Capping the price of oil… The Visible Hand of US managerialism…

It is impossible to understand where I am coming from on this blog it without grasping the implications of the graph above (also used here). The graph from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas earlier this year highlights the level at which it is profitable for E&P companies to drill new wells. Clearly this is well below the current oil price. The price signal is strong: drill more wells.

Shale oil production is not resource constrained. There is no shortage of rocks to frac or sand to feed the beast. Pioneer estimate there is in excess of 250 years supply in the Permian basin alone at significantly higher production rates than today. There might be a shortage of rocks to frac at an economically efficient price but that answers a different question. The limiting factor on shale is not resource availability but the technical and organisational constraints associated with its growth. The constraints shale faces in the US are organisational: raising capital, training people, building pipelines and new rigs, all the challenges of maximising a known process. Over time no economy in the world is more adept at solving these challenges than the US economy. Chandler called it The Visible Hand and he was right.

This is a massive change from the recent era of offshore domination. Shale is a mass production process where unit costs are constantly being driven down. Offshore was a custom process: each field development was a one-off, each rig and vessel (largely) were one-off’s, each tender was a one-off. The whole chain was geared to custom solutions and while it was efficient at high volumes it is not a deflationary process. The Brazilian pre-salt finds while enormous in size led to a cost explosion throughout the industry and not one it has fully recovered from. The Harsh Environment UDW rigs while significantly more capable than jack-ups did not reduce per barrel costs they just helped us access a scarce resource that we didn’t think we could get from anywhere else. We were happy to pay the price.

It is a very different world now. It is all well and good for the $FT to claim “Shell hails bounceback towards deepwater drilling” but the story carries a more modest message:

“Deepwater can compete if not demonstrate higher returns because of fundamental cost reduction,” he said. “Break-even prices in deepwater — we are now talking $30 per barrel.”…

“It’s great to have both in the portfolio and we are growing our shales business . . . but in terms of sheer cash flow delivery our deepwater has significantly more cash flow potential,” said Mr Brown.

We are into deepwater at $30 a barrel Shell are saying, but we like the competitive tension of shale and we will keep our options open. The upside is in other words capped.

I think the price of oil is therefore capped in the long-run, and I stress that because an industry run with minimal stocks and a highly interconnected supply chain is always going to have short-run volatility, at the rate at which the US shale industry can organise and finance itself and supply marginal production. Eventually the oil price will be capped at what these producers can profitably supply to the market because over time they will continue to grow production significantly. This is an industry with very low barriers to entry and a wealth of subcontractors who can supply kit, and while the offshore rig count has had a fairly minimal improvement globally over the last year there is an almost .9 correlation to the oil price and the US land rig count:

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There is a good article here as well about how in the long-run refineries can process various types of sweet/sour and light/heavy. Again there will be a short-run transition for some refineries who cannot handle light sweet crude but the processes are known and it is simply a cost-optmisation exercise between cheaper light-sweet crude versus more expensive heavy-Brent (for example).

This is clearly a long transition but it strikes me as an inevitable one. US shale production will over time increase as the capital intensity and investment deepens. The huge capital and organisational requirements this will entail ensures this is not an overnight process, but it is a continuous process and one where the inertia now seems unstoppable. This is why I strongly believe that the offshore industry demand curve has lost its correlation with the oil price and a far more complex demand line needs to be plotted for companies.

Offshore’s golden age post 2000 simply didn’t have this competitive supply source, and certainly not one with a major deflationary bias, to compete with. Every strong recovery in global demand led to a straight linear investment in offshore as the only marginal source of supply… ‘there is no easy oil’ people used to say as cost inflation took hold of the offshore industry. But now there is and not only that it appears to be getting cheaper to access it as well.

Shale doesn’t have a cash flow issue …and the limits of expansion…

Yesterday the $WSJ had this article on the economics and cash flows of the shale industry. The overall point is logical that if cost increases continue the cost of capital may go up for shale producers and point to it reaching the economic limits of its expansion. I agree with the general thrust of the article in that if the industry isn’t as profitable as forecast the cost of capital will increase, but this comment is being taken out of context by some:

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Of course they didn’t… they are investing for even higher production next year… the comment “within their means” is pejorative and not a reflection of economic reality. That is a sign of confidence from the firms and their financial backers that their output can be sold at a profitable price. The price signal from both the oil and the capital markets is strong.

I also received a comment yesterday with a link to this comment. I don’t think this is a big deal to anyone with a basic understanding of finance because they get this… but then again I have lost count of the number of people who repeat back to me that no one makes money from shale.

