Shale watch and American Exceptionalism…

A good article in the FT today (behind a paywall) showing how US shale producers are tapping capital markets as the oil price rises.  This reinforces again the scale of industrial transformation taking place in the US:

Companies in the sector have raised just under $60bn in bond sales so far this year, already a 28 per cent jump from 2016, according to Dealogic. Over the past three weeks, Whiting Petroleum, Continental Resources and Endeavor Energy Resources have each raised $1bn in debt. The bond sales have helped finance increased activity in US shale reserves. The number of rigs drilling the horizontal wells used for shale oil production has more than doubled from its low of 248 in May last year to 652 last week, according to Baker Hughes, the oilfield services group controlled by General Electric.

As the graphic above the title makes clear there is a clearly going to be another year of shale oil output increases in the US. It is a story of capital markets keeping pace, and helping drive, innovation in production. This is now a mass production story and is an economic model at which the US economy excels that economic historians refer to as “American Exceptionalism’ (see here and here if you are interested). American Exceptionalism is based on rich resource endowments and a large domestic market that allow it to produce extraordinary economies of scale. This becomes a virtuous circle, or a “positive feedback loop”, that constantly reduces unit costs and increases output per unit:

Salter Cycle.png

For all those naysayers of shale these charts from the recent Chevron Q3 results make clear that this is no ephemeral phenomena:

Production Efficiency is Increasing:

Chevron Permian Production Q3.png

As are financial returns:

Chevron Permian Returns Q3 2017.png

That is why Chevron, along with BP, Shell, and a host of of E&P companies are increasing their capital allocation to shale. In Chevron’s case 75% of CapEx spend is going on “short-cycle/ brownfield” or the existing commitments to Gorgon/ Wheatsone. Again I emphasise not only the changing nature of the CapEx but the size of the drop from 2014:

Chevron C&E.png

$20bn here and there and pretty soon you are talking real money.

It is clear the US economy can mobilise vast sums of capital to reach companies that are innovating and driving down unit costs.

Offshore is still competitive on a cost basis as this Woodmac graph from Chevron shows:

Woodmac cost base.png

But I have a feeling the shale costs are held as constant in this model without a productivity improvement factored in. A 5% compound productivity improvement over 10 years, not unrealistic in a manufacturing industry and way below current trends, would see a 62% reduction in constant costs. Offshore is simply unable at the moment to offer that sort of productivity increase. Large deepwater fields clearly have the potential to provide a baseload of high-flow, low-lift cost fields, but marginal developments compared to shale look likely to increase in economic difficulty. I know the offshore industry is making a major commitment to standardisation, it needs to, its future without the ability to drop unit costs or raise output per dollar invested will be very hard as only those fields so large as to justify one-off design will be viable against the US (and global) shale industry, or when it runs into volume constraints.

Subsea 7 and Conoco Phillips… industry bellwethers…

[N]othing can have value without being an object of utility.

Karl Marx

[I couldn’t agree more with the philosophy outlined in the Conoco Phillips graphic in the header].

A stark contrast in the fortunes of two companies reporting numbers yesterday and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that an E&P company (Conoco Phillips) is benefitting from a higher oil price while an offshore contractor (Subsea 7) is suffering from lower committed offshore spending. But I think it’s worth delving into a little deeper because the scale of the changes taking place in investment terms I think provide a note of guidance for how the future of the industry will look.

CP makes an excellent E&P company to use as an example. In 2015 CP announced they were giving up deepwater exploration but not deepwater production. All economic change occurs at the margin, the change in preferences of different actors in the economy melding into demand and supply curves which intersect at equilibrium points: in this case the decision to invest in deepwater production, or not, depending on market conditions. CP looks to be a hard task master in this regard: based on the statements and actions they have taken if CP decides to invest in offshore production others will as well.

