Unconventional verus offshore demand at the margin…

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. Human history teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. New recipes generally produce fewer unpleasant side effects and generate more economic value per unit of raw material…

Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.

Paul Romer (Nobel Prize winner in Economics 2018)

Good article in the $FT today on Shell’s attitude to US shale production:

Growing oil and gas production from shale fields will act as a “balance” for deepwater projects, the new head of Royal Dutch Shell’s US business said, as the energy major strives for flexibility in the transition to cleaner fuels. Gretchen Watkins said drilling far beneath oceans in the US Gulf of Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria secured revenues for the longer-term, but tapping shale reserves in the US, Canada and Argentina enabled nimble decision-making.

“The role that [the shale business] plays in Shell’s portfolio is one of being a good balance for deepwater,” Ms Watkins said in her first interview since she joined the Anglo-Dutch major in May…

Shell is allocating between $2bn and $3bn every year to the shale business, which is about 10 per cent of the company’s annual capital expenditure until 2020 and half of its expected spending on deepwater projects. [Emphasis added].

Notice the importance of investing in the energy transition as well. For oil companies this is important and not merely rhetoric. Recycling cash generated from higher margin oil into products that will ensure the survival of the firm longer term even if at a lower return level is currently in vogue for large E&P companies. 5 years ago a large proportion of that shale budget would have gone to offshore, and 100% of the energy transition budget would have gone to upstream.

The graph at the top from Wood MacKenzie is an illustration of this and the corollary to the declining offshore rig numbers I mentioned here. Offshore is an industry in the middle of a period of huge structural change as it’s core users open up a vast new production frontier unimaginable only a short period before. The only certainty associated with this is lower structural profits for the industry than existed ex ante.

Note also the split that the – are making between high CapEx deepwater projects and shale. Shell’s deal yesterday with Noreco was a classic case of getting out of a sizable business squarely in the middle of these: capital-intensive and not scalable (but still a great business). PE style companies will run these assets for cash and seem less concerned about the decom liabilities.

You can also see this play out in terms of generating future supply and the importance of unconventional in this waterfall:

Shale production growth

As you can see from the graph above even under best case assumptions shale is set to take around 45% of new production growth. When the majority of the offshore fleet was being built if you had drawn a graph like this people would have thought you were mad – and you would have been – it just highlights the enormous increase in productivity in shale. All this adds up to a lack of demand momentum for more marginal offshore projects. The E&P companies that are investing, like Noreco, have less scale and resources and a higher cost of capital which will flow through the supply chain in terms of higher margin requirements to get investment approval. This means a smaller quantity of approved projects as higher return requirements means a smaller number of possible projects.

Don’t believe the scare stories about reserves! The market has a way of adjusting (although I am not arguing it is a perfect mechanism!):

Running Out of Oil.png

A money creation theory of offshore asset recovery…

The reason we are less enthused by companies which rely on tangible assets such as buildings or manufacturing plants [Ed: or rigs/jackups/ships?] is that anyone with a big enough budget can easily replicate (and compete with) their business. Indeed, they are often able to become better than the original simply by installing the latest technology in their new factory. Banks are also quite keen to lend against the collateral of tangible assets under the often illusory view that this gives them greater security, meaning that such assets can also be financed easily with debt, or as we call it, ‘other people’s money’. Debt is provided to such companies both cheaply, and with seeming abandon at certain times in the economic cycle, with often perilous results.

Smithson Investment Trust, Owners Manual

High confidence tends to be associated with inspirational stories, stories about new business initiatives, tales of how others are getting rich…

Akerlof and Shiller, Animal Spirits

…the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as a result of animal spirits — of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

Keynes, Chap 2: The State of Long Term Expectations, in The General Theory

While quite ready to change my opinion, I have, at present, a strong conviction that these two economic maladies, the debt disease and the price-level disease (or dollar disease), are, in the great booms and depressions, more important causes than all others put together…

Some of the other and usually minor factors often derive some importance when combined with one or both of the two dominant factors.

