Oil prices, speculators, and supply expansion…

An article from the FT here touches on an issue that has been discussed since there was an oil market:

Who trades oil is changing, however. Investors who bother little with details such as inventories and pipeline flows are replacing dwindling ranks of specialist commodities hedge funds. The shift could alter the way prices are formed…
Then who is driving oil positions higher? Newly prominent oil speculators are not necessarily reacting to news about supply and demand or utterances from Riyadh. Instead, they may be buying and selling oil based on moves in currencies, interest rates or the price of oil itself.

Namely, are speculators affecting the price of oil? You can see from the graph above that the exponential growth of Brent Ice futures contracts, which is cash settled and does not require physical product delivery, bears no relationship to the relative steady increase in the demand for oil. Some demand for these futures clearly reflects increasingly sophisticated financial risk management techniques, but some clearly represents purely speculative capital trading on price moves (often with large amounts of leverage).

There has been an entire industry in trying to ascertain the economic effects of speculators in oil markets. The IMF view is that they have no effect, but reputable economists at institutions such as the St Louis Fed disagree. A good summary is here.

My own (simplified) view, that accords to a well researched positions, is that speculators affect the volatility of the oil price but the not the final price over the long run.  Basic economic logic alone should dictate that if there is an increased amount of capital being invested in an asset class it will cause the price to rise, but when combined with leverage it adds huge volatility (quite simply if you have borrowed money to buy something and the price drops you tend to liquidate quickly to minimise loses). Which is why you see such huge swings in oil investment positions with a clear procyclical bias:

The big long.png

But the major point for those involved in service industries to my mind is that this is part of the explanation why there is not a linear relationship between the oil price and demand for oil field services. Directors at E&P companies make decisions about the long term price but ultimately the market for physically delivered product is more important when investing in production infrastructure, despite the large trading arms of the supermajors,  because they obviously do have deliver in the physical form eventually. They also benefit from miscalculating demand on the upisde through rising prices and a higher ROE on invested capital, so although they give up some amount of market share it’s a fairly small downside for erring on the side of caution.

Too many models that forecast the demand for oilfield services work are based on the forecast oil price rather than physical volume required. Too many management teams in offshore are using a rebound in the oil price as “proof” the “market” will eventually recover in demand terms when it is clear there is no linear relationship. As shale becomes the swing production method of choice offshore demand in particular should be relatively easy to forecast because in the new environment it will be supplying a baseload of physically demanded production while short-term changes in demand are managed by tight-oil. If someone in oil services tells you their business model is fine because the price of oil will rise I would suggest examining things a lot more carefully.

Investment banking analysts, groupthink, and the space shuttle disaster….

“a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”

Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972

The quotes in the graphic above come from an MMA Australia equity placing last year. As a follow on to an earlier post I made regarding equity analysts at investment banks I read this article in the Financial Times Alphaville blog this week which makes essentially the same point:

The problem is that equity research has a famous bias towards positivity. Investment banks seek to do business with companies, which tend to dislike sell ratings. Stock markets spend most of their time rising. Fund managers don’t love to be told their decisions to invest in something is wrong…

So, it is very rare to see more than a quarter of analysts recommend their clients sell a stock

The distribution of ratings bears this out. Goldman Sachs aims to have 10 per cent to 15 per cents of stocks it covers rated as a sell. Morgan Stanley discloses 18 per cent of 3,200 stocks covered are rated underweight/sell. For UBS the global figure is 16 per cent. Investec has just 9 per cent of European and Hong Kong stocks on a sell rating.

How could the offshore analysts of some of the major maritime banks have been so positive when managers in the industry are saying things are very different? And in fact MMA’s latest financial results offer no hope of a market recovery?

Part of the answer I think lies in the psychology of groupthink (a classic article on it is here which applies this logic to the Challenger disaster). Another part of the answer lies in behavioural economics where analysts exhibit a positive confirmation bias, in which they look, and notice, information that accords with their preconceived ideas. This bias comes about understandably because analysts are employed by firms seeking to do business with companies they write reports about (and to be clear analysts who a nicer to managers get preferential treatment). People who want unbiased advice should probably pay for it from someone who owes them a duty of care is my takeaway… but hey I’m biased…

The oil market…

I am not an oil forecaster, if merely use of the word isn’t a misnomer, but I am interested in the psychological effects the market has on the physical and pricing of offshore services. Only last week Goldman called $80 oil, coincidentally when they called oil going to $20 in 2016 (when it was $36), it marked the low point in the market, now it seems this maybe the high as the price dropped yesterday.