I wonder if this isn’t becoming part of the great “Gotcha” narrative that aims to prove that shale isn’t a viable production methodology? Like the CEO of Shell is going to wake up next Tuesday and say “after reading the article in the WSJ we are going to stop investing in shale. Thank goodness I read that or I would never have realised we will never make money from it!” As if those investing literally tens of billions had no idea of the cash flow profile of their assets?

The overall article is interesting only in that it points to what appears to be the current “productive efficiency” of shale, not its demise. The point of the article isn’t that you can’t make money from shale it is that at the margin now it is becoming less profitable and that may affect the pricing of capital. Bear in mind before you read the rest of this post the scale of the increase in absolute oil production shown in the graph above and the amount of capital required to finance this.

For those not versed in accounting cash flow negative might seem like a big deal but it’s not. A casflow statement is made up of Cash From Operations [CFO] (+/-) Cash flows from investing [CFI](+/-) Cash flows from financing [CFF]. It balances with the cash at bank at the start of the period and at the end. Free Cash Flow to the firm is simply the sum of the first two… You would expect the number to be negative in a capital-intensive industry, like shale oil extraction, when you are seeking to grow output volumes significantly, particularly when a number of firms are new entrants into the industry and not financing from retained earnings. You are spending capital to get future revenue and you need to borrow or raise equity to do this. Collectively as all the firms in the industry deepen the capital base for ever higher production they are using more cash than they are generating currently. (I am aware that there are a number of definitions of Free Cash Flow but this appears to be the Factset one and the generally accepted one of FCFF).

If you buy an offshore drilling rig for $1bn and get 100m in operating cash flow for year 1 then your (highly simplified and representative) cash flow statement reads: CFO +100m: CFI -$1bn. That is your “Free Cash Flow” [FCF] is -$900m. It is balanced (all going well) by CFF +900. You own an oil rig that lasts for 20 years but in year 1 you were down $900m in FCF. You can buy as many rigs as you want and be FCF negative (like Seadrill) for as long as you can keep CFF >= CFO+ CFI  i.e. you have access to debt or equity markets. That is all that is happening in shale collectively.

If these were operating cash flow negative then there would be a massive issue. But as this research from the Dallas Federal Reserve (March 2018) makes clear there is no problem with operating cash:

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Or indeed with profitably drilling wells at the current oil price (i.e. including financing):

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For as long as investors believe that in the future the oil price attainable by these E&P companies is sufficient to return capital, and funding markets remain open, then spending more on Operating Income + CapEx combined is no problem. There is rollover risk in the debt but that is a seperate risk and appears to be pretty minimal at the moment.

Pioneer is an embodiment of this: in the first six months of 2018 it generated ~$1.5bn from operations (i.e. selling oil and gas) [CFO], spent ~$1bn on investments (actually nearly $2bn but it sold some stuff as well) [CFI], and then paid back debt of $450m and purchased ~$50m of shares. But some smaller companies who have come in recently will have spent far more on CapEx than they will earn in CFO.

When I have talked about the ‘virtuous cycle’ of capital deepening in prior posts this is part of that network effect of decreasing risks and increasing returns for all involved in the ecosystem. E.g. if Trafigura build an export facility for 2m b/per day it lowers the risk for every E&P company (and their financiers) that they can sell more oil profitably. So more investment comes into the sector in an ever-expanding circle, lower costs, replacing labour with capital. That is what appears to be happening here. The limits of this process are there and are hinted at in the WSJ:

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Permian production will be up 19-24% according to Pioneer so it’s not all bad. Costs are increasing as the Permian reaches the constraints of labour and capital as has been well documented. Some of these will disappear with new pipelines and other capital deepening, e.g. a replacement of capital over labour as excess surplus is currently trucked or railed out, but some will continue given the huge increase in absolute production volumes. It is no surprise that with such a huge percentage increase in production that at the margin each incremental barrel becomes more expensive in the short-run, but then the capital deepening effect will kick in and the long-run cost curve will decline, as always in mass-production, and then the unit costs drop again… ad infinitum

Pioneer are saying with that statement is that their marginal output on capital is declining slightly this year as cost increases have not kept pace with productivity improvements. That isn’t surprising because the sheer volume of output increased has consistently surprised on the upside. If the project costs increase 10% and this isn’t covered with higher prices and/or productivity improvements then investors will change their price of capital to reflect diminished expectations.

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But this production capacity isn’t going away. The rigs have been built. The pipelines have been, or are being, built; the same goes for export terminals etc. The capital base of the industry has increased massively and is facing some teething problems. But in a little 4 over years the US tight oil industry has driven US production up to over 11m b/ per day in 2018, over 6m b/ per day of that from shale up from ~4m b/ per day in 2017.