I start with CP because E&P demand for offshore services is obviously crucial. Firstly, and this is not an original thought, the entire tone of this presentation (Q3 2017) is geared to financial returns to shareholders (you should actually read the whole thing to sense this) at the expense of production growth. Just as Shell, and other E&P companies have done, there is a signalling effect that this is a company that will not turn an oil price rise into a feast of mega-growth projects:

CP Priorities

The whole focus is being able to pay dividends even at a $40 per barrel price, gone are the 2013 days of boasting about reserve replacement ratios in excess of 170%. CP helpfully shows that this focus has helped them outperform their peer group: Executive level pay generally includes a link to performance against a defined peer group, if other E&P managers start losing bonuses by not being as disciplined on returning money to shareholders as CP, and their share price appreciation is less, their strategy will change extremely quickly. But in reality all the big companies reporting now are making “credible commitments” to return any excess cash to shareholders and focus on demand increases through short cycle production. Just as it would take years to turn investment decisions into projects now so much offshore engieering capability has been turned off, so too it will take a long time to change this investment narrative and performance incentive system in E&P companies that drive offshore demand. Any perceived linear link between an increase in the oil price and an increase in offshore demand is wrong in my view.

COP Works.png

Secondly: CapEx: for the 2018-2020 period CP is guiding sustaining CapEx at $3.5bn per annum and $2.0bn for expansion. Of the $2.0bn expansion $1.2bn is short-cycle unconventional and only $0.5bn for conventional/offshore and $0.3bn for exploration (split evenly between conventionals and short-cycle). To put that in context in 2012, when the offshore industry was going long on boats and rigs based on future demand, CP guided 2013 CapEx at USD $15.8bn! Of that 10% alone ($1.6bn) was for the North Sea and Alaska (i.e. offshore), 26% ($4.2bn) was for short-cycle, 15% ($2.4bn) for offshore Angola and GoM, and another 14% ($2.1bn).

Graphically it works like this: To keep production constant CP will spend $3.5bn

2018-2020 Flat Production.png

The green is entirely offshore. But to increase production:

COP Growth Production.png

The green in the second graph is almost all historic commitments. That is the future of offshore in a microcosm for the largest independent E&P company in the world and historically a major investor in deepwater offshore. The point is, for those bored of the minutiae, that CP have knocked ~$9.5bn off theirCapEx (60%) in 5 years (they have also divested assets so its not a straight relative comparison) and that the portion devoted to offshore is really related to legacy investments only now, not new fields or developments.

Third: productivity. I keep saying this but the productivity improvements look real to me the economist, as opposed to some of the geologists I know, who argue shale is bound fail:

CP Shale Productivity.png

The last line: >50% more wells per rig line! It’s all about productivity and scale and large companies investing in R&D are extracting more for less on a continuous basis from their shale wells. This is becoming a self-reinforcing cycle where they invest, improve, and re-invest. As I say here often: Spencer Dale is right.

This is the link point to Subsea 7, and all the other subsea contractors frankly. Subsea 7 have performed better than most other contractors throughout the downturn (not McDermott), but the issue is backlog and the pace of future work delivery: as CP seeks to please the stockmarket by avoiding all but the most promising of offshore investments (if any), SS7 and others must show huge declines in their order backlogs which de-risk a hugely expensive and specific asset base. I have said before I think you almost need to value subsea contracting companies like a bank: they fund long-term assets with a series of shorter duration contracts of uncertain redemption value, yes they have a much higher equity cushion, but they need it as they are borrowing short from a market to fund long term assets. Certainly smaller contractors are susceptible to “runs”.

In the last quarter SS7 had revenue of ~$1bn but it took in orders of only .5 of that (book-to-bill ratio) in new orders which left it with a backlog of $5.3bn (against liabilies of $2.4bn). At Q4 2013, when companies like CP were spending all their CapEx, SS7 had backlog of $11.8bn (against $3.8bn of liabilities).

Now SS7 is a well managed company and as can be seen they have reduced debt as the downturn continued, continued to return chartered tonnage,  and they have over $1.2bn in cash, so there are no problems in the short-term. But if you were owed money by SS7 I would rather be owed a higher amount backed by nearly 3x backlog than owed a smaller amount by 2x (a declining) backlog. The problem is the pace at which all the contracting companies are eating through their backlog of contracted work that was at a significantly higher margin than the work they are bidding for now. The actual booked backlog number is the only certainty guiding real expectations of future profitability.

It is a function of the SS7 business model that they have an extremely long position in very specialist assets that sap meaningful amounts of money from companies if they are not working as the graph from the FMC Technip results makes clear:

Technip margin erosion.png

The single largest fact in Technip’s declining subsea margin is lower fleet utilization. If Technip and SS7 are expecting poor utilization in 2018 then it is locked in for the rest of the supply chain.

