Is that really what you want to spend your time doing, paying higher taxes?
“No matter how much money I make, they will always print more. I can’t print anymore time.”
Is that really what you want to spend your time doing, paying higher taxes?
“No matter how much money I make, they will always print more. I can’t print anymore time.”
With the worst of the Texas power crisis now behind us, the blame and finger pointing begins, and while the jury is still out whose actions (or lack thereof) may have led to the deadly and widespread blackouts that shocked Texas this week, Cascend Strategy writes that “in case there was any doubt why the Texas grid collapsed, the data is clear”
President Trump’s trade war is back. It’s an election year, and the efforts by the administration to ‘turbocharge’ an initiative to deglobalize that world by removing critical supply chains from China could be seen with new rounds of tariffs to strike Beijing for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, US officials told Reuters.
It’s clear that coronavirus lock downs have resulted in a crashed economy with more than 30 million people unemployed have derailed President Trump’s normal campaigning process and the promises of a vibrant economy. This could suggest President Trump is about to unleash tariff hell on Beijing as it would do two things: First, it would pressure US companies with supply chains in China to exit, and second, the president can say the tariffs are a punishment for the more than 68,000 Americans that have died from the virus.
“We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbocharging that initiative,” Keith Krach, undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at the U.S. State Department told Reuters.
“I think it is essential to understand where the critical areas are and where critical bottlenecks exist,” Krach said, adding that the matter was key to U.S. security and one the government could announce new action on soon.
Current and former officials said the Commerce Department and other federal agencies are investigating ways to push US companies away from sourcing and manufacturing in China. “Tax incentives and potential re-shoring subsidies are among measures being considered to spur changes,” they said.
“There is a whole of government push on this,” said one. Agencies are probing which manufacturing should be deemed “essential” and how to produce these goods outside of China.
Another official said, “this moment is a perfect storm; the pandemic has crystallized all the worries that people have had about doing business with China.”
“All the money that people think they made by making deals with China before, now they’ve been eclipsed many-fold by the economic damage” from the coronavirus, the official said.
Amid a pandemic and recession, it appears the comments from US officials suggest geopolitics could soon become major headaches for global markets. President Trump’s latest comments have stirred new concerns that an economic war with China is about to restart. This could be potentially dangerous for investors who are looking for V-shaped recoveries.
Last week, President Trump said China “will do anything they can” to make him lose his re-election bid in November. He said Beijing faced a “lot” of possible consequences for the virus outbreak.
He told Reuters: “There are many things I can do. We’re looking for what happened.”
President Trump recently said he could slap new tariffs of up to 25% tax on $370 billion in Chinese goods currently in place. Officials said the president could introduce new sanctions on officials or companies or project closer relations with Taiwan, all moves that would infuriate Beijing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said the administration is working with allies, including Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, to “move the global economy forward.”
Conversations among US officials have so far been about “how we restructure … supply chains to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” Pompeo said.
And it appears Beijing is preparing for President Trump to strike. We noted on Monday that Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing for a worst-case scenario of armed conflict with the US.
For years, we have documented the possibility of Thucydides Trap playing out between the US and China. That is when a dominant regional power (the US) feels threatened by the rise of a competing power (China). Read:
The evolution of the pandemic and economic crash appears to be deepening geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing.
War Room Pandemic Must Listen: Intelligence Reports Damn China In Virus Outbreaks:
Two weeks ago ZeroHedge reported how the “steepest decline in global oil consumption ever recorded” spelled negative prices for crude in what Goldman’s Jeffrey Currie as “the largest economic shock of our lifetimes.”
Now, the unprecedented collapse in consumption has hit the other end of the industry – gasoline.
According to Bloomberg, gasoline in Fargo, North Dakota has hit 12 cents a gallon at ‘the rack’ – the wholesale market where gas station owners buy fuel before marking it up at the pumps – which have become “little more than makeshift storage for ballooning inventories.”
“When you see gasoline down around 12 cents a gallon, no one is going to be making money,” said Ron Ness, President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, who added that it’s nearly impossible for retailers to turn a profit at that price.
“Our gasoline business has been cut in half,” said David Olson, general manager of RJ’s Gas Station outside of Fargo. Nearby, Shaun Lugurt told Bloomberg that he estimates sales at his station have tumbled 80% in a month.
“The biggest part for us that has been so hard is the unknown,” said Lugurt, adding “It’s been kind of a roller coaster.” Lugert co-owns Don’s Car Washes, and has also been forced too cut back store and worker hours.
The slump in rack prices, which are typically stable due to intense competition among distributors, is the latest sign that the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on every aspect of the fuel market. American gasoline consumption fell to the lowest level on record last week as lock downs take drivers off the road while gasoline stockpiles rose to a record high. That’s caused rack prices across the U.S to collapse. Milwaukee this week beat out Fargo for the lowest price in the nation. –Bloomberg
“The local racks are just inundated with material,” according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy – who suggested that some refineries may be selling gasoline “at a break even or even a loss.”
“What we are seeing is that a lot of the big pipelines are being used as storage, and the product will just get pushed and pushed until it has no place else to go,” said DTN refined products analyst, Brian Milne. “Those places are at the end of the line.”
Retail gas prices, meanwhile, are catching up.
“You’re not going to be able to flip a switch and go back to what it was before coronavirus,” said Olson, the station manager at RJ’s. “Even with businesses opened back up again, people are going to be apprehensive.“
Olson is probably right – as a recent Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans say they will wait to return to normal activities after the government lifts the nationwide coronavirus lock down.
Gasoline futures in New York fell as much as 13% to 50.00 cents a gallon, the lowest level since the current contract started trading in 2005.
The previous gasoline contract last traded that low in 2001…
All of which means Americans – on average – except Californians – can expect gas-prices at the pump to plunge below $2/gallon very soon…
Energy prices slid toward this multi-decade low on plunging demand due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis, and as prospects for a OPEC-Texas production deal faded.
“The government is taking a ‘whatever it takes’ approach,” said Marshall Steeves, an analyst at IHS Markit.
“That doesn’t change the fact that demand destruction is going to continue. There are still so many unknowns on the demand front. The duration of this economic shutdown is so uncertain that it’s making me believe the bottom may not be in yet.”
As Bloomberg notes, the prospects for the oil market remain bleak with more nations going into lockdown to tackle the virus. At the same time, supply is surging. The chance that either Saudi Arabia or Russia will back down from their price war seems remote, with President Vladimir Putin unlikely to submit to what he sees as the kingdom’s oil blackmail, according to Kremlin watchers.
Even if crude demand recovers to normal levels by the middle of the year, 2020 is still on course to suffer the biggest decline in consumption since reliable records started in the mid-1960s.
“We are now looking at a scale of surplus in the second quarter we probably never have seen before,” said Bjarne Schieldrop, chief commodities analyst at SEB.
Until now, the biggest annual contraction was recorded in 1980, when it tumbled by 2.6 million barrels a day as the global economy reeled under the impact of the second oil crisis.
We just witnessed a global collapse in asset prices the likes we haven’t seen before. Not even in 2008 or 2000. All these prior beginnings of bear markets happened over time, relatively slowly at first, then accelerating to the downside.
This collapse here has come from some of the historically most stretched valuations ever setting the stage for the biggest bull trap ever. The coronavirus that no one could have predicted is brutally punishing investors that complacently bought into the multiple expansion story that was sold to them by Wall Street. Technical signals that outlined trouble way in advance were ignored while the Big Short 2 was already calling for a massive explosion in $VIX way before anybody ever heard of corona virus.
Worse, there is zero visibility going forward as nobody knows how to price in collapsing revenues and earnings amid entire countries shutting down virtually all public gatherings and activities. Denmark just shut down all of its borders on Friday, flight cancellations everywhere, the planet is literally shutting down in unprecedented fashion.
After the bloodbath caused by Saudi Arabia’s decision to ramp up output, European oil companies at first blush look enticingly cheap.
The dividend yield in BP, for example, is a mouth-watering 9.35%, according to FactSet Research. For perspective, the yield on a British 10-year gilt is 0.27%.
But with oil prices so low, how could BP possibly afford to pay such a dividend?
Probably the most jarring numbers are the dividend cover at that level.
Equinor this year could cover just 1% of its dividend versus its previous estimate of 93%, according to the Morgan Stanley calculation of life at $35 a barrel.
The best positioned is OMV, which can still cover 107% of its dividend at $35, down from an estimated 198%.
BP’s dividend cover falls to 54% from 107%; Shell’s drops to 72% from 115%; Total’s goes to 62% from 125%; Eni’s drops to 57% from 87%; Repsol’s falls to 79% from 123%; and Galp’s drops to 52% from 115%.
Stock buybacks for the European major oil companies would drop by two-thirds on the Morgan Stanley numbers.
This comes as demand has been slashed due to the coronavirus outbreak
Saudi Arabia will increase its oil output next month to more than 10 million barrels per day, following talks between OPEC and its allies which failed to come to an agreement.
KSA has cut its oil prices drastically, more than it has in 20 years, with discounts to buyers in Europe, the Far East, and the US meant to draw more refiners to Saudi crude rather than other crude oil suppliers.
Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia has privately said it could raise production to 12 million barrels per day, citing anonymous sources.
This comes as demand is slashed due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
With energy junk bonds crashing…
… amid a (long-overdue) investor revulsion to the highly levered energy sector, much of which is funded in the high yield market, as crashing oil prices bring front and center a doomsday scenario of mass defaults as shale companies are unable to meet their debt and interest payment obligations, investor focus is shifting up the funding chain, and after assessing which shale names are likely to be hit the hardest, with many filing for bankruptcy if oil remains at or below $30, the next question is which banks have the most exposure to the energy loans funding these same E&P companies.
Conveniently, in a note this morning looking at the impact of plunging interest rates on bank profitability, Morgan Stanley also lays out the US banks that have the highest exposure to energy in their Q4 loan books.
Bloomberg focuses on how an industrial shutdown of China’s economy has already had a profound effect on India’s economy and could get worse.
Pankaj R. Patel, chairman of Zydus Cadila, said prices of medicine in India have exponentially jumped in the last several weeks, thanks to much of the medicine is sourced from China.
The Indian pharmaceutical industry is experiencing massive disruptions that could face shortages starting in April if supplies aren’t replenished in the next couple weeks, Patel warned.
Manufacturers in China have idled plants, and at least two-thirds of the economy is halted. Some factories came online last week with promises of full production by the end of the month, but for most factories, their resumption will likely be delayed. This will undoubtedly lead to medicine shortages in India in the coming months ahead.
A new theme is developing from all this mayhem – that is the reorganization of complex supply chains out of China to a more localized approach to avoid severing. But in the meantime, these complex supply chains in India and across the world will experience massive disruption caused by the shutdown. All of this points to ugly end of globalization:
Pankaj Mahindroo, chairman of the India Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA), said the wrecking of supply chains in China could soon have a devastating impact on India’s smartphone production.
Mahindroo represents companies including Foxconn, Apple Inc., Micromax Informatics Ltd., and Salcomp India, warned the “impact is already visible… If things don’t improve soon, production will have to be stopped.”
The closure of Foxconn plants in India would be absolutely devastating for Apple.
Apple produces iPhone XR in India. If the production of affordable smartphones is halted or reduced, the Californian based company could see full-year earnings guidance slashed.
Mohnidroo said if things don’t improve in the next couple of weeks, smartphone factories in India could start running out of “critical components like printed circuit boards, camera modules, semiconductors, resistors, and capacitors.”
A spokesperson for Xiaomi Corp.’s India unit said alternative sourcing attempts are underway to mitigate any supply chain disruption from China.
Even before all of this, India’s economy is rapidly decelerating into an economic crisis.
Former Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha warned several months ago that the country is in a “very deep crisis,” witnessing “death of demand,” and the government is “befooling people” with its economic distortions of how growth is around the corner.