Thus over-investment and over-speculation are often important; but they would have far less serious results were they not conducted with borrowed money. That is, over-indebtedness may lend importance to over-investment or to over-speculation.

The same is true as to over-confidence. I fancy that over-confidence seldom does any great harm except when, as, and if, it beguiles its victims into debt.

Irving Fisher, The Debt Deflationary Theory of Great Depressions

… the modern debt-deflation process encompasses falling asset prices, debt repayment difficulties, a reluctance to lend, a financial crisis, the impact on the banks, and the inter-dependency of the financial system…

Wolfson, Cambridge Journal of Economics

Financial illiteracy is a recipe for debt, default and depression, whose effects appear to feedback on each another in a vicious spiral.

These individual costs are amplified when they are aggregated up to the macro level. How people’s expectations evolve – their degree of optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – is crucial for determining their individual decisions. It has long been recognised that these expectations can be shaped importantly by others’ expectations. For example, “popular narratives” can emerge which shape collective expectations among the public – optimism or pessimism, exuberance or depression – and which can then drive aggregate economic fluctuations…

At a macroeconomic level, the work of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller has looked at the popular narratives which emerge during periods of boom and bust.  Using words extracted from newspapers, they find the prevailing popular narratives about the economy have played a significant role in accounting for the heights of the peaks and depths of the troughs during macro-economic booms and busts. Public expectations, embedded in the stories they tell, are a key macro-economic driver.

Andrew Haldane, Bank of England, Folk Wisdom

Last week the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia gave a speech titled “Money – Born of Credit?”, in this speech he outlined an important, yet underappreciated fact, of modern economies: deposits in bank accounts are caused by loans. A lot of people think that by putting money in their bank account they are giving the bank the ability to make a loan, but actually in a systemic sense it is the other way around: the money in your account is the result of banks making loans that end up as deposits in your account. In case you think this is some bizarre, and wrong, economic tangent, the Bank of England has an explanatory article “Money creation in the modern economy” which states:

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The Chief Economist of Standard and Poor’s summed it up in this article:

Banks lend by simultaneously creating a loan asset and a deposit liability on their balance sheet. That is why it is called credit “creation”–credit is created literally out of thin air (or with the stroke of a keyboard). The loan is not created out of reserves. And the loan is not created out of deposits: Loans create deposits, not the other way around.

This ability of privately owned banks to have the power of money creation is not often discussed. To many economists, although generally not those working at banks, this is a privilege where the ability to ‘privatize the profits and socialise the risk, is most flagrant and should perhaps be regulated more. The ‘Exorbitant Privilege‘ of the private sector. There is significant evidence that financial and banking crises have indeed become more common since the move to deregulate the financial system and credit creation that became especially strong post the end of the Bretton Woods era (post 1973).

If you are still reading at this point you may be wondering where I am going with this? The answer is that the implications for an industry like offshore, an asset-backed industry where values were sustained by huge amounts of bank leverage, are important for understanding what a “recovery” will look like. The psychology and ‘animal spirits’ of the commercial banks is likely to matter more than any single factor in dictating when an asset price recovery will be. Given that the loan books are closed to all but tier 1 borrowers, and contracting overall in offshore sector exposure, this would appear to be some way off.

Part of “the boom” in offshore since 2000, barring a short and sharp downturn in 2008/09, was the increasing value of rigs and offshore support vessels, but important too was the willingness of banks to lend against 2P reserves (Reserve Based Lending). This was a pro-cyclical boom where because everyone believed the offshore assets and reserves were worth more than their book value banks were willing to lend significant amounts of money against them. There was a positive and logical narrative of a resource-contrained oil world to unlock the animal spirits, it wasn’t irrational per se. As these assets changed hands banks created deposits in company accounts, they literally created “money” out of thin air by believing that the assets were worth more than they were previously. It is no different to a housing boom, and the more money the banks pumped in, the more everyone believed their assets were worth more (as the deposits grew). Ergo a pro-cyclical credit boom combined with an oil price boom. The demand for oil, and its price, has recovered, and this will affect the amount of offshore work undertaken, but the negative effects of an asset price boom will take longer to recover.

