Capital reallocation and oil prices…

The above graph comes from Ocean Rig in their latest results where despite coming in with numbers well below expectations they are doing a lot of tendering. At the same time ICIS published this chart…


It is my (strongly held) view that these two data points are in fact correlated.

I saw an offshore company this week post a link to the oil price as if this was proof they had a viable business model. Despite the rise in the oil price in the last year there has been only a marginal improvement in conditions for most companies with offshore asset exposure.  There is sufficient evidence around now that the shape and level of the demand curve for offshore services, particularly at the margin, is in fact determined by the marginal rate of substitution of shale for offshore by E&P companies. That is a very different demand curve to one that moved almost in perfect correlation to the oil price in past periods.


Source: BH Rig Count, IEA Oil Price, TT

This week two large transactions took place in the pipeline space. The commonality in both is new money comping into pipeline assets that E&P companies own. Over time the E&P companies hope they make more money producing oil than transporting it. But they have found some investors who for a lower rate of return are happy just carrying the stuff. More capital is raised and the cycle continues. On Friday as well Exxon Mobil was confirmed as the anchor customer for a new $2bn Permian Highway pipe. These are serious amounts of capital with the Apache and Oxy deals alone valued combined at over $6bn and shale producers confirming they are raising Capex.

When I people talk of an offshore “recovery” as a certainty I often wonder what they mean and what they think will happen to shale in the US? There strike me as only three outcomes:

  1. At some point everyone realises that shale technology doesn’t work in an economic sense and that this investment boom has all been a tremendous waste of money. Everyone stops investing in shale and goes back to using offshore projects as the new source of supply. I regard this as unlikely in the extreme.
  2. Technology in shale extraction reaches a peak and unit costs struggle to drop below current levels. In particular sand and water as inputs (which are not subject to dramatic productivity improvements but are a major cost) rise in cost terms and lower overall profitability at marginal levels of production. This would lead to a gradual reduction in investment as a proportion of total E&P CapEx and a rebalancing to offshore. Possible.
  3. Capital deepening and investment combined with technology improvements cause a virtuous cycle in which per unit costs are reduced consistently over many years. Such a scenario, and one I think is by far the most likely, would place consistent deflationary pressure on the production price of oil and would lead to shale expanding market share and taking a larger absolute share of E&P CapEx budgets on a global basis. This process has been the hallmark of the US mass production economy and has been repliacted in many industries from automobiles to semiconductors. Offshore would still be competitive but would be under constant deflationary pressure and given the long life of the assets and the supply demand balance would gradually converge at a “normal” profit level where the cost of capital was covered by profits.

I don’t know what the upper limit of shale expansion in terms of production capacity. I guess we are there or near-abouts there at the moment, but I also don’t really see what will make it stop apart from the limits or organizational ability and manpower?

It is worth noting that a lot of shale has been sold for significantly less than the highly visible WTI price (delivery Midland  not Cushing):


And Bakken production is at a record:


Each area creates its own little ecosystem which deepens the capital base and either lowers the unit costs or takes in used marginal capital (i.e. depreciated rigs) and works them to death. The infrastructure created by the temporary move away from the Permian may just create other marginal areas of production.

I think “the recovery”, defined here as offshore taking production and CapEx share off shale, looks something like this model from HSBC:


I suspect it’s about 2021 under this scenario that the price signal starts kicking in to E&P companies that at the margin there are more attractive investment opportunities to hit the green light on. That’s a long way off and is completely dependent on some stability in the market until then, but under a fixed set of assumptions seems reasonable. Note however the continued growth of shale which must take potential volume from offshore at the margin.

The offshore industry needs to get to grips with the challenges this presents (I have some more posts on this on the Shale tag). Mass production is deflationary, indeed that is it’s purpose. Shale is deflationary in the sense of adding supply to the world market but also deflationary in terms of consistently lowering unit costs via improving the efficiency of the extraction process and the technology. Offshore was competitive because it opened up a vast new source of supply, but it has not been deflationary on a cost basis (until the crash caused its assets to be offered at below their economic cost).

I’ve used this graph before (it comes from this great article) it highlights that the 1980s and 1990s had generally deflationary oil prices based on tight-monetary policy and weaker economic growth expectations. Ex-Asia the second part of that equation is a given today and US$ strength means oils isn’t cheap in developing countries. As the last couple of weeks have reminded us there is no natural law that requires the oil price to be in a constant upward trajectory.

Inflation adjusted WTI price.png


2 thoughts on “Capital reallocation and oil prices…

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