What should really worry those in the offshore community is that this is an industry that increased production 50% in a calendar year before hitting the limits of economic growth, and it did this while increasing productivity and lowering unit costs. Someone isn’t waking up next Tuesday and realising it has all been a massive mistake and turning the tap of funding or production off. The US shale industry is a deep and entrenched part of the energy mix now. Current forecasts might be out by a few hundred thousand barrels a day but they are not going to be out by millions. This production is real and permanent with profound implications.

The core logic of the WSJ article is surely right: A rise in the costs of shale relative to output signals the limit of the economic efficiency and therefore the diminishing returns to capital may make it more expensive for shale E&P firms to fund new projects. Shale and offshore compete for E&P company CapEx and if the cost of funding shale projects rises (on a productivity measured basis) that should increase relative demand for offshore as a substitute. But the Free Cash Flow from an offshore project is massively negative in the short-run and over time has higher yields, whereas the reduced CapEx commitment, despite its lower margin, is one of the chief attractions of shale. Cash for investment is not the issue.

I think it sits uncomfortably with forecasters who claim that day rates for jack-ups will double within two years, or other such notions, and it does not seem to be incorporated in the strategic planning assumptions of a large number of offshore companies or investors where the logical outcomes of such data sit uncomfortably. The offshore industry built a fleet to handle 2013 demand when shale was producing ~2.5m barrels a day, it is now producing 6m and is growing faster than the overall oil market growth and forecast to do so until 2021 at least.

Hard strategic questions arise for the offshore industry: how do we compete in an industry which faces potentially declining market share for our underlying product at the margin? How do we compete in an industry when a competitor with a different business model has taken 10% of global market share in the space of 5 years and we buy 25 year assets funded on short-term contracts? What level of asset base shrinkage does the offshore industry require to be competitive? How many firms will have to liquidate given this necessary shrinkage? What will the surviving firms look like? How much can they realistically expect to make? What are our assets worth?

There are a lot more questions based around this logic. But if you are simply expecting a day-rate increase and a demand side boom based on shale magically running out of cash at some future point I think you are going to be very disappointed.

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…

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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.

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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):

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And Bakken production is at a record:

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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:

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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.

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Permian export capacity, marginal investment, and disintermediation…

“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?”
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Big news on capital investment in Permian takeout capacity today:  Trafigura Group and Enterprise Product Partners are independently looking to build significant VLCC  export terminals in Houston. The two combined terminals would allow for 2.4m barrels of crude a day to flow out of Houston ports: given that global liquids production is ~100m barrels a day these two terminals allow for around 2.4% of global production to be reallocated through one location.

Permian pipeline capacity is growing by 2m barrels in the next two years. If you were wondering where that oil was going this is one large trading house and one infrastructure provider making their respective moves. This is just a further example of the continued capital deepening in the region that will only further enhance and encourage greater investment in shale-based production.

One cannot help but note the contrast between the Trafigura business model and that of an offshore energy company. Trafigura is providing infrastructure and distribution capability to a whole host of smaller E&P companies that will concentrate on production and require CapEx only to hook-up to a pipeline (or less commonly a rail) network. Trafigura gets (at least) an infrastructure style return on the export facility and full exposure to the commodity price and volume as a trading house (which is what they want). But what it doesn’t have to do is develop a major E&P presence in the basin : in economics/ management speak they have disintermediated the E&P supply chain. It might sound like a dot-com era buzzword but it’s real.

Trafigura has the perfect supplier base of small companies, who wish to sell 100% of output at the marginal (i.e. spot market) price, and are constantly seeking innovative ways to extract that product at the lowest possible cost. In an industry where a host of smaller companies supply rigs and crews to drill wells the expensive coordination costs of this are being farmed out to the smaller companies. Very low barriers to entry, literally $10m per well and full rig crews for only a deposit, will ensure that greater offtake capacity keeps margins capped (at the level required to induce new firms) while Trafigura controls returns that require capital and market power. It is the sort of market and business that locks in structurally higher profits for the infrastructure and distribution arm while pushing CapEx back to E&P companies and their supply chain. If oil prices slump and some of the production companies go bankrupt then their assets will simply attract new buyers at a level that reflects the marginal cost of production and they will still need export and distribution facilities.

