Common knowledge in offshore and shale…

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

Friedrich Hayek

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group think and conventional wisdom…

“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.”

J.K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society

 

“All that we imagine to be factual is already theory: what “we know” of our surroundings is our interpretation of them”

Friedrich Hayek

 

We find broad- based and significant evidence for the anchoring hypothesis; consensus forecasts are biased towards the values of previous months’ data releases, which in some cases results in sizable predictable forecast errors.

Sean D. Campbell and Steven A. Sharpe, Anchoring Bias in Consensus Forecasts and its Effect on Market Prices

Great quote in the $FT yesterday that reveals how hard it has been in the oil and gas industry for professional analysts to read the single biggest influencing factor that is reshaping the supply chain: rising CapEx productivity and its ongoing continued pressure. Money quote:

Mr Malek said that with the notable exception of ExxonMobil, most energy majors had shown they were capable of growing output quickly even when investing less than it used to.

“We all thought production was going to fall off a cliff from Big Oil when they started slashing spending in 2014,” said Mr Malek. “But it hasn’t. The majority of them are coming out on the front foot in terms of production.” [Emphasis added].

#groupthink 

An outlook where E&P companies can substantially reduce CapEx and maintain output is not one in a lot of forecast models. Forecasts are rooted in a liner input/out paradigm that leads to a new peak oil doomsday scenario. But the data is coming in: E&P companies are serious about reducing CapEx long term and especially relative to output, and collectively the analyst community didn’t realise it. The meme was all “when the rebound comes…” as night follows day…

The BP example I showed was not an aberration. For a whole host of practical and institutional reasons it is hard to model something like 40% increase in productivity in capital expenditure. But the productivity of E&P CapEx, along with the marginal investment dollar spend,  has enormous explanatory power and implications for the offshore and onshore supply chain.

Aside from behavioural constraints (partly an availability heuristc and partly an anchoring bias) the core reason analysts are out though is because their models are grounded in history. Analysts have used either a basic regression model, which over time would have shown a very high correlation between Capex and Output Production, or they simply divided production output by CapEx spend historically and rolled it forward. When they built a financial model they assumed these historic relationships, strong up until 2014, worked in the future… But these are linear models: y if the world hasn’t changed. The problem is when x doesn’t = anymore and really we have a multivariate world and that becomes a very different modelling proposition (both because the world has changed and a more challenging modelling assignment). We are in a period of a  structural break with previous eras in offshore oil and gas.

These regressions don’t explain the future so cannot be used for forecasting. No matter how many times you cut it and reshape the data the historical relationship won’t produce a relationship that validly predicts the future. At a operational level at E&P companies this is easier to see: e.g. aggressive tendering, projects bid but not taken forward if they haven’t reached a threshold, the procurement guys wants another 10k a day off the rig. There is a lag delay before it shows up in the models or is accepted as the conventional wisdom.

SLB Forecast.png

Source: Schlumberger

Over the last 10 years, but with an acceleration in the last five, an industrial and energy revolution (and I do not use the term lightly) has taken place in America. To model it would actually be an exponential equation (a really complicated one at that), and even then subject to such output errors that wouldn’t achieve what (most) analysts needed in terms of useful ranges and outputs. But the errors, in statitics the epsilon, is actually where all the good information, the guide to the future, is buried.

But when the past isn’t a good guide to the future, as is clearly the case in the oil and gas market at the moment, understanding what drives forecasts and what they are set up to achieve is ever more important. How predictive are the models really?

A lot of investment has gone into offshore as the market has declined. A lot of it not because people really believe in the industry but because they believe they will make money when the industry reverts to previous price and utilisation levels, a mean reversion investment thesis often driven on the production rationale cited in the quote. Investors such as these have really being buying a derivative to expose themselves, often in a very leveraged way, to a rising oil price, assuming or hoping, frankly at times in the face of overhwelming contrary evidence, that the historic relationship between the oil price and these assets would return.

These investors are exposed to basis risk: when the underlying on which the derivative is based changes its relationship in its interaction with the derivative. These investors thought they were buying assets exposed in a linear fashion to a rising oil price, but actually the structure of the industry has changed and now they just own exposure to an underutilised asset that is imperfectly hedged (and often with a very high cost of carry). Shale has changed the marginal supply curve of the oil industry and the demand curves for oil field services fundamentally. Models utilising prior relationships simply cannot conceptually or logically explain this and certainly offer zero predictive power.

The future I would argue is about the narrative. Linking what people say and actions taken and mapping out how this might affect the future. To create the future and be a part of it you cannot rely on past hisotrical drivers you need to understand the forces driving it. Less certain statistically but paradoxically more likely to be right.

