oil below $20 a barrel

The Energy sector of the S&P 500 makes up 2.8% of the index, according to the S&P website.  This is another way of saying that none of us as investors need to have an opinion about oil and gas production, which makes up the lion’s share of the sector.

Last weekend Saudi Arabia and Russia, with a fig leaf provided by the US for Mexico’s non-participation, led an oil producers’ agreement to cut production by around 10 million barrels daily.

Prior to the meeting, crude had rallied from just over $20 to around $23.  Right after, however, the Saudis announced price discounts reported to be around $4 barrel for buyers in Asia.  Prices were reduced by a smaller amount in Europe but went up for US customers–apparently at the Trump administration’s request.  That sent crude prices into the high teens.

Why is this the best strategy for Saudi Arabia?

The commonsense answer is that Riyadh thinks it’s more important to secure sales volumes than it is to be picky on price.  This is at least partly because the world output cuts reduce, but by no means eliminate, the oversupply.  So there are still going to be plenty of barrels looking for a buyer.  Another reason is that since demand has dried up the Russian ruble has dropped by 20%.  That’s like a 25% local currency price increase for Russian crude, meaning lots of room for Moscow to undercut rivals.

investment implications

The most leveraged play to changes in oil prices is oilfield services.  Companies that specialize in exploration–seismic services, drilling rig firms–are the highest beta, firms that service existing wells less so.  During the oil price crash of the early 1980s, however,  drilling rigs were stacked for a decade or so.  On the other hand, oilfield services firms are the ultimate stock market call on rising oil prices.

Given that US hydrocarbon output and usage are roughly equal, the country as a whole should be indifferent to price changes (yes, it’s more complicated, but at this point we want only the general lay of the land) rather than the net winner it was 15 years ago.  However, within the country oil consumers normally come out ahead, while oil producers are losers.

Typically, the resulting low gasoline prices would be a boon to truckers and to commuting drivers.  The first is probably still the case, the second not so much.

The bigger issue, I think, is the fate of the Big Three Detroit auto producers, who are being kept afloat by federal government policies that encourage oil consumption and protect high-profit US-made light trucks from foreign competition.  While nothing can explain the wild gyrations of Tesla (TSLA) shares, one reasonable interpretation of the stock’s resilience is the idea that the current downturn will weaken makers of combustion engines and accelerate the turn toward electric vehicles.

Personally, I’m in no rush to buy TSLA shares–which I do own indirectly through an ARK ETF.  But it’s possible both that Americans won’t buy new cars for a while (if gasoline prices stay low, greater fuel economy won’t be a big motivator).  And the rest of the world is going electric, reducing the attractiveness of Detroit cars abroad, and probably making foreign-made electrics superior products.

If there’s any practical investment question in this, it’s:  if the driving culture in the US remains but the internal combustion engine disappears, who are the winners and losers?









sorting out oil-related stocks

The very large drop in oil prices over the past eight months has had negative effects on all oil-related firms.  The amount of suffering varies considerably, however, based on how a given firm is involved in the hydrocarbon business.  Here’s my take on the various sub-industries:

1.  oilfield services companies.   It’s a general rule in business that when a manufacturer slows down, its suppliers feel more pain than the manufacturer itself.  This is true in the oilfields, as well.

–Lower output prices mean some new drilling projects are cancelled.  This is bad for the contract drillers who supply and operate the rigs that do the actual drilling.  Offshore, where projects are typically larger and more expensive–therefore riskier, is a worse place to be than onshore.  Worst hit of all are the suppliers of the oilfield services firms, like the companies that manufacture new drilling rigs.

–Suppliers of goods and services, from seismic analyses of prospective acreage to drilling mud, are hurt as well.  Being in support for development of existing projects is better than being involved in new exploration.

2.  high-cost alternatives   …like liquefied natural gas (LNG) or tar sands.  Projects may no longer be economically viable.  I think LNG is more at risk.  Transporting natural gas from, say, the US to the EU or from Australia to Japan requires a multi-billion dollar investment in plant and equipment to liquefy and ship the gas to market (the alternative would be an underwater pipeline).  Because of this, I think new projects are non-starters in today’s world.  As for projects already up and running, we have no way of knowing how contracts are structured–that is, how the selling price of the gas is affected by the oil price drop.  This determines whether the pain of the oil price decline is borne by the LLNG project or by the utility customers who ultimately use the gas.

The situation for green alternatives, like solar and wind, is less clear.

3.  reserve valuations     The asset value of any oil exploration/production company depends heavily on the size and value of its oil reserves.  The lower oil price clearly hurts the value of reserves.  What’s less obvious is that reserves are defined as barrels of oil that can be brought to the surface and sold at a profit at the current price.  Some barrels that are economically viable at $100 a barrel may not be at $50.  If so, the size of reserves will also shrink.  In an extreme case, a company with a million barrels of reserves worth $50 million at an oil price of $100 might have 0 barrels worth $0 at a $50 oil price.

4.   US-based exploration companies     Smaller firms have been the leaders in shale oil production.  Generally speaking, they are hurt worse  by shrinkage in cash flow and downward revisions in reserve value than the big international firms.  To the extent they’ve borrowed to finance drilling, their problems may be magnified.  As a practical matter, however, there’s probably less scope for creditors to take action against a firm if it has issued junk bonds than if it has bank loans.

5.  international majors    The profits of these firms are more insulated against the price drop than their smaller rivals.  How so?

–They have petrochemicals and refining/marketing businesses that benefit from the lower price because they’re users of crude oil.

–They have fields they own that may have been operating for decades, and which therefore are still profitable at today’s prices.

–Also, in their deals to develop fields with national oil companies in foreign countries, they typically are paid a return on invested capital.  In other words, they don’t gain or lose much (if anything) as the oil price rises and falls.

No, they don’t escape unscathed.  They do lose from the lower price they get from production they own in the US and Europe, but their losses are much less than the pure domestic exploration and production companies.

6.   I haven’t looked at refining and marketing companies.  I assume that they aren’t fully passing along to their customers the benefits of lower crude oil costs, but I haven’t checked.

Of course, if/when the oil price begins to rise again (I don’t expect that to be any time soon), the most responsive stocks will likely be those of the oilfield services firms, with those of the international majors moving the least.