This for offshore is where competition for marginal investment dollars resides. A core of finance theory is that returns are linked to risk. You might well be able to get a lower per barrel cost from an offshore field but you have to risk your capital for a significantly longer period of time in an era of very volatile oil prices. Not only that but most offshore developments require that you invest in subsea processing equipment and offtake capability to get to a shared pipeline or increasingly to a FPSO for larger developments. Finance theory also teaches you that all projects that are NPV positive should be funded but the institutional mechanics of raising capital, and the impact of market sentiment on sector investments, mean that isn’t always the case (although really you could just argue that the finance providers have a different view of the risk involved).

Regardless, as the graph at the top of this article shows capital expenditure to offshore projects has declined ~29%!! as a proportion of the total allocation since 2016 (from 41% to 29%) while capital to onshore conventional and shale has grown (IEA) . This is well below the 2000-2010 average and if continued is a large structural industry change. Competition for capital and marginal production is driving this change and there is real competition. There is no ‘inflection point’ for offshore demand, or ‘recovery to prepare for’, without a marked change in this trend. Offshore is losing the battle for capital at the margin and remains competitive only by supplying assets below their economic cost.

Since the downturn in 2014 the holy grail of subsea investment has been to try and find investors willing to buy and lease the infrastructure as opposed to taking E&P risk. The problems with such an idea are legion: the kit is very site and customer specific, has limited residual value, and may struggle to get seniority over the reserves below in the event of a default driven by low oil prices. It is in short very difficult to create something that isn’t simply quasi- equity in the field and surely should be priced at the same level? The ability to genuinely split exploration and production risk from distribution risk, the hallmark of the US midstream system, offers a financing and business model innovation that makes it easier to allow large sums of capital to be raised and further deepen the capital base for production in the region. Finance matters in innovation.

As I keep saying this isn’t the end of offshore but it heralds a new kind of offshore surely? Large deepwater developments allow fully integrated E&P majors to take signficant development complexity, capital, timing, and offtake risk. These companies talk of ‘advantaged oil’ and they have it in these developments. Trading houses with export capability and infrastructure have advantaged oil in their network of production companies who aim to sell 100% of output at the margin, none of whom are large enough to impact the price they pay for the product, but mid sized offshore companies strike me as under real threat and limited in size to the proportion of oil shale/tight oil can supply.

Mid-sized offshore companies do not have the portfolio advantages that large oil companies do. Every development represents a significant fraction of their investment plans and there is a limit to the technical complexity and capital required of projects they can undertake. Previously their ‘advantaged oil’ was access to a resource basin that was needed but did not move the production needle for larger companies. As riskier investments they raised capital on smaller markets (AIM, Oslo OTC, TSX) and used reserves-based financing and bonds along with farmout agreements. But this took time and the higher leverage levels make this risky. The cost of equity, when available, is much higher than in the past because the expectation is that the price of oil will be more volatile. And now the returns are capped by the marginal cost and volumes at which shale companies can supply, which is a new and significant risk factor, particularly in an investment with a multi-year gestation period.

Yet these small-mid sized offshore E&P companies represented the demand at the margin for offshore assets. Large complex drilling campaigns and projects for tier 1 E&P companies always attracted good bids and a relatively efficient price from contractors, but smaller regional projects did not. The margins were higher and the risks greater. On the IRM side these companies negotiated harder on the price but they still had a volume of work that needed to be undertaken. It is these companies, their inability to get finance because of their complete lack of advantaged oil, that are also ensuring now that CapEx (and therefore demand) is not recovering as in previous cycles. These E&P companies are price taking firms with signficant operational leverage/fixed commitments and limited financial or operational flexibility in the short-term. Currently they rely on developments being profitable via the supply chain providing assets below their economic cost. That is not a great strategic position to be in. When there was no competition for your product the story was completely different, but the shale revolution is real.

This chart shows you that demand growth for crude slowed 1% year-on-year for two months and the market became oversupplied (hence the drop in the price of oil recently):

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Investors in oil closely watch volatility indicators like this and as I have said before the logical investment strategy is to invest more secure lower margin companies.

The three major risks to supply listed hy Woodmac at the moment are Venezuela, Libya, and Iran. These are geopolitical risks that could easily end in the short-run. Iran is self-induced and the situation in Venzuela so unsustainable (the real question isn’t why someone tried to assasinate Maduro but why everyone else isn’t?) that it surely cannot last? In prior eras the solution was to build long lasting production capacity in politically stable places. Now surely the solution is to use temporary production capacity where possible and let the price signal take some of the strain?

I think it is axiomatic that offshore cannot boom without a recovery in offshore CapEx spending. At the margin offshore has ceded significant market share in this competition to shale. Major structural change will be needed in the industry before the situation reverses based on current trends.