Right now the banks aren’t creating any new money for the offshore sector, collectively they are actually destroying it. When banks refuse to lend on ships or rigs no deposits flow through the system. Money from outside the system stops flowing into the offshore sector from the banks. Values and transactions are supported by the economic earning potential of current assets and the amount of equity and debt raised externally by funds. None of these “creates” money as banks do. These funds are “inside” money.

As an example last week Noble purchased a jack-up from a yard in Indonesia and was granted a loan by the yard selling the unit (a Gusto unit pcitured above). A piece of paper was exchanged and credit was created for the $60m loan of the total ~$94m price. Neither firm has any more money than they had prior to signing the loan contract. Credit isn’t the same as money… had a bank been involved (simplistically) it would have credited the yard with $60m, created a debt of $60m for Noble (a debit), and created an asset for $60m on its balance sheet. This money would have flowed from outside the offshore industry. The total value of the transaction would have been the same but the economic consequences, particularly for the liquidity of the yard, would have been very different. It is safe to say the reason this didn’t happen is because no bank would lend the money under similar terms. Relief rather than animal spirits seems a more likely emotion for this transaction.

It is not just the offshore contracting companies but also the E&P companies that are suffering from reduced bank credit and this is affecting the number of projects they can execute (despite a rise in the oil price). Premier is currently raising funds for the Sealion project, as part of this Drilquip has been given the contract for significant parts of the subsea scope, and they have provided this on a credit basis. In past times Premier would simply have borrowed the money from a bank and paid Drilquip. Now Drilquip has an asset in how much credit it has extended Premier but in the hierarchy of money that is lower than the cash it would previously have had, and it has to wait for Premier to sell the oil to pay it, and take credit risk and oil price risk in the meantime. Vendor financing is not the panacea for offshore because unlike banks vendors can create credit, but not money, and these are two fundamentally different things. There is a financial limit to how many customer Drilquip can serve like this. Collectively this lowers the universe of potential projects for E&P companies, and therefore the growth of the industry, that can be achieved. Credit creation is essential for an industry to grow beyond its ability to generate funds internally.

Another good example is the Pacific Radiance restructuring. Here the proposed solution, that I am enormously sceptical of, is that a new investor comes in allows the banks to restructure their loan contracts/ assets such that they can get paid SGD 100m in cash immediately while writing down the size of the loan. The equity and funds coming in are funds from the existing stock of money supply, they are not additional liquidity created by a belief in underlying asset values and represented by a paper loan contract and a growth in the loan book of the bank. While the new funds are adding to the total stock of money available to the offshore industry the bank involved is taking nearly as much off the table and you can be sure they won’t be lending it back to the sector. And thus the money stock and capital of the industry is reduced. Asset values remain low and the pain counter-cyclical process continues.

When you see companies announcing asset impairments and net losses that flow through to retained earnings this is often merely accounting of the banks withdrawing money from the sector and the economic cost of the asset base not being in tune with the amount of money available to the industry as a whole. It is also seen in share price reductions as the assets will never pay their owners the cash flows previously forecast.

In a modern economy this is normally the transmission mechanism from a credit bubble to a subsequent economic collapse: the ability of private sector banks, and only banks because of the system can create “money”, to amplify asset prices and cause sectoral booms on the way up and reduce the money stock and asset valuations on the way down. Why this happens is a complex topic and cannot be tackled in a blog, but it has clearly happened in offshore. Just as it has happened in housing booms, mining booms, ad infinitum previously. The dynamics are well known and are accentuated in industries which have had a lot of leverage. Much work was undertaken following the depression of agricultural prices in the 1930s, a commodity like oil which fluctuated wildly but the tangible backing of land allowed banks to supply significant leverage to the sector. Irving Fisher, quoted above, was famous for predicting that the US stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau” in 1929,  but his understanding of debt dyamics from studying banking and the US dustbowl depression transformed our understanding of the role of credit and banking.