Supply chain disruptions are moving from East to West. It’s only a matter of time before production lines are halted in the US because sourcing of Chinese parts is offline. The disruptions of supply chains is the shock that could tilt the global economy into recession.
Until now, the general public was only aware of the remarkable ability of Tesla cars to spontaneously combust, that is at least when they are not smashing into random things while on autopilot. It now appears that Tesla’s solar panels (some may be unaware that several years ago, Elon Musk tried to unsuccessfully pivot Tesla into a solar power company as well as that’s where a few billion in government subsidies were to be found) are just as combustible.
On Tuesday, Walmart sued Tesla, after its solar panels atop seven of the retailer’s stores allegedly caught fire, alleging breach of contract, gross negligence and failure to live up to industry standards. Walmart is asking Tesla to remove solar panels from more than 240 Walmart locations where they have been installed, and to pay damages related to all the fires Walmart says that Tesla caused.
Walmart said it had leased or licensed roof space on top of more than 240 stores to Tesla’s energy operations unit, formerly known as SolarCity (which was basically a bailout by Elon Musk for Elon Musk who was also the largest SolarCity shareholder), for the installation and operation of solar systems. But as of November, fires had broken out at no fewer than seven of the stores, forcing the disconnection of all the solar panel systems for the safety of the public.
The breach-of-contract suit by Walmart, which was filed in the state of New York, alleges that: “As of November 2018, no fewer than seven Walmart stores had experienced fires due to Tesla’s solar systems-including the four fires described above and three others that had occurred earlier.” The fires resulted in evacuations, damaged property and inventory.
Walmart’s inspectors additionally found that Tesla “had engaged in widespread, systemic negligence and had failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating and maintaining its solar systems.’
Walmart also claimed that “Tesla routinely deployed individuals to inspect the solar systems who lacked basic solar training and knowledge“ and also alleged that Tesla failed to ground its solar and electrical systems properly, and that Tesla-installed solar panels on-site at Walmart stores contained a high number of defects that were visible to the naked eye, including loose and hanging wires at several locations, and which Tesla should have found and repaired before they led to fires.
It gets better: according to the suit, Tesla’s own inspection reports revealed “improper wire management, including abraded and hanging wires,” as well as “poor grounding” and “solar panel modules that were broken or contained dangerous hot spots.”
“To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust, and the occurrence of multiple fires involving Tesla’s solar systems is but one unmistakable sign of negligence by Tesla,” Walmart said in the suit. “To this day, Tesla has not provided Walmart with the complete set of final ‘root cause’ analyses needed to identify the precise defects in its systems that caused all of the fires described above.”
Walmart said the first fire broke out at a store in Beavercreek, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, in March 2018, and two more fires occurred at stores in California and Maryland in May of that year. While Tesla disconnected the panels at Walmart’s request that same month, it wasn’t enough to stop fires from occurring, and another blaze broke out in November at a store in Yuba City, California.
Ironically, the lawsuit comes at a time when Tesla has been trying to salvage its collapsing solar business; on Sunday, Elon Musk announced in a string of tweets which reeked of desperation that customers in some states can now rent Tesla’s residential, solar rooftop systems without a contract. The offer is available in six states, and will cost customers at least $50 a month (or $65 a month in California). And although Musk touted the ease of cancelling a rented roof at anytime, CNBC noted that the fine print on Tesla’s website mentions a $1,500 fee to take out the solar panels and restore the customer’s roof.
There is a reason why Tesla is basically giving the spontaneously combustible solar panels away: In the second quarter, Tesla installed a mere 29 megawatts of solar, a record low for the company in a single quarter. In its heyday, Tesla’s solar division (formerly SolarCity) installed over 200 megawatts in a single quarter.
But wait there is more.
As if allegations of shoddy quality control, dismal workmanship and overall blatant lack of professionalism weren’t enough, Walmart also “went there” and in the “explosive”, pun not intended 114-page lawsuit, piled onto a long-running controversy according to which Tesla bailed out a failing SolarCity in 2016 when it purchased the company for $2.6 billion (Elon Musk was also the biggest shareholder of SolarCity at the time, while Tesla’s Elon Musk bought out SolarCity in a gross conflict of interest), with WalMart highlighting the familial ties between Tesla and SolarCity as the underpinnings of a flawed merger that allegedly produced shoddy craftsmanship and led to fires at seven Walmart stores.
“On information and belief, when Tesla purchased SolarCity to bail out the flailing company (whose executives included two of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s first cousins), Tesla failed to correct SolarCity’s chaotic installation practices or to adopt adequate maintenance protocols, which would have been particularly important in light of the improper installation practices,” Walmart claimed in a suit that is sure to draw regulators attention to the 2016 deal that should never have been allowed. As shown in the diagram above, SolarCity co-founders Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive are Musk’s cousins, while Musk was the largest shareholder of both companies.
So already facing a slumping stock price from dozens of lawsuits and investigations, store closings, delayed loan repayments and the departure of key executives, CNBC notes that the Walmart suit lands at a particularly difficult time for Tesla and Musk. Specifically in regards to SolarCity, Musk was slated to be deposed earlier this month in a complaint brought by shareholders over the deal.
The name “SolarCity” shows up 46 times in the lawsuit, which alleges the company had a failed business model, stemming from a goal to speed up revenue growth at all costs.
“Walmart’s experience bears out Tesla, Inc.’s and Tesla’s inability to turn around and bail out the solar panel operations acquired from SolarCity,” the suit says.
* * *
Walmart is asking a judge to declare Tesla in breach of contract, order the company to remove the solar panels from all of its stores and award damages equal to its costs and consulting fees in connection with the fires.
Tesla shares fell as much as 1.7% to $222.70 as of 6:45 p.m. in after hours trading. The stock is down 32% this year.
The case is Walmart Inc. v. Tesla Energy Operations, New York State Supreme Court, New York County; Index No. 654765/2019.
The full lawsuit is below
Today, gasoline taxes are rising in a dozen U.S. states. The following infographic shows where gasoline taxes are going up today and it’s based on data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
California is among the states with increases and taxes in the Golden State are going up by 5.6 cents. That now equates to 47.3 cents per gallon, meaning California once again has the highest gasoline prices in the country.
But, the increase is particularly notable in Illinois given, as Statista’s Niall McCarthy notes, that the state hasn’t altered its gas tax since 1990. It’s bumping its gas tax by 19 cents to 38 cents a gallon.
As IllinoisPolicy.org’s Vincent Carudo and Joe Barnas detail below, Illinoisans will shoulder one of the nation’s heaviest tax burdens at the pump – and the DMV.
On June 28, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a $45 billion infrastructure plan that will bring Illinois drivers a record gas tax hike and higher vehicle registration costs.
Those tax and fee increases will come in addition to tax hikes on cigarettes, e-cigarettes, parking and real-estate transfers, on top of new revenue from a massive gambling expansion that includes new casinos and legalized sport betting – all of which the Illinois General Assembly introduced and passed in a single day.
The gas tax hike is the most painful increase to come, doubling to 38 cents from 19 cents per gallon.
This will bump Illinois’ total gas tax burden to the third-highest in the nation, and possibly higher if local governments exercise their increased taxing authority under the plan. An Illinois Policy Institute analysis found the typical Illinois driver will pay at least $100 more on gasoline each year under a doubled gas tax.
Illinois is one of just seven states where drivers pay layers of both general sales taxes and special excise taxes on gasoline at the state and local levels. Those multiple layers mean drivers filling up in Chicago, for example, will pay 96 cents in taxes and fees on a $2.46 gallon of gasoline – an effective tax burden of 39%.
The infrastructure plan also hikes Illinois’ vehicle registration fees to among the highest in the nation. Illinois drivers of standard vehicles weighing 8,000 pounds or less will see registration fees jump to $148 from $98.
The gas tax hike kicks in July 1, and motorists will pay more for license plate stickers starting in 2020.
Taken together, increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees alone erase any promised income tax savings included in Pritzker’s progressive income tax plan, which Illinoisans will vote on in November 2020.
Under Pritzker’s proposed progressive tax system, a married couple in Illinois with two kids earning the $79,168 median annual income and paying the average property tax bill of $4,157 would see $195 in total tax relief, according to the Pritzker administration’s online “fair tax calculator.”
But if that same family uses two cars on a regular basis, their budget will take a $300 hit – a $200 gas tax increase and a $100 vehicle registration fee hike.
Notably, the gas tax will be tied to inflation, meaning it will automatically rise annually. This allows state lawmakers in future years to avoid blame from frustrated motorists.
Based on current inflation projections, the gas tax will rise almost a penny a year. Lawmakers’ inflation mechanism could drive the gas tax to 43.5 cents by 2025, nearly 25 cents per gallon more than it is now.
Using the most recent inflation forecasts for the United States, the gas tax will grow just short of a penny each year until 2025 – a 130% increase.
The new law lets Chicago raise its local gas tax by an extra 3 cents, which would put it at 8 cents. It allows Lake County and Will County to impose a gas tax of up to 8 cents per gallon. DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties would be able to double their 4-cent-per-gallon gas taxes to 8 cents.
According to state projections, the doubled gas tax alone will raise $1.2 billion, with $560 million going to the state and $650 million to local governments.
If Chicago and the collar counties increase their motor fuel taxes – along with automatic yearly inflation-tied increases at the state level – residents could soon be looking at the highest average gas tax burden in the country.
The Illinois Policy Institute outlined a plan in May showing how Illinois could finance $10 billion in new capital spending without tax hikes.
State lawmakers could have achieved a more responsible plan by focusing on maintenance infrastructure, reforming costly prevailing wage mandates and using an objective project selection process, while dedicating revenue from legalized sports betting and sales taxes on gasoline to transportation infrastructure.
Instead, state leaders once again chose to demand more of already-overburdened Illinois taxpayers.
RBOB Gasoline futures jumped overnight, accelerating their recent ascent ever since the explosion and massive inferon at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) plant, following a Reuters report that the largest east coast refinery is expected to seek to permanently shut its oil refinery in the city after a massive fire caused substantial damage to the complex.
Shutting the refinery, the largest and oldest on the U.S. East Coast, would result in not only hundreds of lost jobs but also sharply higher gasoline prices as gasoline supplies are squeezed in the busiest, most densely populated corridor of the United States.
PES is expected to file a notice of intent with state and federal regulators as early as Wednesday, setting in motion the process of closing the refinery, the sources said.
The refinery, which could still change its plans, is also expected to begin layoffs of the 700 union workers at the plant as early as Wednesday, Reuters reported. The layoffs could include about half of the union workforce, with the remaining staff staying at the site until the investigation into the blast concludes.
As reported previously, the 335,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) complex, located in a densely populated area in the southern part of the city, erupted in flames in the early hours on Friday, in a series of explosions that could be heard miles away and which some compared to a meteor strike or a nuclear bomb going off.
The cause of the fire was still unknown as of Tuesday, though city fire officials said it started in a butane vat around 4 a.m. (0800 GMT). It destroyed a 30,000-bpd alkylation unit that uses hydrofluoric acid to process refined products. Had the acid caught fire, it could have resulted in a vapor cloud that can damage the skin, eyes and lungs of nearby residents.
Prior to the massive inferno, the refinery had suffered from years of financial struggles, forcing it to slash worker benefits and scale back capital projects to save cash. It went through a bankruptcy process last year to reduce its debt, but its difficulties continued as its cash on hand dwindled even after emerging from bankruptcy in August; some have speculated that cost cutting resulted in the structure becoming fragile and susceptible to accident.
After bankruptcy, Credit Suisse Asset Management and Bardin Hill became the controlling owners, with former primary owners Carlyle Group and Sunoco Logistics, an Energy Transfer subsidiary, holding a minority stake.
Last Friday’s blaze was the second in two weeks at the complex, spurring calls from Philadelphia’s mayor for a task force to look into both the cause and community outreach in the wake of the incidents. A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney declined to comment on the potential closure of the plant.