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

IMG_0611.jpg

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.

Oil as a declining industry…

Like all good Op-Eds (and blogs) this one in the FT started yesterday with a big headline and with some punchy quotes:

The time to stop investing is not today. But that point is coming. The industry needs to be clear that its future is one of long-term decline — whilst returning increasing sums of cash to investors. There is a possibility that the industry over-invests as we reach that point of peak demand, leaving an oversupply that persists for a long time. Fighting for market share in a declining market would be even worse.

Everything in life is relative (well if you are a post-modernist anyway) and the authors are not saying to stop investing tomorrow or that oil is dead: merely ex-growth as an industry.  The message is about E&P companies not having a good record at investing in alternative energy sources so encouraging them to return the cash to fund managers (who do apparently?).

We think oil companies can have a positive part to play in our future world of energy — as a cash generating engine that can be used to power the transition when the time comes, and we urge the industry to make a clear commitment to this future.

You can dismiss it as another view that will simply ensure that prices are higher in the future, I guess the question then becomes how far and how high? Or you can take the views seriously as the representatives of one of the UK’s largest fund managers and realise that it is part of a wider secular shift in thinking about business models for E&P companies that require less CapEx and less redundant capacity. I think it just shows how much pressure CFOs/Directors are under to return cash to shareholders all the time and how much harder it is for smaller E&P companies with good project ideas to raise money.

Regardless or your view this is becoming a popular one amongst the actual owners of some companies so it is worth not writing off indiscriminately. The investment narrative isn’t all “growth at any cost”, or future production volumes, which is a marked shift from previous periods where statements like “all the easy oil has gone” doiminated.

In a good interview here Spencer Dale, BP Chief Economist highlighted that

Because of natural decline, there is going to be a huge need for investments to keep supply at pace with demand, even if oil demand were to peak relatively soon.

“For a company like BP, that has a key role in our strategy. Continue to invest in oil, because the world will need that investment, but make sure to invest only in low cost, advantaged oil to make sure that we are robust for this more competitive environment that we think is going to emerge over the next ten to fifteen years.”

That strikes me a very different dynamic to previous eras and will have a huge impact on E&P project developments which are also consistent with the shareholder wishes highlighted above.

The narrative in capital allocation moves to shale…

I use the term narrative to mean a simple story or easily expressed explanation of events that many people want to bring up in conversation or on news or social media because it can be used to stimulate the concerns or emotions of others, and/or because it appears to advance self-interest. To be stimulating, it usually has some human interest either direct or implied. As I (and many others) use the term, a narrative is a gem for conversation, and may take the form of an extraordinary or heroic tale or even a joke. It is not generally a researched story, and may have glaring holes, as in “urban legends.” The form of the narrative varies through time and across tellings, but maintains a core contagious element, in the forms that are successful in spreading. Why an element is contagious, when it may even “go viral,” may be hard to understand, unless we reflect carefully on the reason people like to spread the narrative. Mutations in narratives spring up randomly, just as in organisms in evolutionary biology, and when they are contagious, the mutated narratives generate seemingly unpredictable changes in the economy.

Shiller, 2017

News that BP had started production at Quad 204 (Schiehallion) led curmudgeonly FT columnist Lombard to note  yesterday:

If anything, then, Monday’s news is more of a last hurrah for BP in the North Sea, and for the UK Continental Shelf more broadly. With the strongest capital flows — and investor buzz — focused on unconventional US resources, traditional offshore oil can seem as fashionable as a set of free “crystal” tumblers from a 1970s petrol station. With a big shield logo.

I have mentioned here before that behavioural finance is starting to examine the narrative in economics (see initial quote), and at the moment this is the narrative in London and other capital markets. This ties in nicely with an excellent piece from Rystad earlier in the week looking at the future of the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico (I recommend reading the whole thing). For service companies Rystad notes:

After such a deep cut in this market it will take some time before the industry experiences a full recovery. Even with oil prices of $90/bbl to $100/bbl for the next decade, the market will not be back to 2014 levels before 2024.

The link for me is that offshore is going to bifurcate into huge developments (Quad 204, Mariner, Bressay, Mad Dog 2) and “the rest”. The rest are unfortunately going to be much smaller in number and less frequent. Rystad specifically mentions the lack of tie-back and tie-in projects in these regions. These projects are the investments that really compete with shale: 8-12 000 bpd that were ignored by larger E&P companies. The larger developments with high flow rates, and multi-decade economic plans, are vital for security of volume and a core underpinning of E&P profitability, and they are very economic, playing to super-major strengths of vast capital requirements combined with astounding engineering capability; but smaller developments in the USD 50-200m range are at a real risk of grinding to a slow halt for all except the companies currently committed to this space.