Weekend shale read… The Red Queen for offshore…

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol

Applied to a business context, the Red Queen can be seen as a contest in which each firm’s performance depends on the firm’s matching or exceeding the actions of rivals. In these contests, performance increases gained by one firm as a result of innovative actions tend to lead to a performance decrease in other firms. The only way rival firms in such competitive races can maintain their performance relative to others is by taking actions of their own. Each firm is forced by the others in an industry to participate in continuous and escalating actions and development that are such that all the firms end up racing as fast as they can just to stand still relative to competitors.

THE RED QUEEN EFFECT: COMPETITIVE ACTIONS AND FIRM PERFORMANCE

Derfus et al., 2008

 

Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.

Paul Gauguin

 

The IEA has done a review of shale companies financing and for those hoping that they represent some sort of ephemeral phenomenon that will pass as soon as the junk bond market closes, well rates decline, or some other exogenous event arises, they are likely to be disappointed. It’s a short read and well worth the effort. I called shale an industrial revolution the other day and the IEA post is a good short precis on how this came about in financial stages.

SPE also has had some good articles recently on the constant productivity the shale industry is using to drive down costs. This one on Equinor for example:

One of the drawbacks of the status quo is that it requires small armies of field personnel to interpret SCADA data and then adjust set-points to get pumping units back into optimal operating ranges. This manual process can consume half-an-hour per well to complete; downtime that quickly adds up in a field of hundreds.

“What we are talking about is having the machine do that entire workflow,” Chris Robart, Ambyint’s president of US operations said…

The Bakken project comes after a pilot that included 50 of Equinor’s wells, which saw a net production increase of 6%—considerably larger uplift figures were seen from those wells suffering from under-pumping.

Or this one dealing with Parent/ Child wells, which a few months ago seemed to be the latest reason to explain why shale wasn’t a sustainable form of energy, but the industry has solved part of this problem through “cube development”:

But the prize for coining the term cube development goes to Encana Corporation, which says the strategy has increased early well productivity in one of its Permian fields by 70% over the past 2 years. Despite the term’s growing popularity within engineering circles, some companies continue to use different terms such as QEP’s “tank-style completions” for what is seen as the same general practice.

I don’t understand the technology but I have faith that day-in day-out new techniques are being developed that will drive down the costs of extraction and production in the shale industry. You need to be a technical pessimist, which in this age is hard, to believe this productivity direction cannot continue (see Citi here).

Over time the offshore industry will change to compete with shale. The economic force of competition will ensure this. But in order to compete it will need to reduce the cost and time of being offshore dramatically and focuson on high-flow low lift cost projects. Something well underway in the Gulf of Mexico at the moment.

There are huge moves in offshore to improve productivity: all righty focused on spending lowering cost and reducing time to first oil. Some, but by no means all, contractors focused on engineering are starting to see improved profitability. But the sunk investments made in offshore vessels, jack-ups, and rigs have largely had their equity wiped out in the last few years and this is enabling the offshore industry to compete on price and risk in terms of capital allocation from E&P companies. For as long as that is it’s only, or major, competitive advantage all that beckons is an industry that slowly runs down its capital base until project cost inflation can rise. Something that becomes ever more distant the more competitive shale becomes. I realise it’s a bleak prognosis but there isn’t much else on offer.

Relentless shale …

However, there is one area I want to highlight today and that is our progress on capital efficiency. You will recall in 2016, we outlined organic capital expenditure guidance of $13-14 billion per year out to 2021. In February of this year we said 2018 would be $12-13 billion. Today, I feel confident we will be at the lower end of that range.

This progress has created the space for us to invest in this opportunity in the Lower 48, while continuing to hold our organic capital spend at $13-14 billion per year. This is a story of improving capital productivity.

Bernard Looney, CEO Upstream, BP

It was a big week in the shale world last week with BHP selling their shale assets to BP. BP has stated it will divest itself of $5-6bn of assets to help fund this move. What will be really interesting is where the divestments will take place? I expect a further sell off of offshore assets as the overall BP portfolio is weighted further to these sorts of high productivity potential assets. BP made the following comment that they had:

[i]ncreas[ed] offshore top quartile wells from around one-third in 2013 to almost two-thirds this year.

Expect ones outside that category to be classed as “non advantaged” and be up for sale.

The same week the IEA published the graph above showing that for the first time Free Cash Flow from shale will be positive for the first time (see graph above). I never got that worried about this metric because US capital markets have a history of funding loss making companies with high capital needs (Uber being an extreme example) provided there is some sort of rationale and pathway to profitability. But this will only help the “shale narrative” attract further funding.