That may be difficult as investigators on the scene are said to be dealing with unstable structures that need to be certified by engineers, slowing down the inquiry, city officials said. The investigation could ultimately take months or perhaps years. Additionally, the state Department of Environmental Protection said they have concerns about the integrity of storage tanks on site, the agency said on Tuesday. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is also investigating the incident, according to Reuters.
While none of this will make much news outside of Philly, what will impact all East Coast drivers is that gasoline futures rose as much as 5.4% on Wednesday to $1.9787 a gallon, the highest since May 23. The front month price was at $1.945 early on Wednesday.
Futures are up 8.9% since Thursday’s close.
NY Gasoline prices have surged back into a premium over US Gulf Gasoline…
All of which will drag, as always with a lag, the price of gas at the pump notably higher…
The rally in U.S. gasoline futures has pushed U.S. gasoline prices above European and Asian markets, raising the prospects for US imports. According to Matthew Chew, oil analyst at IHS Markit, “chances are that (the wider price spread) could open up the arbs between U.S. Gulf/Europe and [the East Coast] PADD 1.”
The “muzzle” on reported inflation has policymakers and analysts perplexed.
And so the sun seems to stand still this last day before the resumption of business-as-usual, and whatever remains of labor in this sclerotic republic takes its ease in the ominous late summer heat, and the people across this land marinate in anxious uncertainty. What can be done?
Some kind of epic national restructuring is in the works. It will either happen consciously and deliberately or it will be forced on us by circumstance. One side wants to magically reenact the 1950s; the other wants a Gnostic transhuman utopia. Neither of these is a plausible outcome. Most of the arguments ranging around them are what Jordan Peterson calls “pseudo issues.” Let’s try to take stock of what the real issues might be.
Energy: The shale oil “miracle” was a stunt enabled by supernaturally low interest rates, i.e. Federal Reserve policy. Even The New York Times said so yesterday (The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground). For all that, the shale oil producers still couldn’t make money at it. If interest rates go up, the industry will choke on the debt it has already accumulated and lose access to new loans. If the Fed reverses its current course — say, to rescue the stock and bond markets — then the shale oil industry has perhaps three more years before it collapses on a geological basis, maybe less. After that, we’re out of tricks. It will affect everything.
The perceived solution is to run all our stuff on electricity, with the electricity produced by other means than fossil fuels, so-called alt energy. This will only happen on the most limited basis and perhaps not at all. (And it is apart from the question of the decrepit electric grid itself.) What’s required is a political conversation about how we inhabit the landscape, how we do business, and what kind of business we do. The prospect of dismantling suburbia — or at least moving out of it — is evidently unthinkable. But it’s going to happen whether we make plans and policies, or we’re dragged kicking and screaming away from it.
Corporate tyranny: The nation is groaning under despotic corporate rule. The fragility of these operations is moving toward criticality. As with shale oil, they depend largely on dishonest financial legerdemain. They are also threatened by the crack-up of globalism, and its 12,000-mile supply lines, now well underway. Get ready for business at a much smaller scale.
Hard as this sounds, it presents great opportunities for making Americans useful again, that is, giving them something to do, a meaningful place in society, and livelihoods. The implosion of national chain retail is already underway. Amazon is not the answer, because each Amazon sales item requires a separate truck trip to its destination, and that just doesn’t square with our energy predicament. We’ve got to rebuild main street economies and the layers of local and regional distribution that support them. That’s where many jobs and careers are.
Climate change is most immediately affecting farming. 2018 will be a year of bad harvests in many parts of the world. Agri-biz style farming, based on oil-and-gas plus bank loans is a ruinous practice, and will not continue in any case. Can we make choices and policies to promote a return to smaller scale farming with intelligent methods rather than just brute industrial force plus debt? If we don’t, a lot of people will starve to death. By the way, here is the useful work for a large number of citizens currently regarded as unemployable for one reason or another.
Pervasive racketeering rules because we allow it to, especially in education and medicine. Both are self-destructing under the weight of their own money-grubbing schemes. Both are destined to be severely downscaled. A lot of colleges will go out of business. Most college loans will never be paid back (and the derivatives based on them will blow up). We need millions of small farmers more than we need millions of communications majors with a public relations minor. It may be too late for a single-payer medical system. A collapsing oil-based industrial economy means a lack of capital, and fiscal hocus-pocus is just another form of racketeering. Medicine will have to get smaller and less complex and that means local clinic-based health care. Lots of careers there, and that is where things are going, so get ready.
Government over-reach: the leviathan state is too large, too reckless, and too corrupt. Insolvency will eventually reduce its scope and scale. Most immediately, the giant matrix of domestic spying agencies has turned on American citizens. It will resist at all costs being dismantled or even reined in. One task at hand is to prosecute the people in the Department of Justice and the FBI who ran illegal political operations in and around the 2016 election. These are agencies which use their considerable power to destroy the lives of individual citizens. Their officers must answer to grand juries.
As with everything else on the table for debate, the reach and scope of US imperial arrangements has to be reduced. It’s happening already, whether we like it or not, as geopolitical relations shift drastically and the other nations on the planet scramble for survival in a post-industrial world that will be a good deal harsher than the robotic paradise of digitally “creative” economies that the credulous expect. This country has enough to do within its own boundaries to prepare for survival without making extra trouble for itself and other people around the world. As a practical matter, this means close as many overseas bases as possible, as soon as possible.
As we get back to business tomorrow, ask yourself where you stand in the blather-storm of false issues and foolish ideas, in contrast to the things that actually matter.
Today U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue announced another campaign to protect and defend his Wall Street contributors against initiatives that benefit Main Street U.S.A. This is not the first time, and unfortunately it will likely not be the last time.
For a great historic reference consider THIS ARTICLE from 2014; when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced their direct attack against the Tea Party backed candidates that threatened to remove the massive lobbying power of Tom Donohue’s corrupt officials. That 2014 reference point has two parts. I strongly urge anyone who would defend the U.S. CoC approach to read both.
The overwhelming majority of economic punditry and opinion come from salespeople on the purchased payroll, direct and indirect, of the chamber. It is one of the most, check that, it is the most corrupt and abusive enterprise in the history of our nation. They are pulling out a very familiar playbook.
(Reuters) – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday denounced President Donald Trump’s handling of a global trade dispute, issuing a report that argued the tariffs imposed by Washington and retaliation by its partners would boomerang badly on the American economy.
The Chamber, the nation’s largest business lobby group and a traditional ally of Trump’s Republican Party, argued the White House is risking a global trade war with the push to protect U.S. industry and workers with tariffs.The group’s analysis of the potential hit each U.S. state may take from retaliation by U.S. trading partners painted a gloomy picture that could increase pressure on the White House from Republicans ahead of congressional elections in November.[…] The Chamber is expected to spend millions of dollars ahead of the November elections to help candidates who back free trade, immigration and lower taxes. It has already backed candidates who share those goals in Republican primaries. (read more)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce consists of a massive multinational DC lobbying group that four consecutive administrations’ have allowed to write the actual language in U.S. trade deals and trade negotiations. Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama all gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the keys to the U.S. economy, and walked away. The U.S. middle-class was nearly destroyed in the process.
CTH has stood alone, for years, against the insufferable horde of CoC political mouthpieces and their media conscripts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is at the corrupt center of almost every scheme that fund the Deep Swamp to the detriment of our nation. They are the most vile and insidious UniParty group of lobbyists in Washington DC.
Until Donald Trump came along, they held virtually unlimited power over the U.S. economy. The Chamber is a cancer; and any politician who associates with that abhorrent group should be excised from existence with extreme prejudice.
Consumers, who are already being squeezed by rising interest rates (even as the return on their cash deposits remains anchored near zero), are facing another potential constraint on their already limited purchasing power. And that constraint is rising gasoline prices, which, as we pointed out last month, could erode the stimulative impact of President Trump’s tax plan as rising prices sop up what little money the middle class is saving.
As prices rise and banks scramble to update their forecasts, the Wall Street Journal has become the latest publication to sound the alarm over what is, in our view, one of the biggest threats facing the US economy in the ninth year of its post-crisis expansion.
In its story warning about $3 a gallon gas (of course, we’re already seeing $4 a gallon in parts of California and other high-tax states), WSJ cited Morgan Stanley’s latest projection that rising gas prices could wipe out about a third of the annual take-home pay generated by the tax cuts.
Rising fuel costs can also feed inflation and pressure interest rates. Even though the Federal Reserve typically looks past volatile energy prices in the short term, higher energy costs help shape consumer confidence. And with the central bank poised to be more active this year, rising energy costs pose an additional risk to the economy.
Morgan Stanley estimates that if gas averages $2.96 this year, it would take an annualized $38 billion from spending elsewhere, an upward revision from the bank’s $20 billion estimate in January. That would wipe out about a third of the additional take-home pay coming from tax cuts this year, the analysts said.
Patrick DeHaan, petroleum analyst at GasBuddy”Three dollars is like a small fence. You can get through it, you can get over it,” said Patrick DeHaan, petroleum analyst at GasBuddy, a fuel-tracking app. “But $4 is like the electric fence in Jurassic Park. There’s no getting over that.”
Of course, MS’s take appears downright pollyannaish when compared with a Brookings Center report that we highlighted last month.
The left-of-center think tank, which of course has every reason to hope that the next recession will materialize on President Trump’s watch, projected that consumers would soon spend about half of the money saved from tax cuts on fuel costs.
And in a report published in April, Deutsche Bank illustrated how rising fuel costs will disproportionately squeeze the most vulnerable among us – a cohort of consumers who already shoulder an outsize share of the country’s household debt.
The FT put it another way…
As the chart above shows, middle-income families – aka the engine of consumption – will be the hardest hit by rising gas prices.
Indeed, small business owners in California, where gas prices are the fifth highest in the nation thanks to taxes and stringent emissions standards, say they’ve seen their energy bills shoot higher in the past few months. Car salesmen say consumers are asking more questions about mileage, according to WSJ.
Robert Lozano, a car salesman in Los Angeles where some gas prices are already above $4, said the dealership’s gas bill has climbed from about $9,000 to about $12,000 a month recently.
Customers are inquiring more about electric vehicles, he said.
“It’s more in the consumer’s mind as to what the most efficient vehicle is.”
With oil already at $70 a barrel, early indicators imply that the summer driving season could see an unusually large spike in demand for gas…
…As the number of Americans intending to take vacations in the next six months climbs to its highest level in decades.
Heightened vacation intentions suggest the number of vehicle miles driven will also climb (because people tend to travel greater distances when they go on vacation). As the chart below shows, fluctuations in miles driven – a close proxy for gas demand – are quickly reflected in prices at the pump.
While the US’s increasing prominence in the oil-export market could soften some of the economic blow as the energy business booms, other large business from airlines to shipping companies would feel the pinch at a time when costs are already rising.
But some economists say the growing importance of energy to the U.S. economy could blunt some of the impact from rising oil prices.
The country has become a more prominent supplier of crude oil and fuel. Domestic production has reached record weekly levels of 10.7 million barrels per day and a lot of it is being exported.
“People don’t understand how we could double crude oil production” and see higher gas prices, said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service. “The answer lies in the balance of payment. We are an exporting power right now.”
Airlines and shipping companies will also be paying more for jet fuel and diesel – costs that may be passed along to consumers. Even companies such as Whirlpool Corp. have noted that higher oil prices have boosted the cost of materials.
Refiner Valero Energy Corp. said it wouldn’t expect consumer demand to drop off until oil prices are at $80 to $100.
But demand is only one factor driving up oil prices. Supply issues have also weighed on oil traders’ minds. Traders pushed oil prices higher as the US pulled out of the Iran deal as some worried that it could impact global supplies (though, as we’ve pointed out, there are plenty of other buyers waiting to step in and buy Iranian crude). Even if the Iranian crude trade isn’t impacted by sanctions, plummeting production capacity in Venezuela could ultimately have a bigger impact on global supply.
