rules for commodities
From years of analyzing oil, gas and metals mining–as well as watching agricultural commodities and high-rise real estate out of the corner of my eye–I’ve come to believe in two hard and fast rules:
–when prices begin to fall, they continue to do so until a significant amount of productive capacity becomes uneconomic and is shut down. That’s when the selling price of output won’t cover the cash cost of production. Even then, management often doesn’t reach for the shutoff valve immediately. It may hope that some external force, like a big competitor shutting down, will intervene (a miracle, in other words) to improve the situation. Nevertheless, what makes a commodity a commodity is that the selling price is determined by the cost of production.
–it’s the nature of commodities to go through boom and bust cycles, with periods of shortage/rising prices followed by over-investment that generates overcapacity/falling prices. The length of the cycle is a function of the cost of economically viable new capacity. If that means the the price of new seed that sprouts into salable goods in less than a year, the cycle will be short. If it’s $5 billion to develop a gigantic deep-water offshore hydrocarbon deposit that will last for 30 years, the cycle will be long.
boom and bust spending behavior
During a period of rising prices, cost control typically goes out the window for commodity producers. Their total focus is on adding capacity to satisfy what appears at that moment to be insatiable demand. Maybe this isn’t as short-sighted as it appears (a topic for another day). But if oil is selling for, say $100 a barrel, it’s more important to pay double or triple the normal rate for drilling rigs or mud or new workers–even if that raises your out-of-pocket costs from $40 to, say, $60 a barrel lifted out of the ground. Every barrel you don’t lift is an opportunity loss of at least $40.
When prices begin to fall, however, industry behavior toward costs shifts radically. In the case of oil and gas, some of this is involuntary. Declining profits can trigger loan covenants that require a firm to cease spending on new exploration and devote most or all cash flow to repaying debt instead.
In addition, though, at $50 a barrel, it makes sense for management to: haggle with oilfield services suppliers; do more ( or, for some firms initiate) planning of well locations, using readily available software, to optimize the flow of oil to the surface; optimize fracking techniques, again to maintain the highest flow; streamline the workforce if needed. From what I’ve read about the recent oil boom, during the period of ultra-high prices none of this was done. Hard as it may be to believe, getting better pricing for services and operating more efficiently have trimmed lifting expenses by at least a third–and cut them in half for some–for independent wildcatters in the US.
This experience is very similar to what happened in the long-distance fiber optic cable business worldwide during the turn of the century internet boom. As the stock market bubble burst and cheap capital to build more fiber optic networks dried up, companies found their engineers had built in incredibly high levels of redundancy into networks (meaning the cables could in practice carry way more traffic than management thought) and had also bought way to much of the highest-cost transmission equipment. At the same time, advances in wave division multiplexing meant that each optic fiber in the cable could carry not only one transmission but 4, or 8, or 64, or 256… The result was a swing from perceived shortage of capacity to a decade-long cable glut.
My bottom line for oil: $40 – $60 a barrel prices are here to stay. If they break out of that band, the much more likely direction is down.