[This explanation crucially differentiates between inside-money and outside-money. I am making a distinction between money generated inside the offshore sector and outside. By inside money I mean E&P company from expenditure, credit created amongst firms in the industry, and retained earnings. Outside money is primarily bank credit and private equity and debt funds. But whereas private equity and debt funds must raise money from the existing money stock only bank created money raises the volume of money].

In offshore the credit dynamics have been combined with the highly cyclical oil industry and allows optimists to believe a “recovery” is just possible. But a recovery scenario that is credible needs to differentiate between an industrial recovery, driven by the amount of E&P projects commissioned, and an asset price recovery, which is essentially a monetary phenomenon.

A limited industrial recovery is underway. It is limited by the availability of bank credit and the huge debts built up in the previous boom by the E&P companies, and their insistence that shareholders need dividends that reflect the volatility risk of the oil and gas industry. It is also limited because of the significant market share US shale has taken from offshore. But the volume of offshore project work is increasing. This is positive for those service firms who had limited asset exposure, and particularly for the Tier 1 offshore contractors, as much of the work being undertaken is deepwater projects that are large in scope.

But an asset recovery is still a long way off. There are too many assets for the volume of work in the short-run and in the long run it will be very hard to get banks to advance meaningful volumes of credit to the industry. Companies can write loan contracts with each other that represent a value, but banks monetise that immediately by providing liquid funds and therefore raising the animal spirits in the industry, whereas shipyards lending money to drilling companies need them to generate the funds before they can get paid. The velocity and quantity of money within the industry become much smaller. Patience and animal spirits make poor bedfellows.

Bank risk models for a long time will highlight offshore as a) volatile, and b) risky given that a bad deal can see even the senior lenders wiped out completely. Like all of us banks fight the last crisis as they understand it best. Until banks start lending again the flow of funds into the offshore industry will mean the stock of assets that were created in more meaningful times are worth less. In a modern economy credit creation is the sign that animal spirits are returning because it raises the return to equity (and high yield) providers.

In the boom days leading up to 2014 money and credit were plentiful. The net result was a vast amount of money being “created” for the offshore sector and a lot of deposits being created in accounts by virtue of the loans banks were creating to companies in the offshore sector based on their asset value. Now the animal spirits are no more and a feeling of caution prevails. The amount of money entering the sector via higher oil prices and private equity and debt firms is much smaller than was previously created by the banking sector. Over time this should lead to a more rational industry structure… but a repeat f 2014 days is likely to be so far away that the market at least has forgotten it…

As The Great Man said:

We should not conclude from this that everything depends on waves of irrational psychology. On the contrary, the state of long-term expectation is often steady…[but]…We are merely reminding ourselves that human decisions affecting the future, whether personal or political or economic, cannot depend on strict mathematical expectation, since the basis for making such calculations does not exist; and that it is our innate urge to activity which makes the wheels go round, our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance.

Financial crises comparisons…

This article from Gillian Tett on whether we have learnt the lessons from previous financial crises contains this quote:

But whatever their statistical size, crises share two things. First, the pre-crisis period is marked by hubris, greed, opacity — and a tunnel vision among financiers that makes it impossible for them to assess risks. Second, when the crisis hits, there is a sudden loss of trust, among investors, governments, institutions or all three. If you want to understand financial crises, then, it pays to remember that the roots of the word “credit” comes from the Latin “credere”, meaning “to believe”: finance does not work without faith. The irony, though, is that too much trust creates bubbles that (almost) inevitably burst.

My hypothesis is that offshore energy has suffered both from the bursting of a credit bubble (that saw for example its largest specialist lender DVB Bank go effectively bankrupt), as well as a structural change in the demand for offshore oil brought on by shale. The interrelationship between these two events is at the core of my thinking.