Conflicts in other oil producing regions could also impact supplies, pushing prices higher.
Last week, Bank of America became the first Wall Street bank to call $100/bbl for Brent crude (at the time, it was trading around $77/bbl) in 2019. That could send prices to highs not seen since 2008. Other banks have been scrambling to raise their forecasts as well.
With the Fed changing its language in its latest policy statement to reflect rising inflation expectations, rising oil prices could also inspire the Fed to hike interest rates more quickly for fear that the economy might overheat. That could result in four – or perhaps five – rate hikes this year.
The resulting effect would be like economic kudzu strangling the buying power of consumers and possibly forcing a long-overdue debt reckoning as millennials, who are already drowning in debt, are forced to put off home ownership and family formation until they’re in their late 30s or even their 40s.
Just days after Beijing officially launched Yuan-denominated crude oil futures (with a bang, as shown in the chart below, surpassing Brent trading volume) which are expected to quickly become the third global price benchmark along Brent and WTI, China took the next major step in challenging the Dollar’s supremacy as global reserve currency (and internationalizing the Yuan) when on Thursday Reuters reported that China took the first steps to paying for crude oil imports in its own currency instead of US Dollars.
A pilot program for yuan payments could be launched as soon as the second half of the year and regulators have already asked some financial institutions to “prepare for pricing crude imports in the yuan“, Reuters sources reveal.
According to the proposed plan, Beijing would start with purchases from Russia and Angola, two nations which, like China, are keen to break the dollar’s global dominance. They are also two of the top suppliers of crude oil to China, along with Saudi Arabia.
A change in the default crude oil transactional currency – which for decades has been the “Petrodollar“, blessing the US with global reserve currency status – would have monumental consequences for capital allocations and trade flows, not to mention geopolitics: as Reuters notes, a shift in just a small part of global oil trade into the yuan is potentially huge. “Oil is the world’s most traded commodity, with an annual trade value of around $14 trillion, roughly equivalent to China’s gross domestic product last year.” Currently, virtually all global crude oil trading is in dollars, barring an estimated 1 per cent in other currencies. This is the basis of US dominance in the world economy.
However, as shown in the chart below which follows the first few days of Chinese oil futures trading, this status quo may be changing fast.
Superficially, for China it would be a matter of nationalistic pride to see oil trade transact in Yuan: “Being the biggest buyer of oil, it’s only natural for China to push for the usage of yuan for payment settlement. This will also improve the yuan liquidity in the global market,” said one of the people briefed on the matter by Chinese authorities.
There are other considerations behind the launch of the Yuan-denominated oil contract as Goldman explains:
The danger, of course, is that such a shift would also boost the value of the Yuan, hardly what China needs considering it was just two a half years ago that Beijing launched a controversial Yuan devaluation to boost its exports and economy.
Still, in light of the relative global economic stability, Beijing may be willing to take the gamble on a stronger Yuan if it means greater geopolitical clout and further acceptance of the renminbi.
Which is why restructuring oil fund flows may be the best first step: as of this moment, China is the world’s second-largest oil consumer and in 2017 overtook the United States as the biggest importer of crude oil; its demand is a key determinant of global oil prices.
If China’s plan to push the Petroyuan’s acceptance proves successful, it will result in greater momentum across all commodities, and could trigger the shift of other product payments to the yuan, including metals and mining raw materials.
Besides the potential of giving China more power over global oil prices, “this will help the Chinese government in its efforts to internationalize yuan,” said Sushant Gupta, research director at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. In a Wednesday note, Goldman Sachs said that the success of Shanghai’s crude futures was “indirectly promoting the use of the Chinese currency (which, however as noted above, has negative trade offs as it would also result in a stronger Yuan, something the PBOC may not be too excited about).
Meanwhile, China is wasting no time, and Unipec, the trading arm of Asia’s largest refiner Sinopec already signed a deal to import Middle East crude priced against the newly-launched Shanghai crude futures contract, which incidentally is traded in Yuan.
The bottom line here is whether Beijing is indeed prepared and ready to challenge the US Dollar for the title of global currency hegemon. As Rueters notes, China’s plan to use yuan to pay for oil comes amid a more than year-long gradual strengthening of the currency, which looks set to post a fifth straight quarterly gain, its longest winning streak since 2013.
In a sign that China’s recent Draconian capital control crackdowns have sapped market confidence in a freely-traded Yuan, the currency retained its No.5 ranking as a domestic and global payment currency in January this year, unmoved from a year ago, but its share among other currencies fell to 1.7 percent from 2.5 percent, according to industry tracker SWIFT.
A slew of measures put in place in the last 1-1/2 years to rein in capital flowing out of the country amid a slide in yuan value has taken off some its shine as a global payment currency.
But the yuan has now appreciated 3.4 percent against the dollar so far this year, with solid gains in recent sessions.
“For PBOC and other regulators, internationalization of the yuan is clearly one of the priorities now, and if this plan goes off smoothly then they can start thinking about replicating this model for other commodities purchases,” said a Reuters source.
Still, it will be a long and difficult climb before the Yuan can challenge the dollar and for Beijing to shift the bulk of its commodity purchases to the yuan because of the currency’s illiquidity in forex markets. According to the latest BIS Triennial Survey, nearly 90% of all transactions in the $5 trillion-a-day FX markets involved the dollar on one side of a trade, while only 4% use the yuan.
* * *
Still, not everyone is convinced that the new Yuan-denominated contract will create a “petro-yuan” as the following take from Goldman highlights:
The launch of the INE contract is not just about oil, as it will also be the first Yuan denominated commodity contract tradable by offshore investors. Such a set-up meets the PBOC’s monetary policy committee goal to raise the profile of its currency in the pricing of commodities. It has raised however the question of whether the INE contract is an incremental step in achieving the currency reserve status for the Yuan. We do not believe so.
While the INE launch does represent an additional step in the CNY internationalization, the CNY denomination of the INE contract does not in itself imply CNY investments. The INE contract does not represent an opening of China’s capital accounts since foreign deposits operate in a closed circuit, deposited in designated accounts and not to be used to purchase other domestic assets. In practice, the collateral deposit and any capital gains can be transferred back to offshore accounts. The potential for greater foreign ownership of Chinese assets is therefore not impacted by CNY oil invoicing and would require instead oil exporters to recycle their proceeds in local assets, for example. The incentive to do this has not changed with the introduction of the INE contracts. In particular, most Middle East oil producers still have currencies pegged to the dollar and limited ability to hedge CNY exposure.
Whether or not Goldman is right remains to be seen, however it is undeniable that a monumental change is afoot in global capital flows, where the US – whether Beijing wants to or not – will soon be forced to defend its currency status as oil exporters (and investors in this highly financialized market) will now have a choice: go with US hegemony, or start accepting Yuan in exchange for the world’s most important commodity.
In what is the latest move to undermine the imperial world order maintained by the United States, which is underpinned through use of the petrodollar as the world reserve currency, the Wall Street Journal reports that Venezuelan President Maduro has officially followed through on his threat to stop accepting US Dollars as payment for crude oil exports in the wake of recent US sanctions.
Last Thursday, President Nicolas Maduro said that if the US went ahead with the sanction, Venezuela would “free” itself from the US Dollar.
According to Reuters:
“Venezuela is going to implement a new system of international payments and will create a basket of currencies to free us from the dollar,” Maduro said in a multi-hour address to a new legislative “superbody.”
Unsurprisingly, Maduro noted that his country would look to the BRICS countries, and begin using the Chinese yuan and Russian ruble instead — along with other currencies — to bypass the US Dollar stranglehold.
Rather than work diplomatically with other nations, the United States often uses sanctions to force compliance. Due to the dollar being accepted as the world’s reserve currency, almost all financial transactions are denominated in dollars. This phenomenon gives the US a powerful weapon to wield against states that refuse to follow US directives, and underpins the unipolar model of global domination exercised by the US.
Interestingly, the decision by Venezuela – the nation with the world’s largest proven oil reserves – comes just days after China and Russia unveiled an Oil/Yuan/Gold plan at the recent annual BRICS conference. This plan would strongly undermine the hegemonic control the US enjoys over the global financial system.
During the BRICS conference, Putin unveiled a geopolitical/geoeconomic bombshell as he forwarded the notion of a “fair multipolar world.” He emphasized a stance “against protectionism and new barriers in global trade” — a reference to the manner in which US operates its empire to maintain primacy.
Russia shares the BRICS countries’ concerns over the unfairness of the global financial and economic architecture, which does not give due regard to the growing weight of the emerging economies. We are ready to work together with our partners to promote international financial regulation reforms and to overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies.
“To overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies” is simply a nice way of saying that the BRICS will create a system to bypass the US dollar, as well as the petrodollar, in an effort to undermine the unipolar paradigm embraced by the United States.
As we previously reported, China will soon launch a crude oil futures contract priced in yuan that is fully convertible into gold.
What this means is that countries who refuse to bend to the imperial will of the United States, i.e. Russia, Iran, etc., will now be able to bypass US sanctions by making energy trades in their own currencies, or in Chinese yuan – with the knowledge that they can convert the yuan into gold as added incentive/insurance/security.
The yuan will be fully convertible into gold on both the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges. Typically, crude oil is priced in relation to Brent or West Texas Intermediate futures, both denominated in U.S. dollars.
“The rules of the global oil game may begin to change enormously,” said Luke Gromen, founder of U.S.-based macroeconomic research company FFTT.
This new paradigm of oil, yuan, and gold is, without question, an international game changer. The key takeaway here is that the US dollar can now be bypassed without so much as a second thought.
Russia and China – via the Russian Central Bank and the People’s Bank of China – have been steadily working on ruble-yuan swaps as a means of hedging against US hegemony.
There is a strategic movement to take these actions beyond the BRICS, first allowing aspiring “BRICS Plus” members, then entire Global South to divest themselves from dependence on the US dollar.
Essentially, Russia and China are working together to usher in a new paradigm of Eurasian integration, something that goes directly against US strategic doctrine – which dictates that Russia and China, the United States’ two main geopolitical rivals, should never be allowed to dominate Eurasia.
“In 2014 Russia and China signed two mammoth 30-year contracts for Russian gas to China. The contracts specified that the exchange would be done in Renminbi [yuan] and Russian rubles, not in dollars. That was the beginning of an accelerating process of de-dollarization that is underway today,” according to strategic risk consultant F. William Engdahl.
Russia and China are now creating a new paradigm for the world economy and paving the way for a global de-dollarization, and Venezuela is just the beginning.
“A Russian-Chinese alternative to the dollar in the form of a gold-backed ruble and gold-backed Renminbi or yuan, could start a snowball exit from the US dollar, and with it, a severe decline in America’s ability to use the reserve dollar role to finance her wars with other peoples’ money,” Engdahl concludes.
Make no mistake that the BRICS are not only working to integrate Eurasia, but to geo-economically integrate the entire Global South under a new multipolar framework that treats states as equals, regardless of their power stature globally.
The Neolibcons in Washington – bent on eventual regime change in Russia and China – are in for an extremely rude awakening. Although the BRICS have their own structural economic problems, they have created a long-term plan that will change the face of geopolitics/geo-economics and degrade the imperialist will of those that wish to dictate and order the world as they see fit.
The DC War Party’s petrodollar imperialism, which funds the US war machine and allows for a constant war footing, is quickly running out of allies to maintain its global hegemony.
The world’s top oil importer, China, is preparing to launch a crude oil futures contract denominated in Chinese yuan and convertible into gold, potentially creating the most important Asian oil benchmark and allowing oil exporters to bypass U.S.-dollar denominated benchmarks by trading in yuan, Nikkei Asian Review reports.
The crude oil futures will be the first commodity contract in China open to foreign investment funds, trading houses, and oil firms. The circumvention of U.S. dollar trade could allow oil exporters such as Russia and Iran, for example, to bypass U.S. sanctions by trading in yuan, according to Nikkei Asian Review.