To put these daily fluctuations into perspective there is a good article here on the swings in the oil price since 1973 until 2014. The story of shale gets a passing mention but remains to be written.

I have also noticed a lot of commentary mocking the market analysts from investment banks for their inability to predict accurately the turns in the market. I would note firstly if you think analysts at an investment bank have a job to do beyond helping the firm sell securities then you are wrong. IB analysts fall under the remit of marketing and that is their job, not to provide independent, and free, research to the community at large.

And even if they are trying to be accurate, say a firm with a limited corporate finance arm, one should remember Alfred Cowles. Cowles was the inheritor, and investment advisor, to a large Chicago newspaper fortune, as well as being a statistician and economist. In 1929 he was long on stocks and lost a great deal of money and set out to find the answer to a question made famous when asked by the Queen to LSE academics in 2008, namely “Why did nobody notice it?” (as in the Global Financial Crisis). Specifically, Cowles wondered why the big Wall Street brokerages didn’t see the crash of 1929 coming? Did they know any more than their customers? (I mean The Great Vampire Squid was keen on Ceona when anyone with a modicum of pipelay knowledge knew the Amazon lay system was a busted flush?)

In a famous paper “Can Stock Market Forecasters Forecast?”, published in Econometrica in 1944,  Cowles proved that they can’t. I urge you to read the whole article (aside from anything the language is beautiful), for example Cowles found:


The answer would be exactly the same for the oil market today if replicated I would wager. This comes up time again in mututal fund research and other areas of finance, where essentially the outcome is random and cannot be predicted with accuracy (a statistical theory known as “Random Walk“). In case you think technology has improved things this paper was published recently “Do Banks Have an Edge” … and the answer is no… you would be better off buying a portfolio of treasuries than going to all the effort of taking a complex mix of loans and securities that banks do. And that is when the bank is acting as a principal not even trying to sell the stuff!

So when you read that someone is calling the oil market, or whatever, you need to treat it with the scepticism it deserves, and not be surprised when it is wrong.

McDermott buys Chicago Bridge and Iron…

“Chicago Bridge and Iron is not based in Chicago, doesn’t make bridges, and uses no iron”.



We argue that mergers and merger waves can occur when managers prefer that their firms remain independent rather than be acquired. We assume that managers can reduce their chance of being acquired by acquiring another firm and hence increasing the size of their own firm. We show that if managers value private benefits of control sufficiently, they may engage in unprofitable defensive acquisitions.

Gorton, Kahl, and Rosen, 2005


If you want to have a look at what signals the insiders in offshore SURF are sending, and that major shareholders are supporting, look no further than McDermott (“MDR”) acquiring Chicago Bridge and Iron (“CBI”). MDR, which had $435m cash on hand at Q3, generated $155m EBITDA in the quarter, and is widely regarded as a very well run company, brought a declining onshore construction and fabrication house (with a small technology arm). No wonder the shares dropped 9% in aftermarket trading while CBI rose.

What it means is that a well informed group of rational senior executives in the offshore industry, in a company with ample liquidity and investment capability, decided the best option for growth and shareholder returns were for them to diversify onshore in the US. I don’t think that rings of confidence for an offshore recovery. At the moment anyone with enough financial capacity to charter ships (at below economic cost) and hire engineers can win market share. It is obvious what that will do to financial returns and why therefore companies are looking at different sources of growth and not recycling cash flow generated from the industry back into it. Over the long term this is part of the story of how the offshore industry will lose the capital it needs to in order restore the market to equilibrium.