The North Sea, and to a lesser extent GoM, always had a significant number of smaller players (think Ithaca Energy (recently sold to Dalek) or Enquest), that raised (relatively) small sums of money and then sought to regenerate an exisiting area or develop smaller finds. Access to financing for that market simply doesn’t exist at the moment on anything like the scale it did before. Those Finance Directors who used to traipse around fund managers in London, Vancouver, New York etc with a deck of slides explaining their proposed developments are simply not getting a hearing. Not only that the tried and tested business model of developing a few fields and selling out with a takeover premium when they had built sufficient scale isn’t credible any more as potential acquirers focus on more on tight oil. Now those fund managers are meeting with guys who have a deck of slides that start with a shale rig, emphasise the relatively low upfront capital (as opposed to the higher OpEx) and their ability to rein in variable costs should price declines occur. The meme in financial markets now is all about shale, and rightly or wrongly, influential columns such as the one above help set this “dominant logic”.

Inside the big E&P companies managers, who are cognizent of the fact they must deal with analysts in the financial community and the investor base who follow the same narrative, are adapting and spending more time to examining potential shale investments. Offshore is getting less airtime. When was the last time you hard someone say “all the easy oil is gone” – which was taken as fact only 5 years ago. From this myriad of individual meetings and actions the macro picture of slowing capital flows into offshore and increased investment in shale is being driven, and it will be very hard to reverse without some exogenous event.

As behavioural economics teaches us humans are “boundedly rational” not the perfectly rational homo economicus so beloved of the efficient markets crowd. What this means is that potential investors can only process so much information, if you combine this with the fact that institutional investors “herd” (i.e. invest where their competitors do), you can see the current investment vogue is short cycle shale which makes even getting funding hard even for compelling offshore investments. Those who have heard the word “Permania” used to describe the boom in Permian basin will relate to this quote from the IMF on investment herding:

[p]rocyclicality in asset allocation can make swings in financial asset value and economic activity more intense. From an individual investor’s point of view, procyclical behavior can be rational, especially if short-term constraints become binding or if the investor can exit earlier than others. However, the collective actions of many investors may lead to increased volatility of asset prices and instability of the financial system..

Eventually the shale mania will wain as people overpay for land and productivity improvements slow. The problem for offshore is the amount of OpEx people will have to burn to get to this point and the consistently increasing productivity of shale.

Big players in the North Sea region like Apache, Taqa, and Sinopec will conitnue to develop offshore fields but they are not doing as many projects. The threshold rate for investment will be higher, because experience has taught us that you can get 5 years of low oil prices and many of these projects only have economic lives of 5-10 years (risk models are great at solving previous issues). These companies have less access to capital markets than their shale competitors because the high-yield desk has the same meme as the equity investors, higher equity costs and more risk averse bank funding raise project return requirements even more. Even state -backed companies like Taqa must vie for funding internally. Outside of the North Sea and GoM these developments are likely to remain dominated by National Oil Companies who may not rank projects on a strictly economic basis but will take the expected spot price of oil into account in their investment decisions. But as Rystad makes clear the North Sea and GoM volume increases will all be driven by a smaller number of larger projects.

This affects contractors differently. As Rystad notes EPIC work will decline proportionately less than other work.  For DSVs and ROV operators and vessel owners) this is grim . Until construction work, that uses far more DSV and ROV days than maintenance work, improves the supply side of the industry will take the adjustments both in day rates and utilisation levels. The supply chain is going to change into a few large integrated contractors in these regions with a vast choice of assets to service their needs and they are likely to reduce their comitted charter tonnage . These large contractors will make an economic return but part of it will be done by ensuring the smaller companies in the supply chain make only enough economic profit to survive and the equity value (if any) in these companies and assets looks set to be depressed for an extended period. Consolidation on a scale only dreamed of at the moment amongst vessel owners looks certain.

Demand will not return for smaller projects until the market price for oil stabilises at a substantially higher price than now, and does so for long-enough to give potential funders confidence that the upturn isn’t temporary. The uplift will likely be less severe because shale has introduced a “kink” in the supply curve. Projects take time to pass through engineering, funding etc before meaningful offshore work occurs. This is a long-term issue: Demand may have stabilised at current levels but recovery for the supply chain that is based on the realistic prospect of higher days rates and utillisation looks some way off.  For an asset base built to supply a 2013/14 demand curve the outcome looks uncomfortably obvious.