But the above paragraph is clearly a good summation of the 2000-2014 offshore boom. As in a banking crisis offshore asset owners had high embedded leverage on long term financing contracts funded with a series of smaller and shorter duration contracts with E&P companies. The asset owners, like banks, were committed to a long-term collection of highly illiquid assets that relied on a buoyant short-term contracting market. Like all booms there was clearly “hubris, greed, and opacity”.

When this delicate balance changed the enitre funding model of the industry was called into question and the lack of rebound on the demand side has led to severe overcapacity issues that – understandably – have left stakeholders reluctant to address. This quote also seems apt:

But shattered trust is hard to restore — particularly when governments or bankers try to sweep problems under the carpet, say with creative accounting tricks. “You can put rotten meat in the freezer to stop it smelling — but its still rotten,” one Japanese official joked to me as he watched American attempts to reassure the markets, turning to some of the same tricks the Tokyo government had once tried — and failed — to use a decade before.

“Preparing for the recovery”… Whatever…

The IEA has recently published it’s new World Energy Review and if you have been reading this blog this comment will come as no surprise:

One notable trend concerns the relationship between oil prices and upstream costs. In the past, there has been a roughly linear relationship between upstream costs and oil prices. When price spiked, so did costs, and vice versa. What we are noting now is a decoupling. While prices have more than doubled since 2016, global upstream costs have remained substantially flat and for 2018 we estimate those increasing very modestly, by just 3%. Companies appear to have learned to do more with less.

Too many business models in the offshore supply chain are simply ignoring this. If you are going long on Borr Drilling shares (for example), as anything other than a momentum trade, then you need to look at data driven forecasts like this, which in statistical terms are called a structural break. Look at the cost deflator in the graph above! In an industry with high fixed costs (both original and operating) that is a straight financial gain for E&P companies and with the volatility in the oil prices they will not give that up easily… and in a world of oversupply they won’t have to.

The future will be different. Some vast market snapback where the Deamnd Fairy appears, and everyone brave enough to have paid OpEx in the offshore supply chain has found a clever get rich quick scheme, is an extremely unlikely event.

More data points like this should make you think as well:

IEA Source.png

Yes, I get the volume in absolute terms is growing, but it is change at the margin that defines industry profitability.

There is still too much liquidity and too many business plans talking as if a return to 2013/14 is a certainty when in reality such a scenario would be an outlier.

SOCAL, Saudi Arabia, and Bitcoin… If you thought the oil industry had booms…

I meant to note this two days ago but the photo on the top is the signing ceremony on 29 May1933 between SOCALm (Standard Oil Company of California) and Saudi Arabia to manage the Kingdom’s oil concession. Clearly a historic event in the development of the oil industry.

As a contrast… I couldn’t help noticing this story about Bitcoin and it’s energy usage. In Chelan County, renowned for cheap electricity and:

an area famous for apples, wheat and conservative politics [it] has been transformed into a kind of cyber-boomtown, with Bitcoin mining operations that range from large-scale, state-of-the-art warehouses to repurposed cargo containers to backyard sheds. By the end of this year, according to some estimates, the Mid-Columbia Basin could account for as much as 30 percent of the global output of new Bitcoin and large shares of other digital currencies, such as Litecoin and Ethereum.

There is a boom going on:

In a normal year, demand for electric power in Chelan County grows by perhaps 4 megawatts ­­— enough for around 2,250 homes — as new residents arrive and as businesses start or expand. But since January 2017, as Bitcoin enthusiasts bid up the price of the currency, eager miners have requested a staggering 210 megawatts for mines they want to build in Chelan County. That’s nearly as much as the county and its 73,000 residents were already using…

 The scale of some new requests is mind-boggling. Until recently, the largest mines in Chelan County used five megawatts or less. In the past six months, by contrast, miners have requested loads of 50 megawatts and, in several cases, 100 megawatts. By comparison, a fruit warehouse uses around 2.5 megawatts.

