Insights on Oil

oil-gifIt’s not breaking news that the energy sector has been a disaster zone this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has decimated global oil demand. There’s an assumption that anyone looking to invest in energy stocks, and oil stocks in particular, is an idiot, and that assumption appears pretty reasonable—if you’re looking in the rear-view mirror. There’s might be better days ahead for the industry. But “when” is the key question. There’s an old saying in the oil industry: The cure to low prices is low prices. I expect more carnage in the short-term before it gets better. Companies will be destroyed. There will be survivors that come out on the other side looking stronger. Their shares are pretty attractive right now. But who will survive?  Energy is essential. Although demand is down right now, the world is going to need more energy in the future. Low-cost energy will help to boost the global economy.

But it’s my opinion and I have no money on it, no skin in the game. The sector is too insane for me. It’s driven by too many large actors with non-economic motives (e.g. Saudi-Arabia). Anyway I’ve been reading a lot news of the sector and here are a few insights I picked up. Sometimes in carnage there’s glimmers of hope.

  • I can’t think of an industry in recent time where even though things could get worse, they got really bad. Predicting a massive drop in oil prices, sure. Predicting negative oil prices? That’s a job losing proposition. Investors in oil have been suffering for a long time.
  • The market is efficient at pricing in risk. Oil prices have collapsed twice in the past six years. That would tell investors there is a greater likelihood of that happening again. If you’re an operator, this means you might require a higher return than in the past because the risk is greater. If you’re an investor, you require a higher rate of return before you’re willing to invest. Thus, when demand comes back and oil prices recover, the commodity price might be a little higher than it otherwise would have been, depending on how high you need it to be to get that marginal barrel produced.
  • The world is still highly reliant on hydrocarbons. Renewable-energy sources are growing, but long-term demand for oil and natural gas is growing faster in percentage terms.
  • The May futures contract for WTI crude turned negative in April (-$37 a barrel), as demand plummeted and storage capacity ran out. That seemed to be an unusual set of circumstances with open futures contracts and perhaps some unsophisticated investors who got stuck. The lesson: Don’t hold financial contracts that you can’t honor as expiration approaches. With limited-to-no storage capacity available at the delivery point for the WTI oil-futures contract on May 19 (Cushing), so holders of financial contracts will need to sell prior to expiration. If open interest remains high as we approach expiration, then negative oil prices are possible again.
  • Negative oil prices were an anomaly—a function of a timing mismatch between the pace of demand reduction and that of supply reduction.
  • You need to break down the oil industry in two players: Producers and refiners. In between you have the pipeline, storage, and the infrastructure (mid-streamers). In normal times, good news for producers would tend to be bad or neutral for refiners, because refiners have to buy from the producers.
  • The hope is that the oil market rebalances and every part of the industry improves — oil and gas producers make more money selling crude, refiners sell more gasoline, and pipelines see more activity.
  • Refiners have been cutting back on processing crude because there are too few buyers. No one is driving as people stay at home to stop the virus, and gasoline is normally the number one use of crude in the U.S.
  • U.S. oil prices have jumped 99% in just the past week, an incredible performance that has made energy a top performing sector after months of under performance. Investors bet that companies in the beaten-down sector can come back from a historic rout in the first quarter. Even with the latest surge in stock prices, it should be noted that nearly all energy stocks are down by double-digit percentages for the year. Crude is up for two reasons:
    1. One is that investors now expect demand to return for major products like gasoline and diesel as countries start loosening lockdown orders imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
    2. That oil companies have gotten more serious about reducing supply. U.S. oil production has already declined by almost 1 million barrels a day since it peaked in March, according to Rystad Energy.
  • The Texas and the U.S. responds to market prices, not government or OPEC. Earnings releases from U.S. oil companies show they’re prepared to make dramatic cuts.
  • The idea of the Russia-Saudi Arabia price war is to drive U.S. producers out of business. It might work to a certain degree. That playbook employed in 2014 with limited success. Now S-A is trying again with a weaker hand. You might end up with zombie companies like in 2014, where U.S. producers pump just enough to cover interests on the loan.
  • Mass bankruptcies look unlikely, at least in the short term. And if riskier companies can hold out until oil prices rebound, they are likely to be in a position to produce better cash flow next year. Oil futures a year out are projecting West Texas Intermediate crude at $33.
  • For companies to produce oil profitably, Brent needs to trade around $50 a barrel. Back in December, with the Brent at $60, companies with the right structure could thrive and  cover their dividends fully. Oil companies were buying back stock with excess cash flow. They could compete with the S&P 500 on a cash-flow-yield basis. Today the math doesn’t work at current prices.
  • I was surprised to learn that energy stocks now account for a measly 3% of the S&P 500 index, thanks to a terrible decade and massive technology companies. It’s much higher than that in Canada. I know it was at least a third of the index at one point but I don’t know if it’s still that high now.
  • Most oil and gas producers, including the majors, will lose money in 2020 or barely eke out a profit, and most of those still paying dividends will have to borrow to cover the cost.
  • They key for oil companies is reducing production, slashing costs, and conserving cash. These steps are likely to pay off in higher oil and gas prices over the next two years—and stronger operations and balance sheets for the industry’s survivors.
  • Royal Dutch Shell Plc. (RDS-A, RDS-B) cut their dividend for the first time since WWII, to 16 cents a quarter from 47 cents for a 66% cut. For a company that seems to want to be around for a long time, it’s the prudent move. Most companies, including Exxon, BP, and Chevron should cut but won’t. Instead they are delaying capital expenditure. You can only do that for so long before it bites you in the butt.
  • Take Exxon for example. Analysts think that Exxon will generate $2 billion of negative free cash flow this year, with a $15 billion dividend commitment. The company recently issued $18 billion of debt, which could cover this shortfall, but one could definitely question how long it makes sense to do so.
  • I think Shell is the most anti-oil oil producer. Shell is thinking about the long-term transition away from fossil fuels. Shell leads big oil in the race to invest in clean energy. Shell has this “Sky” scenario plan that highlights the transition toward a clean energy world by 2070. It’s much later than the U.N. 2050 plan and is probably more realistic. 
  • Everybody talks about the negative impact on U.S. producers. That Russia and Saudi Arabia are trying to drive them out of business and that Saudi Arabia wants to regain the crown of world’s largest producer. But there are other major global impacts that won’t go unnoticed. Low prices will hurt or destroy many countries dependent on oil. This can’t be good for enemies of the U.S. that are not under their political and/or military control, such as Venezuela and Iran (also Saudi-Arabia’s rival/enemy). This can’t be good for Russia also but I think they have enough foreign reserves to withstand the storm in the short term.
  • OPEC++++ agreed to cut production by nearly 10 million barrels a day, starting this month, to help to rebalance the market. I’m very skeptical it will work. First the math doesn’t work. For the near term, it’s too little, too late. The cuts agreed to are starting from a base level in October 2018, when OPEC was producing at a higher level, so the effective cut is more like 7.1 million barrels. Balance and supply is out of whack by way more than 10m a day. Second, if you look who the countries who signed the deal, how many of these countries can you trust? OPEC alone has had time keeping their members from cheating. The whole thing almost fell apart because of Mexico. This is not an easy agreement to implement. Here’s an headline: Iraq faces problems cutting 1 mln bpd of crude output -sources

Here’s an interesting take to wrap up things:

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