This is a defensive merger. MDR was simply too small not to be acquired as part of a major acquisition had it remained independent (part of the reason the shares have dropped is the loss of the “acquisition premium” in their value), but it also needed to pay in shares only to keep its operating flexibility in this market. MDR was just big enough to raise the needle signficantly for someone else, but not large enough to buy an industry leader or number two. MDR had the choice of going on a shopping spree of SURF companies, maybe Aker Solutions or someone, and then trying to compete with Susbea 7 or FTI, and slowly over time getting materially bigger, risk being acquired as the industry consolidates, or buying something big and leveraging up so as to make it to big and risky to be acquired. The short-term risk was someone like GEBH, having failed to acquire an installation capability with SS7, deciding MDR was large enough to swallow. I’d love to know if the Board instructed one of the banks to sound out other bidders instead of this? I suspect instead that Goldman Sachs, lead adviser to MDR, was brought in with a specific mandate to keep MDR independent and CBI was the company they settled on.

Clearly, and having sounded out the shareholders as well, MDR management have decided that the least risky option, or at least the deal that could be done, was onshore US, a business about which MDR management have limited exposure. Whether consciously or  not, the fact is MDR management couldn’t find enough value, on a risk weighted basis, to carry on investing in offshore.

MDR management decided to diversify, a so called “vertical merger“. Financial markets generally dislike verticals, which have a limited range of situations when they are likely to be profitable, preferring to believe shareholders are better at diversifying individually than company management. However, financial economists have spent a huge amount of time studying M&A, and from what I can ascertain all they really agree on is that returns are hugely dispersed around the mean i.e. sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t:

[o]n balance, one should conclude that M&A does pay. But the broad dispersion of findings around a zero return to buyers suggests that executives should approach this activity with caution.


I get why it was done I think: scale. Cynical theories abound in economic research:

What, then, is the motive for the widespread and persisting phenomenon of conglomerate mergers? In this study, a “managerial” motive for conglomerate merger is advanced and tested. Specifically, managers, as opposed to investors, are hypothesized to engage in conglomerate mergers to decrease their largely undiversifiable “employment risk” (i.e., risk oflosing job, professional reputation, etc.). Such risk-reduction activities are considered here as managerial perquisites in the context of the agency cost model. [Emphasis added]

In this case the argument is really that increased scale will help the offshore business as a standalone unit with lower unit costs being spread over a large company. If management can make it work, and they prove to have swooped on CBI in a moment of weakness, then everyone will be happy. That isn’t really my point with this: it is my agreement that offshore contracting/SURF still has excess capital at an industry level and I agree with MDR management that in the current environment deploying more, even at current price levels,  looks hard to justify.

So rather than hold out for an acquisition premium, or try and build up slowly, MDR management have made the company virtually impregnable to being acquired, for a few years anyway, and if they can turnaround CBI as they have done with MDR the risk will be worth it.  But I also think it sends a signal that management have far more confidence in the lighter CAPEX onshore market than they do about the offshore market, and even though they had the opportunity to buy a string of assets and companies at rock bottom prices MDR management (with the support of the Board and shareholders) decided it was less risky to buy an onshore construction business. That is consistent with the investment profile of many E&P companies who are cutting offshore investment in favour of onshore.

I think that this M&A decision tells you a lot about what those actually making the investment decisions in profitable offshore companies think about the market direction and the risk weighted returns available from it, for the forseeable future. MDR are backing themselves to apply the lessons learned in the downturn to another business rather than applying it to more businesses in the sector.

I was wrong about Bitcoin: it is an asset class not money…

These curious capabilities make Bitcoins a combination of a commodity and a fiat currency (creating the coins is referred to as “mining” and they have value only because people accept them). But boosters inflated a Bitcoin bubble. Shortly after the currency launched, articles spread around the internet arguing that Bitcoins would protect wealth from hyperinflation and that early adopters would make a fortune. The dollar price of a Bitcoin currency unit climbed from a few cents in 2010 to a peak of nearly $30 in June 2011 (see chart), according to data compiled by Mt Gox, a popular online Bitcoin exchange. Inevitably, the currency then crashed back down, bottoming out at $2 in November 2011.

The Economist on Bitcoin in 2012 when the price was USD 12 per coin


This commodity [gold] is a material to be almost indestructible, and one of which therefore the accumulated stocks are very large in proportion to the annual fresh supply. Gold tends, therefore, to have a remarkably steady value.