The fact is the huge offshore CapEx pull back and reallocation by the E&P companies is continuing unabated. Offshore allocations may not be declining in real terms any more but E&P companies are making clear to their shareholders that it isn’t going to materially increase either. The offshore fleet built for 2014 isn’t getting a reprieve from the Oil Price Fairy, the gift from that fairytale should it come true for the E&P companies will be given to shareholders, who after the volatility they have suffered in recent years feel they are owed higher risk weighted returns. E&P companies are locking in systems and processes that ensure their procurement in the supply chain will systematically lower their per unit production costs for years to come and ensuring that other asset owners get lower returns for their investments is a core part of that.

And it’s not only backlog the SURF business now is declining year-on-year of you look at the Q3 2017 SS7 results:

Q3 2017 BU performance.png

~$50m is a meaningful decline in revenue (6.3%) for SURF alone and the decline in i-tech shows that the maintenance market hasn’t come back either. Both CapEx and OpEx work remain under huge margin pressure and in the maintenance market the smaller ROV companies with vessel alliances are all mutually killing any chance of anyone making money until a significant amount of capacity leaves the market. The point of reinforcing this is that it is clear that the E&P companies do not view higher prices the start of a relaxation of cost controls: this is the new environment for offshore contractors.

Subsea maintenance costs involving vessels are time and capital intensive. Internally E&P companies are weighing up whether to invest in maintenance CapEx for offshore assets or new CapEx on short cycle wells. At the margin many like CP are choosing short cycle over offshore and hence the demand curve for offshore is likely to have shifted permanently down and price alone is simply not clearing the market.

I have only used SS7 as they are the purest subsea player in the market. I definitely think it is one of the better managed companies in the industry buut it is impossible to fight industry effects this big when demand is falling, and therefore the size of the market is shrinking, and you have such a high fixed cost base. Not everyone can take market share.

SS7 will be a survivor, and longer term given the technical skills and scale required to compete in this industry I think it likely in the long run they will earn economic profits i.e. profits in excess of their cost of capital, along with the larger SURF contractors excluding Saipem. But they will do this by being brutal with the rest of the supply chain that has gone long on assets and simply doesn’t have the operational capability and balance sheet to dictate similar terms. For everyone below tier one the winter chill is just beginning.

So what does this point to for the future of the industry?

  1. It is a safe bet with all the major E&P companies CapEx locked in for 2018 now and all the OpEx budgets done that demand isn’t going to be materially different from 2017. Slightly higher oil prices may lead to some minor increases in maintenance budgets but nothing that will structurally affect the market
  2. A smaller number of larger offshore projects of disproportionate size and importance fot the larger contractors and industry. Only the largest will have the technical skills and capability to deliver these (hence SS7 ordering a new pipelay vessel). These projects will have higher flow volume and lower lift costs and will be used by E&P majors to underpin base demand
  3. A huge bifurcation in contractor profitability between those capable of delivering projects above and the rest of the industry who will struggle to cover their cost of capital for years
  4. An ROV market that uses surplus vessels and excess equipment equipment that keeps margins at around OpEx for years as vessel owners seek this option for any utilisation
  5. E&P companies consistently seeking to standardise shale production, treat it as a manufacturing process that drives down per unit costs, and increase productivity. Any major offshore CapEx decision will be weighed against the production flexibility of shale
  6. Structurally lower margins in any reocvery cycle for the majority of SURF contractors

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.

“Short-cycle production” could be about to get an economic test…

The dots clearly show that oil prices and oil production are uncorrelated…

Caldara, Dario, Michele Cavallo, and Matteo Iacoviello

Board of Governers of the Federal Reserve System, 2016

The number of US oil rigs went down by 5 last week to 744 rigs, while the number of US gas rigs increased by 4 to 190 rigs. In terms of the large basins, the Permian rig count increased by 6 to 386 rigs, while both the Eagle Ford and Bakken rig counts declined by 3 each to 68 and 49 rigs respectively. 

Baker Hughes Rig Count, Sep 25, 2017

 

The multi-billion dollar question is: Can shale handle an increse in demand? Closely related: Is shale in a boom that is unsustainable and not generating sufficient cash to reward investors for the massive risk they have taken? Because if the latter is correct the former must be answered in the negative. The above quote is slightly mischevious and merely highlights economic research that supply factors have historically had a far bigger impact on the oil market than demand factors  (whether this is true going forward is not for today).

