The graph above highlights why comments about the impending offshore capex boom, long prophesied as a certainty by true believers, maybe a long time coming… What the graph shows effectively is that the Energy Select Sector ETF (a proxy for all S&P 500 E&P companies) has significantly underperformed in percentage terms the price increase in WTI (oil) throughout 2018. Not only that the rebased price volatility of oil is high.
E&P shareholders have been saying loudly they want money back from E&P companies not a capex driven option on a future supply shortage. The easiest way for E&P companies to give shareholders comfort at this point, and hopefully boost the share price, is to reduce their forward commitments to long-lived expensive projects (deepwater) and focus on shorter payback projects (shale) to supply volume. From the $FT:
Investors have been pushing executives to cut costs, reign in investments in the type of oil megaprojects that might take decades to pay back, and focus on generating cash, either for dividends or share buybacks. Bernstein Research said this week that companies were responding, noting that those who had raised capital expenditure in the second quarter had been taught a lesson.
“Investors punished E&Ps that raised guidance by 230 basis points on average,” said Bob Brackett at Bernstein.
You read comments all the time about how it is a “certainty” that high oil prices and reserve rundown must, as if some metaphysical law, lead to increased offshore activity. It simply isn’t true. The shareholders don’t want it for a whole host of good reasons: the energy transition, the benefits of higher prices and reduced supply, price volatility when making long commitments etc. This week Equinor reduced CapEx forecasts $1bn for 2019 (from $11bn to $10bn), Total confirmed theirs at the lower limit, and Conoco Phillips did the same. All the E&P companies are making similar noises. You can come up with some really complex reasons for this or just accept the CEO’s are being consistent externally and internally: they are rationing capex reasoning the upside of doing so is better than the downside.
There has been change in perceptions and market sentiment since the last energy rebound in 2008/09:
If E&P companies are not going to get share price appreciation through sentiment they will have to do it the old fashioned way through dividends and share buy-backs; and cutting back CapEx is the single most important lever they control to do this.
Yes subsea project approvals are increasing (from WoodMac <50m boe):
But in order for there to a “boom”, one that would influence day rates and utilisation levels across the offshore and subsea asset base, marginal operators have to be able, and willing, to spend and that simply isn’t the case. There is a flight to larger projects, with larger operators, who are ruthless about driving down price. So yes, spend levels are increasing, but check out the size of the absolute decline from the North Sea (from the $FT):
Investments in new North Sea projects have hit £3bn in 2018, the highest level since 2015, after two oil and gas projects received regulatory approval from authorities on Monday…
Capital investments in new North Sea fields were less than £500m in both 2016 and 2017, down from £4.6bn in 2015, but were much higher before the downturn, reaching as much as £17bn in 2011.
£17bn to to less than £500m!!! Seriously… just complete a structural change in the market and the supply chain needs to reduce massively in size and capacity to reflect a drop like that. And a recovery at £3bn is still less than 20% of the 2011 which the fleet delivered (and 30% down on 2015): volumes might be up but the drop in value is just too extreme for anything other than the major players to hold out here. It goes without saying a vastly larger number of businesses are viable with £17bn flowing through the market than £500m. The North Sea might be an extreme example by global levels but it’s illustrative of a worldwide trend.
E&P companies are spending increasing sums on shorter-cycle, potentially lower margin, projects because of the flexibility it offers in uncertain times. Subsea and offshore expenditure and volumes will be up in 2019 but not at the levels to keep some of the more speculative ventures alive.