R.G. Hawtrey, The Gold Standard

The Economic Journal, Vol 29, 1919

I have been prety vocal in the past about Bitcoin as a bubble. Stories like this seem to reinforce that image in me:

Eugene Mutai’s Nairobi apartment is filled with the sound of money: That would be the hum of a phalanx of fans cooling the computers he’s programmed to mine cryptocurrencies around the clock…

“The entire ecosystem could be the biggest wealth-distribution system ever,” Mutai said as his 2-year old daughter, Xena, named after the warrior princess, played with a tablet, swiping from app to app. In the world of internet-based currencies traded without interference from banks or regulators, “big players can’t deny anyone from participating in the financial system.”

And sure enough the CEO of Credit Suisse also explained that:

[f]rom what we can identify, the only reason today to buy or sell bitcoin is to make money, which is the very definition of speculation and the very definition of a bubble

I am not sure I believe that big players are excluding people from the financial system… but it is certainly part of the marketing of Bitcoin. The FT also has a great article on a how people are being marketed the dream of riches via bitcoin (read the whole thing the promoters are “interesting” to say the least:

“Ninety-five per cent of people you’re going to talk to about cryptocurrency, they say to you it’s a bubble. Correct?” he said as the 30 or so men and women packed into a small, hot room on the fourth floor nodded in agreement. In fact, he declared, “the bubble will never burst…

Pro FX Options launched in 2016 and says it can turn people with “zero trading knowledge” into skilled traders. It claims its software can detect short-term trading trends and help ordinary people make consistent profits from binary options, where a bet is placed on whether a stock or currency pair will be higher or lower at a predetermined time in the future. “What we’ve done is really made it simple, simple for anybody from any walk of life to take advantage of it”

But I am erring more now to the fact that while the top prices may be “bubble like” in that they deviate from the mean significantly over time, that some cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, look likely to be a permanent asset class. I don’t think the CEO of Credit Suisse is right, buying and selling for profit only is speculation, but that doesn’t make it a bubble.

Bitcoin isn’t a currency as defined by monetary economists in the classical sense, but it appears to have become an asset class, which seems likely to give it some enduring value. It just needs enough people to believe it worth something at it will have a floor of demand that should give it some value, even if intrinsically it generates no income. There are enough reports now that people are starting to treat it like gold, risk small stakes and hoping to profit wildly. All it needs is this number to keep growing faster than the Bitcoin system mines coins and the price will go up. Last week CME announced they would start a futures service for Bitcoin. It seems almost inconceivable that a global market this big will simply vanish, the price may go down as some buyers lose confidence, but there is surely enough market depth now that this is simply becoming a recognised asset class, albeit one with likely extreme volatility in demand/pricing.

The mistake I made was treating it as currency and as money. I am not the only one this attempt to value Bitcoin on a rational basis was :

based on the presumption that bitcoin’s core utility value is serving as a currency for the dark economy.

Bitcoin is clearly neither money nor a currency but it is becoming an asset class.

The reason I missed 9 of the last 0 housing recessions in NZ is simply because I was too rational in my analysis on the overall return not the capital gain: Asian buyers and peoples innate desire for a secure house has increased faster than the stock of housing and ergo the prices have boomed.


Its all about the capital gain in NZ but that doesn’t make the gain any less real if you cash it in.

I’m not pretending Bitcoin is perfect: there are security issues, and the price will be volatile, to name just two. But there is a longevity in the prposition that simply didn’t exist with Dutch Tulips (a fashionable perishable item amongst a small domestic population) or the South Sea Company (effectively a financial engineering that overreached combined with fraud).  Some of the Initial Coin Offerings are clearly fraud and a bubble but the more I read the more I can see a case for investing in Bitcoin: the rate of supply will grow less slowly than the rate of demand.

Gold has no value beyond what someone is willing to pay and and 37% of its demand come from people who just hold for “investment purposes”. A fraction of those people worldwide who decided to invest in Bitcoin would likely make it a great investment.


But I still would pay someone £1100 for a three day couse to learn how to trade the stuff. I may regret that later but that is a bubble.

Incremental Oil Production Growth… Shale versus Offshore …

Interesting graph from Oceaneering that shows the growth of incremental production. Like all these charts they need to be viewed as directionally correct only, but it makes clear the scale of the change that shale has wrought on the offshore industry.

