Common knowledge in offshore and shale…

“With every grant of complete security to one group the insecurity of the rest necessarily increases.”

Friedrich Hayek

Common knowledge is something that we all believe everyone else believes. 

We don’t have to believe it ourselves, and it doesn’t even have to be public knowledge. But whether or not you personally believe something to be true, if you believe that everyone else believes something to be true, then the rational behavior is for you to act AS IF you believe it, too. Or at least that’s the rational behavior if you want to make money.

Common knowledge is rarer than you think, at least for most investment theses. That is, there’s almost always a bear case and a bull case for a stock or a sector or a geography, and god knows there are plenty of forums for bulls and bears to argue their respective cases.

What can change this normal state of affairs … what can create common knowledge out of competing opinions … are the words of a Missionary. In game theory terms, the Missionary is someone who can speak to everyone AND who everyone takes seriously. Or at least each of us believes that everyone else hears the Missionary’s words and takes them seriously.

When a Missionary takes sides in a bull vs. bear argument, then depending on the unexpectedness of the words and the prestige of the Missionary, more or less powerful common knowledge is created. Sometimes the original Missionary’s words are talked down by a competing Missionary, and the common knowledge is dissipated. Often, however, the original Missionary’s words are repeated by other, lesser Missionaries, and the common knowledge is amplified.

When powerful common knowledge is created in favor of either the bull or bear story, then the other side’s story is broken. And broken stories take a looooong time to heal, if they ever do. Again, it’s not that the bulls or the bears on the wrong side of the common knowledge are convinced that they were wrong. It’s not that the bulls or the bears on the wrong side of the common knowledge necessarily believe the Missionary’s statements. But the bulls or the bears on the wrong side of the common knowledge believe that everyone ELSE believes the Missionary’s statements, includingeveryone who used to be on their side. And so the bulls or the bears on the wrong side of the common knowledge get out of their position. They sell if they’re long. They cover if they’re short.

Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory

Oil and offshore has a lot of missionaries. In cyclical industries separating out industry firm effects from market effects is nigh on impossible. Be on the right side of a bull market and you make enough money to be a missionary respected by the crowd.

I thought of this when I read this extract from Saudi America in the Guardian. I won’t be buying the book (KirkusReviews panned it here) but the parts on Aubrey McLendon of Cheasapeake fame are interesting. However, what is really interesting is that in 2016 when the research for the book was being done there was a strong strain of  the “shale isn’t economic” narrative:

Because so few fracking companies actually make money, the most vital ingredient in fracking isn’t chemicals, but capital, with companies relying on Wall Street’s willingness to fund them. If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom at all…

You can make an argument that the Federal Reserve is entirely responsible for the fracking boom,” one private-equity titan told me. That view is echoed by Amir Azar, a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global EnergyPolicy…

John Hempton, who runs the Australia-based hedge fund Bronte Capital, recalls having debates with his partner as the boom was just getting going. “The oil and gas are real,” his partner would say. “Yes,” Hempton would respond, “but the economics don’t work.”…

In a report released in the fall of 2016, credit rating agency Moody’s called the corporate casualties “catastrophic”. “When all the data is in, including 2016 bankruptcies, it may very well turn out that this oil and gas industry crisis has created a segment-wide bust of historic proportions,” said David Keisman, a Moody’s senior vice-president.

Many of the offshore “recovery plays” were financed when this was the investment narrative. The “common knowledge” was that there was going to be an offshore recovery, it was simply a case of when not if. The staggering increase in shale productivity was not part of the common knowledge and didn’t form part of the narrative. Go long on assets said the common knowledge… they are cheap… this is a funding issue only… what could go wrong? As the oil price inevitably rose demand for offshore assets would quickly recover right?

As the graph at the top of this article highlights, just as the common knowledge was being formed that allowed a range of offshore companies to raise more capital to get them through to the inevitable recovery, and clearly the demise of shale would occur by simple economics alone, in fact the shale industry was just cranking up.

The results of most of the offshore companies for the supposedly busy summer season show that at best a slight EBITDA positive is the most that can be hoped for. Rig, jack-up, and vessel rates remain extremely depressed and most companies are struggling to even cover interest payments. A few larger SURF contractors are covering their cost of capital but most companies are simply doing more for less. Companies might be covering their cash costs but there is a massive issue still with oversupply, and judging from the comments everyone continues to tender for work they have no hope of getting as everyone is doing more tendering. The cash flow is rapidly approaching for a number of companies and Q2 results have shown the market is unlikely to save them.

The missionaries for the shale industry are currently in the ascendant in creating a new common knowledge. The new common knowledge for offshore will be extremely interesting.

(P.S. If I was the publishers I’d rush the paperback edition of the book out).

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