The NY Fed today reports that it is supply shortages now that are driving the price (and I have no idea about the construction of the model but the reduction in the residual leads me to believe it is broadly accurate), so this is a supply driven event not a demand driven event:

Oil Price Decomp 25 Sep 2017.png

If, as Spencer Dale argues (speech here), we are in the midst of a technical revolution then this is what we would expect. Hostoric levels of inventories should come down because supply is more flexible, these short-term kinks in demand caused by natural or geopolitical events should merely spur an increase in the rig count or a change in OPEC quotas. Other senior BP staff today were on message:

“Rebalancing is already on the way,” Janet Kong, Eastern Hemisphere Chief Executive Officer of integrated supply and trading at BP, said in an interview in Singapore. But OPEC needs “definitely to cut beyond the first quarter [2018]” to bring inventories down and back to historically normal levels, she said…

“If they extend the cuts, yes it’s possible” to achieve $60 a barrel next year, she said. “But it’s hard for me to see that prices will be sustainably higher,” she added.

Or is Permania simply the result of the Federal Reserve flooding the market with liquidity that is allowing an unsustainable production methodology to continue unabated storing up yet another boom and bust cycle? Bloomberg this week published this article on Permania, where the incipient signs of a bubble are showing in labour and infrastructure shortages and the outrageous cost overruns:

Experienced workers are harder and harder to find, and training newbies adds to expenses. The quality of work can suffer, too, erasing efficiency gains. Pruett said Elevation Resources recently had a fracking job that was supposed to take seven days but lasted nine because unschooled roughnecks caused some equipment malfunctions.

By this point, “we’ve given up all of our profit margin,” he said, referring to the industry. “We’re over-capitalized, we’re over-drilling and, if prices don’t rise, we might be facing a double dip in drilling.”

If I was being cynical about offshore production I would note that he was two days over with a rig crew while in the same calender week Seadrill and Oceanrig had collectively disposed of billions of investment capital and will still have the inventory for years. This guy is literally two days out of forecast and he is worried about being over-capitalized (and also that wiped his profit margin? Hardly redolent of a boom?) Offshore drilling companies are like 10 years and 100 rigs out of kilter… Anyway moving swiftly on…

Bloomberg also published this opinion on Anadarko noting:

Late on Wednesday, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which closed at $44.81 a share, announced plans to buy back up to $2.5 billion of its stock; which is interesting, because almost exactly a year ago, it sold about $2 billion of new stock — at $54.50 apiece.

(That’s pretty clever, they sold stock at $54.5 and are buying it back at $44.8, like Glencore never buy off these people when they are selling, at heart they are traders. More importantly most research suggest companies nearly always overpay when buying stock back so if the oil price keeps creeping up they are going to look very smart indeed.)

But the real point of the story is that capital is slowing up to the E&P sector, well equity anyway no mention of high-yield:

Equity US E&P Sep 2017

Meaning that maybe people are getting sick of being promised “jam tomorrow”. However I can’t help contrasting this with productivity data, Rystad on Friday produced this:

Rystad Shale Improvement Sep 17

So despite the anecdotal evidence on cost increases in the first Bloomberg article the productivity trend is all one way.  And the stats seem clear that a large part of deepwater is at a structural cost disadvantage to shale:

ANZ cost structure 2017

Frac sand used to be c.50% of the consummables of shale, but surprise:

Average sand volumes for each foot of a well drilled fell slightly last quarter for the first time in a year, said exploration and production consultancy Rystad Energy. Volumes are expected to drop a further 2.5 percent per foot in the current quarter over last, Rystad forecast…

Companies including Unimin Corp, U.S. Silica Holdings Inc (SLCA.N), and Hi Crush Partners LP (HCLP.N) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new mines to address an expected increase in demand.

On Thursday, supplier Smart Sand SND.O reported it shipped less frack sand in the second quarter than it did in the first. Rival Fairmount Santrol Holdings Inc (FMSA.N) forecast flat to slightly higher volumes this quarter over last.

In the last six weeks, shares of U.S. Silica and Hi Crush are both off about 30 percent. Smart Sand is off about 43 percent since June 30…

Some shale producers add chemical diverters, compounds that spread the slurry evenly in a well, and can reduce the amount of sand required. Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) and Continental Resources Inc (CLR.N) are reducing the distance between fractures to boost oil production. The tighter spacing allows them to extract more crude with less sand.