It is hard to overstate the macro effects of the seismic change in the oil industry but also the world economy, the IMF recently calculated that the shale revolution cut the US current account deficit by 1.4% and on a price weighted basis by 1.75%:

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The shale revolution isn’t just higher prices for the end product: it is a real story of increasing productivity. There is an outstanding story about this on Reuters (appropriately tagged under “Technology” read the whole thing):

Today, BP operates more than 1,000 shale wells that produce mostly natural gas in the Haynesville basin, which straddles eastern Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.

It has used the data from its automated wells to create a streamlined system that farms out maintenance to a fleet of lower-cost contractors. The firm now orders up repairs much in the same way a homeowner uses a mobile app to hire a maintenance person or a passenger summons an Uber for a ride.

BP puts repair work out for bid to pre-approved contractors, who then compete for jobs. Each contractor is rated after completing the work, and those with high rankings have a better chance of getting hired again.

Welcome to the future of offshore. This focus on process, a hallmark of mass production, has translated into dramatically lower costs:

BP Productivity lower 48.png

This is a genuine productivity improvement and not the result of someone selling a rig or vessel below its true economic cost. At some point the offshore industry is going to have to accept the scale of this industry on its ability to price at the margin and get the utilisation required to make a large number of assets operative.

The shale industry at the moment is one of ever increasing process of capital deepening. This productivity improvement is happening at a time when the rig companies are reporting record rates and utilisation for Super Spec land rigs and associated services. The shale supply chain are managing to increase CapEx and get price inflation while helping their customers lower costs and increase productivity. Yes, there are constraints for take-out in the Permian at the moment, but they will clear in 12-18 months, well before a major offshore project can be completed and a timeframe with enough visibility to make Boards think twice before sanctioning a raft of mega projects.

As these new investments bear fruit, and the capital base has deepened, you can expect to see unit costs lowered even more, particularly where capital replaced labour (i.e. pipeline distribution versus trucking). This is a virtuous cycle. If you don’t think this can happen in commodity industries over the long run look at food production and prices which have followed a similar process of capital deepening and productivity despite demand increasing massively:

IMG_0708.JPG

(I am not predicting the end of cyclicality in oil prices merely highlighting that it is not a given that they must increase, particularly in the short-run).

I think this points to the fact that a “recovery” in offshore will be a far more muted and affair than in previous cycles. If anything oil companies are smart enough to realise that competiton is the most time tested method of ensuring competitive prices and the competition for capital allocation between onshore and offshore works to their advantage. It is very hard to see price inflation creep into the supply chain when overcapacity exists in offshore and productivity improvements so achievable in onshore.

The wrong side of history…

“Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.” …

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

 

On the IHS Markit projection, by 2023 the Permian is likely to be producing an additional 3m b/d of oil, along with an extra 15 bcf of gas. For the US economy this news is positive. America will have a secure source of supply that, through its production, distribution and consumption, will generate significant economic activity across the country.

The volumes involved will further reduce the unit of production, probably to below $25 a barrel. The study estimates the total investment needed to deliver the new supplies will be some $300bn. For the global oil market the effect will be dramatic. The US will become a significant exporter. The IHS Markit paper suggests that by 2023 the country will be exporting around 4m barrels a day. That will absorb much of the expected growth in demand. [Emphasis added].

Nick Butler, Financial Times, June 25, 2018

 

For one thing, customers have an unfortunate habit of asking about the financial future. Now, if you do someone the single honor of asking him a difficult question, you may be assured that you will get a detailed answer. Rarely will it be the most difficult of all answers – “I don’t know.”

Where are the Customers’ Yachts? 

Fred Schwed

In case you missed it another major pipeline looks certain to go ahead in the Permian by 2020 (in addition of course to the Exxon Mobil 1m b/d). If the 30″ version is selected then 675k barrels a day will be added in export capacity to the port at Corpus Christi, where a major upgrade is also taking place that will allow significantly larger tankers into the region:

Oil export capacity from the Corpus Christi area is expected to rise to 3.3 million bpd by 2021 from 1.3 million bpd this year, keeping its rank as the top oil export port, according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.

In fact if you believe Pioneer Natural Resources (on S&P Platts) then Permian pipeline capacity will double by 2020 (to 3.5m b/d) and the US production will reach 15m b/d by 2028. The graphic at the top of the page highlights that top Permian wells are profitable at $22 per barrel. There is a good point on the interview where the CEO of Pioneer points out in 2015 the dominant narrative was shale would go bankrupt and in fact there has been a rebound.

