discerning the remote consequences of all our actions; and, secondly, self-command, by which we are enabled to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain in order to obtain a greater pleasure in some future time.
Adam Smith, 1759
For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it ‘for keeps’, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.
John Maynard Keynes, 1936
The slide above taken from Transocean highlights how competitve offshore has become on a per barrel recovered basis. I’ll ignore the fact that the cost estimates for shale appear high because it isn’t my point: the real point is that to compete in the modern environment offshore oil production will have to be significantly more profitable on a per barrel recoverable basis because there is significant evidence managers underestimate (“overdiscount“) future financial returns the further away they are. Shale returns, while lower, are produced in a much shorter time period than offshore and behavioral finance shows strong evidence that managers prefer these sorts of returns at lower levels when compared to higher returns further away.
In 2011 Andrew Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability at the Bank of England, and Richard Davis, and Economist at the Bank of England spoke at a Bank for International Settlements conference and noted:
[r]ecently, in 2011 PriceWaterhouseCoopers conducted a survey of FTSE-100 and 250 executives, the majority of which chose a low return option sooner (£250,000 tomorrow) rather than a high return later (£450,000 in 3 years). This suggested annual discount rates of over 20%. Recently, Matthew Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (America’s second biggest rail company), expressed frustration at the focus on quarterly earnings when locomotives lasted for 20 years and tracks for 30 to 40 years. Echoes, here, of “quarterly capitalism”.
In 2013 McKinsey & Co and CPPIB surveyed 1000 Board members and found:
- 63% of respondents said the pressure to generate strong short-term results had increased over the previous five years.
- 79% felt especially pressured to demonstrate strong financial performance over a period of just two years or less.
- 44% said they use a time horizon of less than three years in setting strategy.
- 73% said they should use a time horizon of more than three years.
- 86% declared that using a longer time horizon to make business decisions would positively affect corporate performance in a number of ways, including strengthening financial returns and increasing innovation.
- 46% of respondents said that the pressure to deliver strong short-term financial performance stemmed from their boards—they expected their companies to generate greater earnings in the near term.
The implications for offshore investment (decision tree here) versus the certainty of a short payoff from shale investment are obvious. It has been well known in economics for years that managers overdiscount future returns: in behavioural economics it falls under time preference problems. Humans are neurologically wired with a preference for immediacy that affects economic behaviour. As Haldane and Davis make clear:
This evidence – anecdotal, survey, quantitative – is broadly consistent with popular perceptions. Capital market myopia is real.
As early as 1972 Mervyn King, who would later become Governor of the Bank of England, noted that managers in the UK overdiscounted returns from long term investments. This stream of literature dried up as the Efficient Market Hypothesis took over as the vogue theory but it doesn’t change an actual reality.
The fact is that in competition for marginal oil investment dollars there are institutional and behavioural factors pushing for short-term solutions. This article in the Financial Times notes that Shell is under pressure as the CFO hasn’t outlined when the promised $25bn share buyback will start. Do you think the CFO at Shell is pushing for a new Appomattox because it has lower economic costs (but high CapEx) or will she simply seek to favour short pay-off, lower margin, projects?
Managers pushing offshore projects in E&P companies are running into senior managers who represent exactly those type of Board members surveyed by McKinsey and CPPIB. These managers aren’t wilfully myopic, the shareholders are pushing them to be, but they are more focused on immediate payoffs and overdiscounting the costs of the offshore projects. Again this quote from Haldane and Davis seems apposite:
Graham, Harvey and Rajgopal (2005) surveyed 401 executives. They found three striking results. First, managers would reject a positive-NPV project if that lowered earnings below quarterly consensus expectations. Second, over 75% of the sample would give up economic value in order to smooth earnings. Third, managers said that this was driven by the desire to satisfy investors.
When there was no shale this wasn’t an option as the question was “Do you want oil or not?”. The question is a whole lot more complex now and involves and assessment of certainty, risk, payoff potential and timing, and the pricing uncertainty of a volatile commodity over the long run. All this points to the fact the the financial and institutional barriers to new offshore projects are much higher than simple “rational” expectation models of future payoffs would suggest.