To make the yuan-denominated contract more attractive, China plans the yuan to be fully convertible in gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges.
Last month, the Shanghai Futures Exchange and its subsidiary Shanghai International Energy Exchange, INE, successfully completed four tests in production environment for the crude oil futures, and the exchange continues with preparatory works for the listing of crude oil futures, aiming for the launch by the end of this year.
I believe it’s very clear this oil rally is running on fumes and was never the result of an improvement in fundamentals. That means to me this rally is going to quickly run out of steam if it isn’t able to run up quicker on existing momentum. I don’t see that happening, and it could pull back dramatically, catching a lot of investors by surprise. The Russian central bank agrees, saying it doesn’t believe the price of oil is sustainable under existing market conditions.
Cited by CNBC, the Russian central bank said, “the current oil market still features a continued oversupply, on the backdrop of a slowdown in the Chinese economy, more supplies originating from Iran and tighter competition for market share.”
In other words, most things in the market that should be improving to support the price of oil aren’t. That can only mean one thing: a violent pullback that could easily push the price of oil back down to the $30 to $32 range. If the price starts to fall quickly, we could see panic selling driving the price down even further.
I think most investors understand this is not a legitimate rally when looking at the lack of change in fundamentals. I’ll be glad when the production freeze hoax is seen for what it is: a manipulation of the price of oil by staggered press releases meant to pull investors along for the ride. The purpose is to buy some time to give the market more time to rebalance. Once this is seen for what it really is, oil will plummet. It could happen at any time in my opinion.
Rig count increases for first time in three months
For the first time in three months, the U.S. rig count was up, increasing by one to 387. By itself this isn’t that important, but when combined with the probability that more shale supply may be coming to the market in 2016, it definitely could be an early sign of the process beginning.
EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG) has stated it plans on starting up to 270 wells in 2016. We don’t know yet how much additional supply it represents, but it’s going to offset some of the decline from other companies that can’t continue to produce at these price levels. There are other low-cost shale producers that may be doing the same, although I think the price of oil will have to climb further to make it profitable for them, probably around $45 per barrel.
It’s impossible to know at this time if the increase in the price of oil was a catalyst, or we’ve seen the bottom of the drop in rig counts. The next round of earnings reports will give a glimpse into that.
Fundamentals remain weak
Most of the recent strength of the price of oil has been the continual reporting on the proposed production freeze from OPEC and Russia. This is light of the fact there really won’t be a freeze, even if a piece of paper is signed saying there is.
We know Iran isn’t going to agree to a freeze, and with Russia producing at post-Soviet highs and Iraq producing at record levels, what would a freeze mean anyway? It would simply lock in output levels the countries were going to operate at with or without an agreement.
The idea is the freeze is having an effect on the market and this will lead to a production cut. That simply isn’t going to happen. There is zero chance of that being the outcome of a freeze, if that ever comes about.
And a freeze without Iran isn’t a freeze. To even call it that defies reality. How can there be a freeze when the one country that would make a difference isn’t part of it? If Iran doesn’t freeze production, it means more supply will be added to the market until it reaches pre-sanction levels. At that time, all Iran has promised is it may consider the idea.
What does that have to do with fundamentals? Absolutely nothing. That’s the point.
Analysis and decisions need to be based on supply and demand. Right now that doesn’t look good. The other major catalyst pushing up oil prices has been the belief that U.S. shale production will decline significantly in 2016, which would help support oil. The truth is we have no idea to what level production will drop. It seems every time a report comes out it’s revised in a way that points to shale production remaining more resilient than believed.
I have no doubt there will be some production loss in the U.S., but to what degree there will be a decline, when considering new supply from low-cost shale companies, has yet to be determined. I believe it’s not going to be near to what was originally estimated, and that will be another element weakening support over the next year.
Competing for market share
One part of the oil market that has been largely ignored has been the competition for market share itself. When U.S. shale supply flooded the market, the response from Saudi Arabia was to not cede market share in any way. That is the primary reason for the plunge in oil prices.
There has been no declaration by the Saudis that they are going to change their strategy in relationship to market share and have said numerous times they are going to let the market sort it out, as far as finding a balance between supply and demand. So the idea they are now heading in a different direction is a fiction created by those trying to find anything to push up the price of oil.
It is apparent some of the reason for increased U.S. imports comes from Saudi Arabia in particular lowering its prices to nudge out domestic supply. It’s also why the idea of inventory being reduced in conjunction with lower U.S. production can’t be counted on. It looks like imports will continue to climb while shale production declines.
More competition means lower prices, although in this case, Saudi Arabia is selling its oil at different price points to different markets. It’s the average that matters there, and we simply don’t have the data available to know what that is.
In the midst of all of this, Russia is battling the Saudis for share in China, while the two also battle it out in parts of Europe, with Saudi Arabia looking to take share away from Russia. Some of Europe has opened up to competitors because it doesn’t want to rely too much on Russia as its major energy source.
For this and other competitive reasons, I could never trust a production freeze agreement if it ever came to fruition. They haven’t been adhered to in the past, and they won’t be if it happens again. Saudi Arabia has stated several times that it feels the same way.
To me the Russian central bank is spot on in saying the chance of a sustainable oil rally is slim. It also accurately pointed out the reasons for that: it’s about the lack of the fundamentals changing.
With U.S. inventory increasing, rig counts probably at or near a bottom, no end in sight to oversupply continuing, and competition for a low-demand market heating up, there is nothing I see that can justify an ongoing upward price move. I don’t even see it being able to hold.
A weaker U.S. dollar has legitimately helped some, but it can’t support the price of oil on its own. When all the other factors come together in the minds of investors, and the price of oil starts to reverse direction, there is a very strong chance a lot of bullish investors are going to get crushed hard. It is probably time to take some profits and run for the exit if you’re in the oil market for the short term.
The longer the price of oil has upward momentum, and the higher it goes, the more risky it becomes for investors because there is nothing outside of a weakening U.S. dollar to justify any kind of move we’ve seen the price of oil make recently.
The falling dollar isn’t enough to keep the oil price from falling to where it belongs, and that means when the selloff begins, it’s likely to gravitate into full-panic mode, with sellers running for the exits before they get burned.
This is especially risky for those looking to make a quick windfall from the upward movement of oil. I’m not concerned about those taking long-term positions in quality energy companies with significant oil exposure, since they’ve probably enjoyed some great entry points. There is, of course, dividend risk, along with the strong probability of further share erosion before there is a real recovery that has legs to stand on because it’s based on fundamentals.
For that reason, investors should seriously consider taking profits off the table and wait for better conditions to re-enter.
Oil has become a fear play. Not the fear of losing money, but the fear of not getting in on the fast-moving action associated with the quick-rising price of oil. Whenever there is a fear play, it is ruled by emotion, and no amount of data will convince investors to abandon their giddy profits until they lose much, if not all, of what they gained. Don’t be one of them.
Having been a financial adviser in the past, I know what a lot of people are thinking at this time in response to what I just said. I’ve heard it many times before. It usually goes something like this: “What if the price of oil continues to rise and I lose a lot of money because of leaving the market too soon?” That’s a question arising from a fear mentality. The better question is this: “What if the oil price plunges and panic selling sets in?”
Oil is quickly becoming a casino play on the upside, and the longer investors stay in, the higher the probability they’ll lose the gains they’ve enjoyed. Worse, too much optimism could result in losses if preventative action isn’t taken quickly enough.
What needs to be considered is why one should stay in this market. What is so convincing it warrants this type of increasing risk, which offers much less in the way of reward than even a week ago? What fundamentals are in place that suggest a sustainable upward movement in the price of oil? The answer to those questions will determine how oil investors fare in the near future.
U.S. shale production
The more I think on the estimates associated with U.S. shale production in 2016, measured against the statements made by stronger producers that they’re going to boost supply from premium wells this year, the more I’m convinced it isn’t going to fall as much as expected. New supply will offset a lot of the less productive and higher cost wells being shuttered. I do believe there will be some loss of production from that, but not as much as is being suggested.
There are various predictions on how much production is going to be lost, but the general consensus is from 300,000 bpd to 600,000 bpd. It could come in on the lower side of that estimate, but I don’t think it’ll be close to the upper end of the estimate.
What is unknown because we don’t have an historical guideline to go by is, the amount of oil these premium wells will add to supply. We also don’t know if the stated goals will be followed up on. I think they will, but we won’t know for certain until the next couple of earnings reports give a clearer picture.
When combined with the added supply coming from Iran, and the ongoing high levels of production from Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iraq, I don’t see how the current support for the price of oil can continue on for any length of time.
There is no way of knowing exactly when the price of oil will once again collapse, but the longer it stays high without a change in the fundamentals, the higher the risk becomes, and the more chance it could swing the other way on momentum, even if it isn’t warranted. It could easily test the $30 mark again under those conditions.
What many investors don’t understand about storage and inventory is it definitely matters where the challenges are located. That’s why Cushing being over 90 percent capacity and Gulf storage only a little under 90 percent capacity means more than if other facilities were under similar pressure. Together, they account for over 60 percent of U.S. storage.
With the imbalance of supply and demand driving storage capacity levels, the idea of oil staying above $40 per barrel for any period of time is highly unlikely. A lower U.S. dollar and the highly irrelevant proposed production freeze talks can’t balance it off.
Once the market digests this, which could happen at any time, we’ll quickly enter bear mode again. The problem is the price of oil is straining against its upper limits, and if momentum starts to deflate, the race to sell positions will become a sprint and not a marathon.
Uncertainty about shale is the wild card
As already mentioned, U.S. shale production continues to be the major catalyst to watch. The problem is we have no way of knowing what has already been unfolding in the first quarter. If investors start to abandon their positions, and we find shale supply is stronger than projected, it’ll put further downward pressure on oil after it has already corrected.
What I mean by that is we should experience some fleeing from oil before the next earnings reports from shale producers are released. If the industry continues to surprise on the upside of supply, it’ll cause the price of oil to further deteriorate, making the outlook over the next couple of months potentially ominous.
This isn’t just something that has a small chance of happening; it’s something that has a very strong probability of happening. Agencies like IEA have already upwardly revised their outlook for shale supply in 2016, and if that’s how it plays out, the entire expected performance for the year will have to be adjusted.
Taking into account the more important variables surrounding what will move the price of oil, shale production remains the most important information to follow. Not much else will matter if supply continues to exceed expectations. It will obliterate all the models and force analysts to admit this has little to do with prior supply cycles and everything to do with a complete market disruption. Many are still in denial of this. They’ll learn the reality soon enough.
That doesn’t mean there won’t eventually be a time when demand finally catches up with supply, but within the parameters of this weak global economy and oil supply that continues to grow, it’s going to take a lot longer to realize than many thought.
For several months, it has been understood that the market underestimated the expertise and efficiency of U.S. shale producers, and to this day they continue to do so. We will find out if that remains in play in the first half of 2016, and by then, whether it’ll extend further into 2017.
As for how it will impact the price of oil now, if we start to have some panic selling before the earnings reports, and the earnings reports of the important shale producers exceed expectations on the supply side, with it being reflected in an increase in the overall output estimates for the year, it will put more downward pressure on oil.
The other scenario is oil lingers around $40 per barrel until the earnings reports come out. There will still be a decline in the price of oil, the level of which would depend on how much more supply shale producers brought to the market in the first quarter than expected.
My thought is we’re going to experience a drop in the price of oil before earnings reports, which then could trigger a secondary exodus from investors in it for short-term gains.
For those having already generated some decent returns, it may be time to take it off the table. I don’t see how the shrinking reward can justify the growing risk.
The Mosul Dam in Iraq could collapse at any time, causing massive flooding across the country.
Iraq produces over four million barrels of oil per day, a number which will drop immediately when this event occurs.
The destruction of oil production in Iraq will immediately decrease world supply, lifting oil prices.