Technological innovation and scale: Less sand used and increased investment going on that will reduce the unit costs of sand for E&P producers. This is the sort of production that brought you the Model T in the first place and the American economy excels at. Bet against if you want: just remember the widowmaker trade.

Shale is a mass production technique: eventually it will push the cost of production down as it refines the processes associated with it. To be competitive offshore must emulate these constantly increasing cost efficiencies. I have said before that shale won’t be the death of offshore but it will make a new offshore: a bifurcation between more efficient fields, low lift costs, and economies of scale in production that make the “one-off” nature of the infratsructure cost efficient, and smaller, short-cycle E&P of shale (and some onshore conventional).

Offshore is going to be here for a long time, it is simply too important in volume terms not to be. But what a price increase is not going to see is a vast increase in the sanctioning of new offshore projects in the short-term. These will be gradual and provide a strong base of supply, as there longer investment cycle represents, while kinks in short-term demand will be pushed towards short cycle production. Backlog, or lack thereof, remains the single biggest threat to all offshore contractors.

Or this thesis is wrong and I, and to be fair people far cleverer (and more credible) than me, are spectacularly wrong, and a new boom for offshore awaits in the not too distant future…

Further evidence on the shale narrative and rational decisions…

The FT noted yesterday:

Kosmos, which had a market capitalisation of $2.5bn in New York on Tuesday, has earned a reputation as one of the most successful international exploration companies after a string of big discoveries off the coast of west Africa. Andrew Inglis, Kosmos chief executive, said the company wanted to widen its shareholder base beyond the US, where offshore exploration has been eclipsed by onshore shale oil and gas production in investors’ affections. “The US shareholder base has become very focused on shale and we believe there is a better understanding in the UK market of the opportunities that exist in conventional offshore exploration,”

It is not a good sign for offshore that the deepest and most liquid capital market in the world doesn’t seem to recognise the value in offshore. This is a further sign that the investment narrative is moving to shale. Ultimately even large E&P companies feel responsible to their shareholders, if the largest capital market in the world starts preferring companies that invest in shale then companies will alter their capital investment plans to relfect this, there is an element of marketing in this not just based on strict economic evaluation of the potential investments available.

If you want further proof that financial decisions aren’t always rational and markets the human interaction that is part of this look no further than this fascinating paper (from Matt Levine) “Decision Fatigue and Heuristic Analyst Forecasts” where it is found:

We study whether decision fatigue affects analysts’ judgments. Analysts cover multiple firms and often issue several forecasts in a single day. We find that forecast accuracy declines over the course of a day as the number of forecasts the analyst has already issued increases. Also consistent with decision fatigue, we find that the more forecasts an analyst issues, the higher the likelihood the analyst resorts to more heuristic decisions by herding more closely with the consensus forecast and also by self-herding (i.e., reissuing their own previous outstanding forecasts). Finally, we find that the stock market understands these effects and discounts for analyst decision fatigue.

Did you get that? Act on investment banking notes if they come out early in the morning! I love the findng the market understands this. The authors note that analysts may start the day by looking at companies they have the best information about but ask why they would do this?

The link here is just that financial decisions are not always purely rational and are based on herding, narrative, and other behavioural instincts. Managers who believe they will be rewarded by the stock market for moving their investment profile to shale will do this regardless of how attractive other investment opportunities may be on a strictly “rational” basis. Not every decision, but as I always say economic change happens at the margin.

Diverging results point to the future of offshore… procyclicality reverses…

Colin, for example, has recently persuaded himself that the propensity to consume in terms of money is constant at all phases of the credit cycle.  He works out a figure for it and proposes to predict by using the result, regardless of the fact that his own investigations clearly show that it is not constant, in addition to the strong a priori reasons for regarding it as most unlikely that it can be so.

The point needs emphasising because the art of thinking in terms of models is a difficult–largely because it is an unaccustomed–practice. The pseudo-analogy with the physical sciences leads directly counter to the habit of mind which is most important for an economist proper to acquire…

One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous in the same way that the material of the other sciences, in spite of its complexity, is constant and homogeneous. It is as though the fall of the apple to the ground depended on the apple’s motives, on whether it is worth while falling to the ground, and whether the ground wanted the apple to fall, and on mistaken calculations on the part of the apple as to how far it was from the centre of the earth.

