“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?
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
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:
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.
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.