The Oil Situation: Since 2014, the oil market has been in a tailspin due to a multitude of global factors. As of March 2016, prices seem to have stabilized, although the persistence of crude oversupply continues to hang over the market. For months, declining US production and a potential output freeze by OPEC have been putting a potential floor in place. However, I believe an event is on the horizon which will change the equilibrium of oil prices immediately… the collapse of the Mosul Dam.
The Mosul Dam: The Mosul Dam is the largest dam in Iraq. It is located on the Tigris River in the western governance of Ninawa, upstream of the city of Mosul. Constructed in 1981, the dam has had a history of structural issues, requiring perpetual maintenance in order to maintain its integrity. Since 1984, this consisted of 300 man crews, working 24 hours a day across three shifts, filling holes in the bedrock through a process called grouting. For 30 years, this process worked, although it was always considered to be a ticking time bomb, dubbed “the most dangerous dam in the world” by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
In August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of the dam, halting the maintenance process until it was retaken by Iraqi, Kurdish and US Forces two weeks later. Unfortunately, the damage was already done… since then, the maintenance crews have been limited to 30 personnel or less, and the equipment is inadequate to continue patching holes. Per the dam’s former chief engineer, Nasrat Adamo, “The machines for grouting have been looted. There is no cement supply. They can do nothing. It is going from bad to worse, and it is urgent. All we can do is hold our hearts.” As winter snows melt, the water levels will rise to unsustainable levels, and while it has two pressure release gates to avoid this scenario, one has been non-functioning for years, and using the second one alone risks the stability of the structure.
The Iraqis have been working on a solution with an Italian firm, the Trevi Group, known for fixing 150 dams worldwide. This case is special, however, as it will require a cut off wall 800 feet below the dam, the construction of which may affect the dam’s integrity. Additionally, the continued presence of ISIS poses a risk to any contractors in the area, which will require a security force of 450 personnel. Until Mosul (still held by ISIS) is retaken by Coalition forces, full repairs cannot commence. While the Iraqi forces believe this can happen in months, the US Defense Intelligence Agency head, Lt Gen. Vincent Stewart, is not optimistic that it will occur this year.
My personal opinion, knowing the effectiveness of Iraqi Forces (who dropped their guns and fled during the initial ISIL invasion), is that the Mosul Dam will fail. Without significant US assistance, the retaking of Mosul will not occur fast enough to begin construction, and as long as it is in ISIS’ hands, safe repairs cannot commence. Although the US has not said the event is guaranteed, warnings are coming at an increasing pace, and the State Department has warned US citizens to prepare for evacuation in the event of failure.
The Event: When the Mosul Dam collapses (and without reconstruction measures being implemented quickly, this is considered a ‘when’, not an ‘if’), a wave 45-65 feet high is expected to flood the country, drowning Mosul in four hours and reaching Baghdad within two to four days.
Estimates range from 500,000 to 1,500,000 lives lost. In addition to flooding, there will be secondary and tertiary effects… as demonstrated in America during Hurricane Katrina, panic and lawlessness can be equally as dangerous as the flooding itself, but even worse, diseases such as malaria and West Nile fever will follow. A catastrophic event of this magnitude will immediately push the entire country into chaos, and Iraq does not have the capability to respond without global support. The closest comparison to make is Haiti, which with billions in global assistance has not returned to normalcy in five years. Overall, I anticipate this catastrophe will take years to overcome… in the meantime, it will have a significant effect on the world’s supply of oil today.
The Effects: As of winter 2015, Iraq was producing 4.3M barrels per day, with the southern fields producing 3.3M barrels and the remaining 1M coming from the north. The graphic below (left) is from 2014, but gives a picture of the oil field placements. To the right is a topographical map, which gives us an idea of how the floodwaters will progress. Based on the elevation of where the flood would initiate, everything between Mosul and Baghdad will be completely covered, and while the wave will dissipate over time, the fields between Baghdad and Basra will see enough water (and everything that comes with it, to include bodies, disease and unexploded ordinance) to temporarily disable operations. Additionally, the pipeline between Kirkuk and Ramadi will be underwater, and there is a potential for damage to the Iraq Strategic Pipeline, which runs parallel to the direction of the water’s progression.
The world’s oversupply of oil is estimated around one million barrels per day. Assume that the above happens, and in a best-case scenario, only northern production is affected. What would occur immediately is the elimination of one quarter of Iraq’s oil output, rapidly pushing supply and demand into equilibrium. In a worst-case scenario, where all of Iraq’s oil is temporarily eliminated, it will move the supply deficit to three million barrels per day, leading to large ramifications on the world’s crude oil surplus within weeks.
While the true answer lies somewhere between these possibilities, what is undeniable is that a catastrophe of this magnitude will immediately move the price of crude oil up, and depending on the timeline to return to today’s production levels, that move could be enormous. In late 2015, the world produced 97M barrels per day, causing the price to collapse to $26.00 per barrel. In 2014, while producing 93M barrels per day, the price averaged near $110.00 prior to its fall. Although the above is simple extrapolation, demand continues to grow, so I think we can all agree that the price shift north will be significant.
Conclusion: The subject of this article is admittedly morbid. The true fallout of this event is the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and damage that would take years to erase. However, as informed investors, it would be irresponsible to not consider global events, and this has the potential to re-balance the oil market in a matter of days. When this occurs, over four million barrels per day can disappear from production, immediately shifting the direction of oil prices. Based on the above information, I believe a production cut decision by OPEC is irrelevant, as natural forces are preparing to address the oil oversupply on their own.
The residents of West Texas are accustomed to a life dependent on hydrocarbons. As Bloomberg reports, the small communities built into the flat West Texas desert are dotted with oil pumps and rigs, and the chemical smell of an oil field hangs in the air.
Here the economy rises and falls on drilling.
When the drilling is good, everyone in the town benefits. When it’s bad, most of West Texas feels the pinch.
Oil prices have plunged as much as 75 percent since June 2014. That drop has dismal consequences for residents, and not just the ones working in oil fields. Bloomberg spoke with some of the people trying to endure the historic dip in oil prices. This video tells some of their stories….
Last week, during the peak of the commodity short squeeze, we pointed out how this default cycle is shaping up to be vastly different from previous one: recovery rates for both secured and unsecured debts are at record low levels. More importantly, we noted how this notable variance is impacting lender behavior, explaining that banks – aware that the next leg lower in commodities is imminent – are not only forcing the squeeze in the most trashed stocks (by pulling borrow) but are doing everything in their power to “assist” energy companies to sell equity, and use the proceeds to take out as much of the banks’ balance sheet exposure as possible, so that when the default tsunami finally arrives, banks will be as far away as possible from the carnage. All of this was predicated on prior lender conversations with the Dallas Fed and the OCC, discussions which the Dallas Fed vocally denied accusing us of lying, yet which the WSJ confirmed, confirming the Dallas Fed was openly lying.
This was the punchline:
[Record low] recovery rate explain what we discussed earlier, namely the desire of banks to force an equity short squeeze in energy stocks, so these distressed names are able to issue equity with which to repay secured loans to banks who are scrambling to get out of the capital structure of distressed E&P names. Or as MatlinPatterson’s Michael Lipsky put it: “we always assume that secured lenders would roll into the bankruptcy become the DIP (debtor in possession) lenders, emerge from bankruptcy as the new secured debt of the company. But they don’t want to be there, so you are buying the debt behind them and you could find yourself in a situation where you could lose 100% of your money.“
And so, one by one the pieces of the puzzle fall into place: banks, well aware that they are facing paltry recoveries in bankruptcy on their secured exposure (and unsecured creditors looking at 10 cents on the dollar), have engineered an oil short squeeze via oil ETFs…
… to push oil prices higher, to unleash the current record equity follow-on offering spree…
… to take advantage of panicked investors some of whom are desperate to cover their shorts, and others who are just as desperate to buy the new equity issued. Those proceeds, however, will not go to organic growth or even to shore liquidity but straight to the bank to refi loan facilities and let banks, currently on the hook, leave silently by the back door. Meanwhile, the new investors have no security claims and zero liens, are at the very bottom of the capital structure, and face near certain wipe outs.
In short, once the current short squeeze is over, expect everyone to start paying far more attention to recovery rates and the true value of “fundamentals.”
Going back to what Lipsky said, “the banks do not want to be there.” So where do they want to be? As far away as possible from the shale carnage when it does hit.
Today, courtesy of The New York Shock Exchange, we present just the case study demonstrating how this takes place in the real world. Here the story of troubled energy company “Lower oil prices for longer” Weatherford, its secured lender JPM, the incestuous relationship between the two, and how the latter can’t wait to get as far from the former as possible, in…
I am on record saying that Weatherford International is so highly-leveraged that it needs equity to stay afloat. With debt/EBITDA at 8x and $1 billion in principal payments coming due over the next year, the oilfield services giant is in dire straits. Weatherford has been in talks with JP Morgan Chase to re-negotiate its revolving credit facility — the only thing keeping the company afloat. However, in a move that shocked the financial markets, JP Morgan led an equity offering that raised $565 million for Weatherford. Based on liquidation value Weatherford is insolvent. The question remains, why would JP Morgan risk its reputation by selling shares in an insolvent company?
According to the prospectus, at Q4 2015 Weatherford had cash of $467 million debt of $7.5 billion. It debt was broken down as follows: [i] revolving credit facility ($967 million), [ii] other short-term loans ($214 million), [iii] current portion of long-term debt of $401 million and [iv] long-term debt of $5.9 billion. JP Morgan is head of a banking syndicate that has the revolving credit facility.
Even in an optimistic scenario I estimate Weatherford’s liquidation value is about $6.7 billion less than its stated book value. The lion’s share of the mark-downs are related to inventory ($1.1B), PP&E ($1.9B), intangibles and non-current assets ($3.5B). The write-offs would reduce Weatherford’s stated book value of $4.4 billion to – $2.2 billion. After the equity offering the liquidation value would rise to -$1.6 billion.
JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley also happen to be lead underwriters on the equity offering. The proceeds from the offering are expected to be used to repay the revolving credit facility.
In effect, JP Morgan is raising equity in a company with questionable prospects and using the funds to repay debt the company owes JP Morgan. The arrangement allows JP Morgan to get its money out prior to lenders subordinated to it get their $401 million payment. That’s smart in a way. What’s the point of having a priority position if you can’t use that leverage to get cashed out first before the ship sinks? The rub is that [i] it might represent a conflict of interest and [ii] would JP Morgan think it would be a good idea to hawk shares in an insolvent company if said insolvent company didn’t owe JP Morgan money?
The answer? JP Morgan doesn’t care how it looks; JP Morgan wants out and is happy to do it while algos and momentum chasing day traders are bidding up the stock because this time oil has finally bottomed… we promise.
So here’s the good news: as a result of this coordinated lender collusion to prop up the energy sector long enough for the affected companies to sell equity and repay secured debt, the squeeze may last a while; as for the bad news: the only reason the squeeze is taking place is because banks are looking to get as far from the shale patch and the companies on it, as possible.
We leave it up to readers to decide which “news” is more relevant to their investing strategy.
We grow up being taught a very specific set of principles.
One plus one equals two. I before E, except after C.
As we grow older, the principles become more complex.
Take economics for example.
The law of supply states that the quantity of a good supplied rises as the market price rises, and falls as the price falls. Conversely, the law of demand states that the quantity of a good demanded falls as the price rises, and vice versa.
These basic laws of supply and demand are the fundamental building blocks of how we arrive at a given price for a given product.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But what if I told you that the principles you grew up learning is wrong?
With today’s “creative” financial instruments, much of what you learned no longer applies in the real world.
Especially when it comes to oil.
Long time readers of this Letter will have read many of my blogs regarding commodities manipulation.
With oil, price manipulation couldn’t be more obvious.
For example, from my Letter, “Covert Connection Between Saudi Arabia and Japan“:
“…While agencies have found innovative ways to explain declining oil demand, the world has never consumed more oil.