Keynes to Harrod, 1938

 

A, having one hundred pounds stock in trade, though pretty much in debt, gives it out to be worth three hundred pounds, on account of many privileges and advantages to which he is entitled. B, relying on A’s great wisdom and integrity, sues to be admitted partner on those terms, and accordingly buys three hundred pounds into the partnership.The trade being afterwords given out or discovered to be very improving, C comes in at fivehundred pounds; and afterwards D, at one thousand one hundred pounds. And the capital is then completed to two thousand pounds. If the partnership had gone no further than A and B, then A had got and B had lost one hundred pounds. If it had stopped at C, then A had got and C had lost two hundred pounds; and B had been where he was before: but D also coming in, A gains four hundred pounds, and B two hundred pounds; and C neither gains nor loses: but D loses six hundred pounds. Indeed, if A could show that the said capital was intrinsicallyworth four thousand and four hundred pounds, there would be no harm done to D; and B and C would have been obliged to him. But if the capital at first was worth but one hundred pounds, and increasedonly by subsequent partnership, it must then be acknowl-edged that B and C have been imposed on in their turns, and that unfortunate thoughtless D paid the piper.
A Adamson (1787) A History of Commerce (referring to the South Sea Bubble)

The Bank of England has defined procyclicality as follows:

  • First, in the short term, as the tendency to invest in a way that exacerbates market movements and contributes to asset price volatility, which can in turn contribute to asset price feedback loops. Asset price volatility has the potential to affect participants across financial markets, as well as to have longer-term macroeconomic effects; and
  • Second, in the medium term, as a tendency to invest in line with asset price and economic cycles, so that willingness to bear risk diminishes in periods of stress and increases in upturns.

Everyone is offshore recognises these traits: as the oil price rose and E&P companies started reporting record results offshore contractors had record profits. Contractors and E&P comapnies both began an investment boom, highly correlated, and on the back of this banks extended vast quantities of credit to both parties, when even the banks started getting nervous the high-yield market willingly obliged with even more credit to offshore contractors. And then the price of oil crashed an a dramatically different investment environment began.

What is procyclical on the way up with a debt boom always falls harder on the way down as a countercyclical reaction, and now the E&P companies are used to a capital light approach this is the new norm for offshore. The problem in macroeconomic terms, as I constantly repeat here, is that debt is an obligation fixed in constant numbers and as the second point above makes clear that in periods of stress for offshore contracting, such as now, the willingness to bear risk is low. Contractors with high leverage levels that required the industry to be substantially bigger cannot survive financially with new lower demand levels.

I mention this because the end of the asset bubble has truly been marked this week by the diverging results between the E&P companies and some of the large contractors. All the supermajors are now clearly a viable entities at USD 50 a barrel whereas the same cannot be said for offshore rig and vessel contractors who still face large over capacity issues.

This chart from Saipem nicely highlights the problem the offshore industry has:

Saipem backlog H1 2017 €mn

Saipem backlog Hi 2017.png

Not only has backlog in offshore Engineering and Construction dropped 13% but Saipem are working through it pretty quickly with new business at c.66% of revenues. The implication clearly being that there is a business here just 1/3 smaller than the current one. You can see why Subsea 7 worked so hard to buy the EMAS Chiyoda backlog because they added only $141m organically in Q2 with almost no new deepwater projects announced in the quarter.

It is not that industry conditions are “challenging” but clearly the industry is undergoing a secular shift to being a much smaller part of the investment profile for E&P companies and therefore a much smaller industry as the market is permanently contracting as this profile of Shell capex shows:

Shell Capex 2017

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money. The FT had a good article this week that highlighted how “Big Oil” are adapating to lower costs, and its all bad for the offshore supply chain:

The first six months of this year saw 15 large conventional upstream oil and gas projects given the green light, with reserves of about 8bn barrels of oil and oil equivalent, according to WoodMac. This compared with 12 projects approved in the whole of 2016, containing about 8.8bn barrels. However, activity remains far below the average 40 new developments approved annually between 2007 and 2013 and, with crude prices yo-yoing around $50 per barrel, analysts say the economics of conventional projects remain precarious.

Not all of these are offshore but the offshore supply chain built capacity for this demand and in fact more because utilisation was already slipping in 2014. And this statistic should terrify the offshore industry:

WoodMac says that half of all greenfield conventional projects awaiting a green light would not achieve a 15 per cent return on investment at long-term oil prices of $60 per barrel, raising “serious doubt” over their prospects for development. By this measure, there is twice as much undeveloped US shale oil capable of making money at $60 per barrel than there is conventional resources.