That brown/ shale area would simply not have existed 4 years ago and ties in with my argument about shale becoming an important industry narrative which drives how actual investment decisions are made in companies. There are large questions about shale productivity (depletion rates etc), I am not  geologist or well engineer so can offer no insight into this from a technical perspective, but the economist in me is an inveterate technical optmist and I think the investment resources being signalled towards this form of E&P activity will lead to increased productivity and recovery in the future.

Many investors into offshore in prior to 2014 saw that brown area as one that offshore would have covered. Clearly offshore production will still remain an important part of the energy supply chain, but only niches within it will be profitable as opposed to the whole market uplift that drove the previous boom. Services over assets would be a good general rule. As would another point I have made previously that offshore developments are likely to be driven by a smaller number of mega developments.

Dimon calls (unspecified) time on Bitcoin mania…

“I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”

Sir Isaac Newton (who invested £3500 in The South Sea Company and sold out at £7000; he then re-entered the market and lost £20 000).


“[T]here shall be one coinage throughout the realm”

An Anglo Saxon rule dated to Athelstan, c. 930AD

So Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co), probably not a reader of this blog, also thinks Bitcoin is a bubble:

I’m going to be really clear in this one. Forget the blockchain, that’s a technology… But… the currency isn’t going to work. You can’t have a business where people can invent a currency out of thin air and think the people buying it are really smart. It’s worse than tulip bulbs, OK?

Note use of the word currency not money. Banks create money out of thin air as The Bank of England agrees. And private money creation has a long intellectual tradition in economics, with Friedman asking the question “Does the Government have any Role in Money?”. And there are less extreme examples: in 1970 during the Irish Bank stike even cheque clearing closed down and Irish pubs and supermarkets continued to “cash” cheques as they passed like money throughout the system for over six months and cheques were cashed by pubs as if the banks were open.

Currency on the other hand is a unit of account given the force of state backing and can be used to settle tax obligations. As soon as there is a threat to the tax base or the control of money the government will extinguish that threat: clearly the more authoritarian the bigger the threat and the quicker they will act.

What is clear is that Bitcoin is a bubble. There is no intrinsic value in it and the price and it is clearly only worth what someone else will pay. I love this quote:

When Stanley Druckenmiller, who managed George Soros’ $8.2 billion Quantum Fund, was asked why he didn’t get out of technology stocks even earlier if he knew they were overvalued he replied that he thought the party wasn’t going to end so quickly. In his words “We thought we were in the eigth inning, and it was the ninth”. Faced with mounting losses, Druckenmiller resigned as Quantum’s fund manager in April 2000… Julian Robertson, manager of the legendary Tiger Hedge Fund, refused to invest in technology stocks since he thought they were overvalued. The Tiger Hedge Fund was dissolved in 1999 because its returns could not keep up with returns generated by dotcom stocks.

A Wall Street analyst who has dealt with both managers vividly summarized the situation: “Julian said, ‘This is irrational and I won’t play,’ and they carried him out feet first. Druckenmiller said, ‘This is irrational and I will play’, and they carried him out feet first.”

Dimon has history on his side. Sooner or later this is going to end badly. Currency creation is a prerogative of the state as is the ability to tax and the two are inseparable. As Redish notes:

Numismatists believe that the earliest coins were produced at Lydia (now Western Turkey.  in the mid-seventh century BC. The coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. They had a designon one side and were of uniform weight but had a highly variable proportion of gold. In an influential article, Cook (1958)  argued that these coins were introduced to pay mercenaries, a thesis modified by Kraay (1964) who suggested that governments minted coins to pay mercenaries only in order to create a medium for the payment of taxes. Both interpretations stress the role of the government in the introduction of coinage.

Something that has worked for thousands of years and used to keep governments in power and is crucial to the tax base isn’t going to be usurped by an unkown computer programmer, a bunch of gun nuts (who don’t want to pay tax), drug dealers (who don’t want to pay tax and get caught (crime clearly has a major impact on Bitcoin valuation)), and a bunch of fintech guys (who don’t want to pay tax and have no sense of economic history). Something Ross Ulbricht could testify to.