In 2010, the world consumed a record 87.4 million barrels per day. This year (2014), the world is expected to consume a new record of 92.7 million barrels per day.
Global oil demand is still expected to climb to new highs.
If the price of oil is a true reflection of supply and demand, as the headlines tell us, it should reflect the discrepancy between supply and demand.
Since we know that demand is actually growing, that can’t be the reason for oil’s dramatic drop.
So does that mean it’s a supply issue? Did the world all of a sudden gain 40% more oil? Obviously not.
So no, the reason behind oil’s fall is not the causality of supply and demand.
The reason is manipulation. The question is why.
I go on to talk about the geopolitical reasons of why the price of oil is manipulated.
Here’s one example:
“On September 11, Saudi Arabia finally inked a deal with the U.S. to drop bombs on Syria.
Saudi Arabia possesses 18 per cent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum.
Syria is home to a pipeline route that can bring gas from the great Qatar natural gas fields into Europe, making billions of dollars for Saudi Arabia as the gas moves through while removing Russia’s energy stronghold on Europe.
Could the U.S. have persuaded Saudi Arabia, during their September 11 meeting, to lower the price of oil in order to hurt Russia, while stimulating the American economy?
… On October 1, 2014, shortly after the U.S. dropped bombs on Syria on September 26 as part of the September 11 agreement, Saudi Arabia announced it would be slashing prices to Asian nations in order to “compete” for crude market share. It also slashed prices to Europe and the United States.”
Following Saudi Arabia’s announcement, oil prices have plunged to a level not seen in more than five years.
Is it a “coincidence” that shortly after the Saudi Arabia-U.S. meeting on the coincidental date of 9-11, the two nations inked a deal to drop billions of dollars worth of bombs on Syria? Then just a few days later, Saudi Arabia announces a massive price cut to its oil.
There are many other factors – and conspiracies – in oil price manipulation, such as geopolitical attacks on Russia and Iran, whose economies rely heavily on oil. Saudi Arabia is also flooding the market with oil – and I would suggest that it’s because they are rushing to trade their oil for weapons to lead an attack or beef up their defense against the next major power in the Middle East, Iran.
However, all of the reasons, strategies or theories of oil price manipulation could only make sense if they were allowed by these two major players: the regulators and the Big Banks.
On any given day, if you were to look at the spot price of oil, you’d likely be looking at a quote from the NYMEX in New York or the ICE Futures in London. Together, these two institutions trade most of the oil that creates the global benchmark for oil prices via oil futures contracts on West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and North Sea Brent (Brent).
What you may not see, however, is who is trading this oil, and how it is being traded.
Up until 2006, the price of oil traded within reason. But all of a sudden, we saw these major price movements. Why?
Because the regulators allowed it to happen.
Here’s a review from a 2006 US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report:
“Until recently, U.S. energy futures were traded exclusively on regulated exchanges within the United States, like the NYMEX, which are subject to extensive oversight by the CFTC, including ongoing monitoring to detect and prevent price manipulation or fraud.
In recent years, however, there has been a tremendous growth in the trading of contracts that look and are structured just like futures contracts, but which are traded on unregulated OTC electronic markets. Because of their similarity to futures contracts they are often called ”futures look-a likes.”
The only practical difference between futures look-alike contracts and futures contracts is that the look-a likes are traded in unregulated markets whereas futures are traded on regulated exchanges.
The trading of energy commodities by large firms on OTC electronic exchanges was exempted from CFTC oversight by a provision inserted at the behest of Enron and other large energy traders into the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 in the waning hours of the 106th Congress.
The impact on market oversight has been substantial.
NYMEX traders, for example, are required to keep records of all trades and report large trades to the CFTC. These Large Trader Reports (LTR), together with daily trading data providing price and volume information, are the CFTC’s primary tools to gauge the extent of speculation in the markets and to detect, prevent, and prosecute price manipulation.
…In contrast to trades conducted on the NYMEX, traders on unregulated OTC electronic exchanges are not required to keep records or file Large Trader Reports with the CFTC, and these trades are exempt from routine CFTC oversight.
In contrast to trades conducted on regulated futures exchanges, there is no limit on the number of contracts a speculator may hold on an unregulated OTC electronic exchange, no monitoring of trading by the exchange itself, and no reporting of the amount of outstanding contracts (”open interest”) at the end of each day.
The CFTC’s ability to monitor the U.S. energy commodity markets was further eroded when, in January of this year (2006), the CFTC permitted the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the leading operator of electronic energy exchanges, to use its trading terminals in the United States for the trading of U.S. crude oil futures on the ICE futures exchange in London-called ”ICE Futures.”
Previously, the ICE Futures exchange in London had traded only in European energy commodities-Brent crude oil and United Kingdom natural gas. As a United Kingdom futures market, the ICE Futures exchange is regulated solely by the United Kingdom Financial Services rooority. In 1999, the London exchange obtained the CFTC’s permission to install computer terminals in the United States to permit traders here to trade European energy commodities through that exchange.
Then, in January of this year, ICE Futures in London began trading a futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil, a type of crude oil that is produced and delivered in the United States. ICE Futures also notified the CFTC that it would be permitting traders in the United States to use ICE terminals in the United States to trade its new WTI contract on the ICE Futures London exchange.
Beginning in April, ICE Futures similarly allowed traders in the United States to trade U.S. gasoline and heating oil futures on the ICE Futures exchange in London. Despite the use by U.S. traders of trading terminals within the United States to trade U.S. oil, gasoline, and heating oil futures contracts, the CFTC has not asserted any jurisdiction over the trading of these contracts.
Persons within the United States seeking to trade key U.S. energy commodities-U.S. crude oil, gasoline, and heating oil futures-now can avoid all U.S. market oversight or reporting requirements by routing their trades through the ICE Futures exchange in London instead of the NYMEX in New York.
As an increasing number of U.S. energy trades occurs on unregulated, OTC electronic exchanges or through foreign exchanges, the CFTC’s large trading reporting system becomes less and less accurate, the trading data becomes less and less useful, and its market oversight program becomes less comprehensive.
The absence of large trader information from the electronic exchanges makes it more difficult for the CFTC to monitor speculative activity and to detect and prevent price manipulation. The absence of this information not only obscures the CFTC’s view of that portion of the energy commodity markets, but it also degrades the quality of information that is reported.
A trader may take a position on an unregulated electronic exchange or on a foreign exchange that is either in addition to or opposite from the positions the trader has taken on the NYMEX, and thereby avoid and distort the large trader reporting system.
Not only can the CFTC be misled by these trading practices, but these trading practices could render the CFTC weekly publication of energy market trading data, intended to be used by the public, as incomplete and misleading.”
Simply put, any one can now speculate and avoid being tagged with illegal price. The more speculative trading that occurs, the less “real” price discovery via true supply and demand become.
With that in mind, you can now see how the big banks have gained control and cornered the oil market.
Continued from the Report:
“…Over the past few years, large financial institutions, hedge funds, pension funds, and other investment funds have been pouring billions of dollars into the energy commodities markets…to try to take advantage of price changes or to hedge against them.
Because much of this additional investment has come from financial institutions and investment funds that do not use the commodity as part of their business, it is defined as ”speculation” by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
…Reports indicate that, in the past couple of years, some speculators have made tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in profits trading in energy commodities.
This speculative trading has occurred both on the regulated New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and on the over-the-counter (OTC) markets.
The large purchases of crude oil futures contracts by speculators have, in effect, created an additional demand for oil, driving up the price of oil to be delivered in the future in the same manner that additional demand for the immediate delivery of a physical barrel of oil drives up the price on the spot market.
As far as the market is concerned, the demand for a barrel of oil that results from the purchase of a futures contract by a speculator is just as real as the demand for a barrel that results from the purchase of a futures contract by a refiner or other user of petroleum.
Although it is difficult to quantify the effect of speculation on prices, there is substantial evidence that the large amount of speculation in the current market has significantly increased prices.
Several analysts have estimated that speculative purchases of oil futures have added as much as $20-$25 per barrel to the current price of crude oil, thereby pushing up the price of oil from $50 to approximately $70 per barrel.”
The biggest banks in the world, such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan, are now also the biggest energy traders; together, they not only participate in oil trades, but also fund numerous hedge funds that trade in oil.
Knowing how easy it is to force the price of oil upwards, the same strategies can be done in reverse to force the price of oil down.
All it takes is for some media-conjured “report” to tell us that Saudi Arabia is flooding the market with oil, OPEC is lowering prices, or that China is slowing, for oil to collapse.
Traders would then go short oil, kicking algo-traders into high gear, and immediately sending oil down further. The fact that oil consumption is actually growing really doesn’t matter anymore.
In reality, oil price isn’t dictated by supply and demand – or OPEC, or Russia, or China – it is dictated by the Western financial institutions that trade it.
Via my past Letter, “Secrets of Bank Involvement in Oil Revealed“:
“For years, I have been talking about how the banks have taken control of our civilization.
…With oil prices are falling, economies around the world are beginning to feel the pain causing a huge wave of panic throughout the financial industry. That’s because the last time oil dropped like this – more than US$40 in less than six months – was during the financial crisis of 2008.
…Let’s look at the energy market to gain a better perspective.
The energy sector represents around 17-18 percent of the high-yield bond market valued at around $2 trillion.
Over the last few years, energy producers have raised more than a whopping half a trillion dollars in new bonds and loans with next to zero borrowing costs – courtesy of the Fed.
This low-borrowing cost environment, along with deregulation, has been the goose that laid the golden egg for every single energy producer. Because of this easy money, however, energy producers have become more leveraged than ever; leveraging themselves at much higher oil prices.
But with oil suddenly dropping so sharply, many of these energy producers are now at serious risk of going under.
In a recent report by Goldman Sachs, nearly $1 trillion of investments in future oil projects are at risk.
…It’s no wonder the costs of borrowing for energy producers have skyrocketed over the last six months.
…many of the companies are already on the brink of default, and unable to make even the interest payments on their loans.
…If oil continues in this low price environment, many producers will have a hard time meeting their debt obligations – meaning many of them could default on their loans. This alone will cause a wave of financial and corporate destruction. Not to mention the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across North America.”
You may be thinking, “if oil’s fall is causing a wave of financial disaster, why would the banks push the price of oil down? Wouldn’t they also suffer from the loss?”
Great question. But the banks never lose. Continued from my letter:
“If you control the world’s reserve currency, but slowly losing that status as a result of devaluation and competition from other nations (see When Nations Unite Against the West: The BRICS Development Bank), what would you do to protect yourself?
You buy assets. Because real hard assets protect you from monetary inflation.
With the banks now holding record amounts of highly leveraged paper from the Fed, why would they not use that paper to buy hard assets?
Bankers may be greedy, but they’re not stupid.
The price of hard physical assets is the true representation of inflation.
Therefore, if you control these hard assets in large quantities, you could also control their price.
This, in turn, means you can maintain control of your currency against monetary inflation.
And that is exactly what the banks have done.
Last month, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations published a 403-page report on how Wall Street’s biggest banks, such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan, have gained ownership of a massive amount of commodities, food, and energy resources.
The report stated that “the current level of bank involvement with critical raw materials, power generation, and the food supply appears to be unprecedented in U.S. history.”
“…Until recently, Morgan Stanley controlled over 55 million barrels of oil storage capacity, 100 oil tankers, and 6,000 miles of pipeline. JPMorgan built a copper inventory that peaked at $2.7 billion, and, at one point, included at least 213,000 metric tons of copper, comprising nearly 60% of the available physical copper on the world’s premier copper trading exchange, the LME.
In 2012, Goldman owned 1.5 million metric tons of aluminum worth $3 billion, about 25% of the entire U.S. annual consumption. Goldman also owned warehouses which, in 2014, controlled 85% of the LME aluminum storage business in the United States.” – Wall Street Bank Involvement with Physical Commodities, United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
From pipelines to power plants, from agriculture to jet fuel, these too-big-to-fail banks have amassed – and may have manipulated the prices – of some of the world’s most important resources.