The backlog (or lack of) is the most worrying aspect for the financing of the whole industry. E&P companies have laid off so many engineers and slowed down so many FIDs that even if the price of oil jumped to $100 tomorrow (and no one believes that) it would take years to ramp up project delivery capacity anyway. Saipem and Subsea 7 are not exceptions they are large companies that highlight likely future work indicates that asset values at current levels may not be an anamoly for vessel and rig owners but the “new normal” as part of “lower for longer”.

I recently spoke to a senior E&P financier in Houston who is convinced “the man from Oaklahoma” is right but only because he thinks overcapacity will keep prices low: c. 50% of fracing costs come from sand, which isn’t subject to productivity improvements, and he is picking that low prices eventually catch up with the prices being paid for land. I still think that the more large E&P companies focus on improving efficiency will ensure this remains a robust source of production given their productivity improvements as Chevron’s results showed:

Chevron Permian Productivity 2017

Large oil came to the North Sea and turned it into a leading technical development centre for the rest of the world. Brazil would not be possible without the skills and competencies (e.g. HPHT) developed by the supermajors in the North Sea and I think once these same companies start focusing their R&D efforts on shale productivity will continue to increase and this will be at the expense of offshore.

It is now very clear that the supermajors, who count for the majority of complex deepwater developments that are the users of high-end vessel capacity, are very comfortable with current economic conditions. They have no incentive to binge on CapEx because even if prices go up rapidly that just means they can pay for it with current cash flow.

That means the ‘Demand Fairy’ isn’t saving anyone here and that asset values are probably a fair reflection of their economic earning potential. Now the process between banks and offshore contractors has become one of counter-cyclicality where the asset price-feedback loop is working in reverse: banks will not lend on offshore assets because no one knows (or wants to believe) the current values and therefore there are no transactions beyond absolute distress sales. This model has been well understood by economists modelling contracting credit and asset values:

Asset Prices and Credit Contracttion

Getting banks to allocate capital to offshore in the future will be very hard given the risk models used and historical losses. Offshore assets will clearly be subject to the self referencing model above.

I remain convinced that European banks and investors are doing a poor job compared to US investors about accepting the scale of their loss and the need for the industry to have significantly less capital and asset value than it does now. Too many investors thought this downturn was like 2007/08, when there was a quick rebound, and while this smoothed asset prices somewhat on the way down this cash was used mainly for liquidity, it is now running dry and not more will be available (e.e. Nor Offshore) at anything other than penal terms given the uncertainty. Until backlog is meaningfully added across the industry asset values should, in a rational world, remain extremely depressed and I believe they will.

Hasty generalisations and shale…

The being without an opinion is so painful to human nature that most people will leap to a hasty opinion rather than undergo it.

Walter Bagehot

John Dizzard in the FT this week spoke to a man from Oaklahoma and decided that the whole shale sector was just the result of market liquidity pumping money into the small debt financed E&P companies. Dizard suggests capital markets are “subsidising” the sector. This appears to have been a hasty generalisation… The data point appears to be based on Drilled-But-Uncompleted wells:

As one Oklahoma oil and gas man I know says: “There is still unlimited capital, and as long as that is true, you can grow anything. If the companies had been forced to live within their cash flow, then their production would go down. Then they would have run into a death spiral where nobody would want to invest in them.” The shale companies struggling with sub-$40 or sub-$50 oil prices were also able to live off the excess inventory of drilled-but-uncompleted (DUC) wells that had built up during the boom years.

As our Oklahoman says: “There were thousands of DUCs that had not been taken account of. The companies could just complete and connect those to offset the declines in production from older wells.”

The problem is I don’t see this:

DUC 17

Source: EIA, Baker Hughes, Jeffries

First of all we had the meme that shale was too expensive on a per unit basis, and now we have the meme that actually it is only possible because high-yield investors don’t understand what they are buying and funding. Admittedly HY doesn’t always get it right, as offshore bonds currently show, but to suggest that shale is solely the result of a capital misallocation is surely mistaken?

US capital markets are probably the most efficient in the world at adapting. The various restructurings happening in offshore (Paragon, Tidewater etc) highlight that banks and investors take the writedowns and move on. They are also efficient at funding companies for long periods prior to cash flow break even (Uber being the most notorious example). Shale is here to say it is only a question of how big it is.