This continuous process of capital deepening, infratsructure upgrades, and productivity improvements has driven the recovery of the US shale industry and has devastated the offshore industry. There is a link: it is not all inventory and reserve rundown. Offshore used to have to run at very high utilisation in order to work and without it the economic model is broken. No other economy in the world excels at this kind of constant, small-scale, mass production improvement like the American economy. Once a product can be mass produced at scale the ability of the US economy to drive down per unit production costs is unmatched.

At the moment there is a boom in the Permian and Eagle Ford basins: wages are high and there are delays and bottlenecks (I read a story last week of a power company demanding 40k to put in one power pole) but this capital deepening will alleviate some of these issues in the short-term. Trucks will be replaced with pipelines etc, a new generation of high spec rigs in the  offing. Deliver, review, improve. Always with a focus on productivity and efficiency. Shale is a process of horsepower and capital and those are two attributes the US economy is preternaturally endowed with. Each incremental pipeline becomes less important in a relative sense so the investment bar is lower. Slowly but surely unit costs get lower every year. It is a relentless and predictable process.

That is the competition for offshore for capital at the margin: an industry improving its efficiency and cost curve with every month that passes. And the solutions to constraint problems in the Permian are on a timescale measured in months while investments in offshore take years to realise.  Offshore offers huge advatages over shale in terms of high volume flow rates and low per barrel lift costs but it is a long term CapEx high industry and not suited to production of marginal volumes. There is every likelihood it is used as a baseload output in years to come while shale supplies marginal demand. This is a massive secular change for offshore and will fundamentally alter the demand curve to a lower level. The clear evidence of this seems to be causing a degree of cognitive dissonance in the offshore industry where any other outcome that a return to the past is discounted.

To just focus the mind: if offshore were to improve productivty by 3% per annum for three years- which is considerably slower than the productivity improvement in shale – day rates for offshore assets in 3 years would need to be at c.92% of current levels per unit of output (i.e. a 8% reduction [1/1.03^3]). Not all of this is going to be possible in offshore execution terms given the aset base, some of this will come from equipment suppliers who are manufacturers and subject to scale economies reducing costs, but this is the challenge for offshore bounded by Bamoul constraints. There are limits to the volumes that can be produced by shale but they have constantly exceeded market expectations and they have eaten a meaningful share of global oil output and this will not change only increase.

As the graphic below shows this is a supply side revolution as demand for the underlying commodity has increased consistently since 2006:

Global Oil Demand 2006 to 2018F

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So the only possible explanation for the continuing drop in the utilisation of offshore assets is that the demand has fallen for their use relative to the global demand for the underlying commodity they help produce.  I accept that may look tautological but we just need to clear that point out early.

I have been on before about how I don’t think a quick recovery is likely for the offshore market for those long on offshore delivery assets only (the tier one SURF contractors are different as their returns are driven by engineering as well as asset leverage). I can’t see how an industry like the shale can develop in parallel with a “snap back” in offshore, particularly when the larger E&P companies have been consistent and vocal about limiting CapEx.

The reason jack-up companies are like offshore supply companies, and not SURF contractors, is that they take no project risk. An oil company doesn’t handover well risk to a drilling contractor (as Macondo showed). Shallow water drilling contractors are the AHTS and PSV of drilling: you get a day rate and that is the only value we expect you to provide. It is an asset return and utilisation gig completely different from SURF contracting. And yet against this background there is a bubble developing in the jack-up market seemingly unsupported by any fundamental demand side recovery. I am not alone here: McKinsey forecast jack-up demand to rise 2% per annum to 2030 (about a 10% growth in market size over the next five years).

Bassoe on the other hand are forecasting that day rates will double in the jack-up market in five years, which equates to a 15% compound average growth rate.  I realise this narrative is one everyone wants to hear, you can almost hear the sighs of relief in New York and London as the hedge funds say “finally someone has found a way to make money in offshore and profit from the downturn”. And as the bankers stuff their best hedge fund clients full of these jack-up companies stock this is the meme they need as well. At least in this day and age the investors have better yachts than the bankers.

Yet the entire jack-up market thesis seems to rest on the accepted market narrative of scrapping and therefore higher utilisation. As Bassoe state:

If 85% jackup utilization seems relatively certain, then a doubling of dayrates is too.