However, the acquisition of resources has not gone quite as smoothly:

China electricity.png

I am pretty sure the crypto-miners from China are thinking about crypto-sceptics (like me), from the comfort of their private jet, sure that we are the people who just don’t get it.  In future years maybe someone will dig up a photo of the dam master and the Chinese miner signing a supply agreement… but I have my doubts…

What will a deepwater recovery look like for contractors?

In the five years since the 1996 bill became law, telecommunications companies poured more than $500 billion into laying fiber optic cable, adding new switches, and building wireless networks. So much long-distance capacity was added in North America, for example, that no more than two percent is currently being used. With the fixed costs of these new networks so high and the marginal costs of sending signals over them so low, it is not a surprise that competition has forced prices down to the point where many firms have lost the ability to service their debts. No wonder we have seen so many bankruptcies and layoffs.

Brookings Institute, 2002

McKinsey Energy Inisghts has a good article on how a recovery in the offshore energy might play out. The article makes the point I have made here that large deepwater projects, especially in Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico, are likely to economically attractive going forward but smaller, and shallower projects are in trouble.

First let’s appreciate the scale of the downturn the offshore contracting and supply industry is dealing with:

Global upstream investment has suffered dramatic cuts in the recent low oil price environment. Upstream oil and gas capex was halved from ~$800 billion in 2014 to ~$400 billion in 2016, and global exploration and appraisal spending fell by 40% to $11.2 billion during the same period…

Spending cuts are expected to cause a 50-60% decrease in oil volumes coming online from new projects in the next three to five years, compared to the 2010-14 average. As with brownfield projects, the greenfield pipeline for the next few years has been significantly reduced due to the lack of investment since 2014, especially for shallow water developments. [Emphasis added].

So if you own a shallow water asset, like a DSV for example, this massive drop in demand is proportionately harder. Mckinsey say $654bn will need to be invested in currently unsanctioned projects by 2030, but that doesn’t come close to replacing the level of spending cut. Obviously a greater volume of work is being delivered for a greatly reduced price, which is one of their key points. Having predicted a supply gap in the oil market I also thought this prediction was interesting:

Projects that reached FID before 2014 – including mega-projects such as Lula and Golden Eagle – will cover 60% of the anticipated supply gap in 2020-21…

This is an industry with a long run supply curve. Talk of “inflection points” from some contractors just don’t seem to be backed by data.

Read the whole thing. I have a broader point than simply doing a cut and paste from McKinsey but it is based on this:

As a result of cost compression, deepwater breakeven levels are likely to continue being 20-25% lower than 2014, despite a situation where oil prices increase to $70/bbl in our base case. The wider margin created by lower costs should place deepwater investments firmly at the left side of the global oil cost curve, making these projects viable to close the supply gap.

McKinsey see the cost reductions in the offshore supply chain as permanent and structural. Not all relate to oversupply, but they are all based on spending less time offshore.

Although not as widely reported a bigger investment boom than the Dot Com investment bubble was the telecoms investment bubble that occurred at roughly the same time. The global, but particularly US, industry was overcapitalised as companies laid the “dark fibre” of the future internet. A vast number of firms went bankrupt and were subject to fraud (remember Bernie Ebbers and Worldcom?) before they even “lit” the fibre. It was a speculative mania in an industry that like offshore had very high fixed-costs and very low marginal-costs. But the thing is the telecoms companies made nothing from the boom, shareholders and bondholders were largely wiped out, the same thing happened in the English railway mania of the 1840s, and an earlier canal boom in the 1790s which ended in 1793 (and here). The winners from the telecoms investment boom have been companies like Netflix, Google, and Facebook which have used the networks paid for earlier at well below their true economic cost (and without the coordination issues of splitting the installation costs between themselves), similar arguments can be made for railways and canals. The net private losses were potentially an overall social gain.

So the question really is has the offshore industry just supplied a huge amount of latent capacity that will allow E&P companies to close the supply gap cost effectively while wiping out the equity of those who built the infratsructure behind it? I hope pre-2016 Seadrill shareholders (amongst others) enjoy their quality viewing, direct from the internet, and appreciate the irony.

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.