Certain is a strong word about the future… As if the entire E&P supply chain will benignly accept day rates increasing 15% Y-O-Y from every single market participant without worrying about it…

Ensco is a good place to look because it also considers itself a leader in premium jack-ups. Ensco has exactly the same business model as Borr and Shelf (indeed it is focusing on exactly the same market segment in jack-ups): raise a ton of money, go long on premium assets and wait for the market to recover… Ensco’s recently filed 10K shows how well this jack-up recovery is going:

Ensco q1 2018.png

Oh hold on it doesn’t show that at all! Instead it shows the jack-up business revenue declined 17% Q1 18 versus Q1 17. Awkward… So like everyone else here is the crunch of the “market must come back” narrative: Scrapping.

Ensco jackup fleet forecast.png

The problem with this argument is the scale of the scrapping required in the red bars (not to mention the assumptions on China). If that slows and/or the market growth doesn’t quite come then the obvious downside is that there are too many jack-ups for the amount of work around. Somewhere between 2% and 15% compound per annum leaves a lot of room for error.

When your revenue figures drop 17% on the previous year management in most normal companies, but especially those with a very high fixed cost base and a disposable inventory base (i.e. days for sale), tells the sales reps to cut the price and win market share. And that is exactly what will happen here. In fact far more accurate than forecasting the market is an iron law of economics that in an industry with excess capacity and high fixed costs firms will compete on price for market share. Investors going long on jack-ups are making a very complicated bet that the market growth will outpace scrapping in a way it hasn’t done in the past despite E&P companies being under huge pressure to keep per unit production costs low.

On the point of the age of the jack-up fleet: this is clearly valid to a degree. But as anyone who has negotiated with an NOC in places in South East Asia and Africa can tell you all this talk of new and safe over price is Hocus Pocus. Otherwise in the greatest down market around none of these units would be working or getting new work and that clearly isn’t the case.

In fact in many manufacturing businesses old machines, fully depreciated and therefore providing only positive cash flow to the P&L, are highly prized if they are reliable. There is no evidence that this will not happen in offshore and plenty of counter-examples showing that oil companies will take cheaper older assets. The best example is Standard Drilling: bringing 15 year old PSVs back to the North Sea that were originally DPI, and getting decent summer utilisation (day rates are another issue but for obvious reasons). Eventually as the munificence of an industry declines the bean-counters overpower the engineers and this is what I believe will happen here, there is plenty of evidence of it happening in offshore at the moment. Every single contracts manager in offshore has had a ridiculous conversation with an E&P company along the lines of: “we want a brand new DP III DSV, 120m x 23, 200t crane, SPS compliant, and build year no later than 2014 and it’s a global standard… and we want to pay 30k a day”… and then they go for the 30k a day option which is nothing like the tender spec.

The reason is this: North Sea E&P companies are competing against shale for scarce capital resources and they need to drive costs out of the supply chain constantly. Offshore has dropped its costs in a large part because the equity in many assets and companies has been wiped out, that is not sustainable, but what is really unlikely to happen here is a whole pile of asset managers wake up simultaneously at E&P companies over the next three years and tell people to wholesale scrap units knowing it will increase their per barrel recovery costs while watching shale producers test new productivity levels.

There may well be a gradual process on a unit-by-unit basis, a cost benefit analysis as the result of some pre-survey work or a reports from a offshore crew that the unit isn’t safe, but not suddenly 30 or 40 units a year, and if does happen too quickly and prices rise then the E&P companies will revert to older units to cap costs. Fleet replacement will be a gradual process and some operators will be so keen to save money that they will let some older units be upgraded because it will have a lower long term day rate than a newer unit because they get that to continue to have capital allocated they need to drive their costs down.

The investment bubble in jack-ups is centred on Borr Drilling and Shelf Drilling. These companies have no ability or intention to pay dividends for the next few years. Credit to them: raising that sort of money is not easy and if the market is open you should take the money. Their strategy, in an industry that patently needs less capital to help rebalance, is to add more and wait for a recovery. Place everything on 18 red at the casino. Wait for higher prices and utilisation than everyone else despite doing exactly the same thing (just better). And that’s fine it’s private money, and it might work. But economic theory I would argue suggests it is extremely unlikely, and it will be a statistical outlier if it does. Five years ago the US shale industry was producing minimal amounts and the dominant thought was they required $100 oil to work so think how different the world will be by the time these companies have any hope of returning cash to investors?

Forecasts are hardly ever right, not for lack of effort but the inability to take into account the sheer number of random variables, the epsilon, in any social process. Forecasts that a segment of the offshore market will double given the headwinds raging against it should probably be viewed as bold, a starting point for debate rather than a base case for investments. Having picked 9 of the last 0 housing crashes you should also realise that while my arguments will eventually be proven right the timing of them can be wildly inaccurate as well.