The above examples clearly show just how much influence the Big Banks have over our commodities through a “wide range of risky physical commodity activities which included, at times, producing, transporting, storing, processing, supplying, or trading energy, industrial metals, or agricultural commodities.”
With practically an unlimited supply of cheap capital from the Federal Reserve, the Big Banks have turned into much more than lenders and facilitators. They have become direct commerce competitors with an unfair monetary advantage: free money from the Fed.
Of course, that’s not their only advantage.
According to the report, the Big Banks are engaging in risky activities (such as ownership in power plants and coal mining), mixing banking and commerce, affecting prices, and gaining significant trading advantages.
Just think about how easily it would be for JP Morgan to manipulate the price of copper when they – at one point – controlled 60% of the available physical copper on the world’s premier copper trading exchange, the LME.
How easy would it be for Goldman to control the price of aluminum when they owned warehouses – at one point – that controlled 85% of the LME aluminum storage business in the United States?
And if they could so easily control such vast quantities of hard assets, how easy would it be for them to profit from going either short or long on these commodities?
But if, for some reason, the bankers’ bets didn’t work out, they still wouldn’t lose.
That’s because these banks are holders of trillions of dollars in FDIC insured deposits.
In other words, if any of the banks’ pipelines rupture, power plants explode, oil tankers spill, or coal mines collapse, taxpayers may once again be on the hook for yet another too-big-to-fail bailout.
If you think that there’s no way that the government or the Fed would allow this to happen again after 2008, think again.
Via the Guardian:
“In a small provision in the budget bill, Congress agreed to allow banks to house their trading of swaps and derivatives alongside customer deposits, which are insured by the federal government against losses.
The budget move repeals a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act and, some say, lays the groundwork for future bailouts of banks who make irresponsibly risky trades.”
Recall from my past letters where I said that the Fed wants to engulf you in their dollars. If yet another bailout is required, then the Fed would once again be the lender of last resort, and Americans will pile on the debt it owes to the Fed.
It’s no wonder that in the report, it actually notes that the Fed was the facilitator of this sprawl by the banks:
“Without the complementary orders and letters issued by the Federal Reserve, many of those physical commodity activities would not otherwise have been permissible ‘financial’ activities under federal banking law. By issuing those complementary orders, the Federal Reserve directly facilitated the expansion of financial holding companies into new physical commodity activities.”
The Big Banks have risked tons of cash lending and facilitating in oil business. But in reality they haven’t risked anything. They get free money from the Fed, and since they aren’t supposed to be directly involved in natural resources, they obtain control in other ways.
Remember, the big banks – and ultimately the Fed who controls them – are the ones who truly control the world. Their monetary actions are the cause of many of the world’s issues and have been used for many years to maintain control of other nations and the world’s resources.
But they can’t simply go into a country, put troops on the ground and take over. No, that would be inhumane.
So what do they do?
Via my past Letter, The Real Reason for War in Syria:
“Currency manipulation allows developed countries to print and lend to other developing countries at will.
A rich nation might go into a developing nation and lend them millions of dollars to build bridges, schools, housing, and expand their military efforts. The rich nation convinces the developing nation that by borrowing money, their nation will grow and prosper.
However, these deals are often negotiated at a very specific and hefty cost; the lending nation might demand resources or military and political access. Of course, developing nations often take the loans, but never really have the chance to pay it back.
When the developing nations realize they can’t pay back the loans, they’re at the mercy of the lending nations.
The trick here is that the lending nations can print as much money as they want, and in turn, control the resources of developing nations. In other words, the loans come at a hefty cost to the borrower, but at no cost to the lender.”
This brings us back to oil.
We know that oil’s crash has put a heavy burden on many debt facilities that are associated with oil. We also know that the big banks are all heavily leveraged within the sector.
If that is the case, why are the big banks so calm?
The answer is simple.
Most of the loans associated with oil are done through asset-backed loans, or reserve-based financing.
It means that the loans are backed by the underlying asset itself: the oil reserves.
So if the loans go south, guess who ends up with the oil?
According to Reuters, JP Morgan is the number one U.S. bank by assets. And despite its energy exposure assumed at only 1.6 percent of total loans, the bank could own reserves of up to $750 million!
“If oil reaches $30 a barrel – and here we are – and stayed there for, call it, 18 months, you could expect to see (JPMorgan’s) reserve builds of up to $750 million.”
No wonder the banks aren’t worried about a oil financial contagion – especially not Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s Chairman, CEO and President:
“…Remember, these are asset-backed loans, so a bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean your loan is bad.” – Jamie Dimon
As oil collapses and defaults arise, the banks have not only traded dollars for assets on the cheap, but gained massive oil reserves for pennies on the dollar to back the underlying contracts of the oil that they so heavily trade.
The argument to this would be that many emerging markets have laws in place that prevent their national resources from being turned over to foreign entities in the case of corporate defaults.
Which, of course, the U.S. and its banks have already prepared for.
Via my Letter, How to Seize Assets Without War:
“…If the Fed raises interest rates, many emerging market economies will suffer the consequence of debt defaults. Which, historically means that asset fire sales – often commodity-based assets such as oil and gas – are next.
Historically, if you wanted to seize the assets of another country, you would have to go to war and fight for territory. But today, there are other less bloody ways to do that.
Take, for example, Petrobras – a semi-public Brazilian multinational energy corporation.
…Brazil is in one of the worst debt positions in the world with much of its debt denominated in US dollars.
Earlier this year (2015), Petrobras announced that it is attempting to sell $58 billion of assets – an unprecedented number in the oil industry.
Guess who will likely be leading the sale of Petrobras assets? Yup, American banks.
“…JPMorgan would be tasked with wooing the largest number of bidders possible for the assets and then structure the sales.”
As history has shown, emerging market fire sales due to debt defaults are often won by the US or its allies. Thus far, it appears the Petrobras fire sale may be headed that way.
‘Brazilian state-run oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA said Tuesday (September 22, 2015) it is closing a deal to sell natural-gas distribution assets to a local subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsui & Co.’
The combination of monetary policy and commodities manipulation allows Western banks and allies to accumulate hard assets at the expense of emerging markets. And this has been exactly the plan since day one.
As the Fed hints of raising rates, financial risks among emerging markets will continue to build. This will trigger a reappraisal of sovereign and corporate risks leading to big swings in capital flows.”
Not only are many of the big banks’ practices protected by government and Fed policies, but they’re also protected by the underlying asset itself. If things go south, the bank could end up owning a lot of oil reserves.
No wonder they’re not worried.
And since the banks ultimately control the price of oil anyway, it could easily bring the price back up when they’re ready.
Controlling the price of oil gives U.S. and its banks many advantages.
For example, the U.S. could tell the Iranians, the Saudis, or other OPEC nations, whose economies heavily rely on oil, “Hey, if you want higher oil prices, we can make that happen. But first, you have to do this…”
You see how much control the U.S., and its big banks, actually have?
At least, for now anyway.
Don’t think for one second that nations around the world don’t understand this.
Just ask Venezuela, and many of the other countries that have succumbed to the power of the U.S. Many of these countries are now turning to China because they feel they have been screwed.
The diversification away from the U.S. dollar is the first step in the uprising against the U.S. by other nations.
As the power of the U.S. dollar diminishes, through international currency swaps and loans, other trading platforms that control the price of commodities (such as the new Shanghai Oil Exchange) will become more prominent in global trade; thus, bringing some price equilibrium back to the market.
And this is happening much faster than you expect.
Chinese President Xi Jinping returned home Sunday after wrapping up a historic trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran with a broad consensus and 52 cooperation agreements set to deepen Beijing’s constructive engagement with the struggling yet promising region.
During Xi’s trip, China upgraded its relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to a comprehensive strategic partnership and vowed to work together with Egypt to add more values to their comprehensive strategic partnership.
Regional organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) and the Arab League (AL), also applauded Xi’s visit and voiced their readiness to cement mutual trust and broaden win-win cooperation with China.
AL Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi said China has always stood with the developing world, adding that the Arab world is willing to work closely with China in political, economic as well as other sectors for mutual benefit.
The Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious vision Xi put forward in 2013 to boost inter-connectivity and common development along the ancient land and maritime Silk Roads, has gained more support and popularity during Xi’s trip.
…Xi and leaders of the three nations agreed to align their countries’ development blueprints and pursue mutually beneficial cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
The initiative, reiterated the Chinese president, is by no means China’s solo, but a symphony of all countries along the routes, including half of the OIC members.
During Xi’s stay in Saudi Arabia, China, and the GCC resumed their free trade talks and “substantively concluded in principle the negotiations on trade in goods.” A comprehensive deal will be made within this year.”
In other words, the big power players in the Middle East – who produce the majority of the world’s oil – are now moving closer to cooperation with China, and away from the U.S.
As this progresses, it means the role of the U.S. dollar, and its value in world trade, will diminish.
And the big banks, which hold trillions of dollars in U.S. assets, aren’t concerned.
They’d much rather own the underlying assets.
Seek the truth,
Iran enjoys trolling the United States. In fact, it’s something of hobby for the Ayatollah, who has maintained the country’s semi-official “death to America” slogan even as President Rouhani plays good cop with Obama and Kerry.
The ink was barely dry on the nuclear accord when Tehran test-fired a next-gen surface-to-surface ballistic missile with the range to hit archrival Israel, a move that most certainly violated the spirit of the deal if not the letter. Two months later, the IRGC conducted live rocket drills in close proximity to an American aircraft carrier and then, on the eve of President Obama’s final state-of-the-union address, Iran essentially kidnapped 10 American sailors in what amounted to a truly epic publicity stunt.
All of this raises serious questions about just how committed Tehran is to nurturing the newfound relationship with America, a state which for years sought to impoverish Iran as “punishment” for what the West swears was an illegitimate effort to build a nuclear weapon.
As regular readers are no doubt aware, Iran is now set to ramp up crude production by some 500,000 b/d in H1 and by 1 million b/d by the end of the year now that international sanctions have been lifted. In the latest humiliation for Washington, Tehran now says it wants to be paid for its oil in euros, not dollars.
“Iran wants to recover tens of billions of dollars it is owed by India and other buyers of its oil in euros and is billing new crude sales in euros, too, looking to reduce its dependence on the U.S. dollar following last month’s sanctions relief,” Reuters reports. “In our invoices we mention a clause that buyers of our oil will have to pay in euros, considering the exchange rate versus the dollar around the time of delivery,” an National Iranian Oil Co. said. Here’s more:
Iran has also told its trading partners who owe it billions of dollars that it wants to be paid in euros rather than U.S. dollars, said the person, who has direct knowledge of the matter.
Iran was allowed to recover some of the funds frozen under U.S.-led sanctions in currencies other than dollars, such as the Omani rial and UAE dhiram.
Switching oil sales to euros makes sense as Europe is now one of Iran’s biggest trading partners.
“Many European companies are rushing to Iran for business opportunities, so it makes sense to have revenue in euros,” said Robin Mills, chief executive of Dubai-based Qamar Energy.
Iran’s insistence on being paid in euros rather than dollars is also a sign of an uneasy truce between Tehran and Washington even after last month’s lifting of most sanctions.
U.S. officials estimate about $100 billion (69 billion pound) of Iranian assets were frozen abroad, around half of which Tehran could access as a result of sanctions relief.
It is not clear how much of those funds are oil dues that Iran would want back in euros.
India owes Tehran about $6 billion for oil delivered during the sanctions years.
Last month, NIOC’s director general for international affairs told Reuters that Iran “would prefer to receive (oil money owed) in some foreign currency, which for the time being is going to be euro.”
Indian government sources confirmed Iran is looking to be paid in euros.
Iran has pushed for years to have the euro replace the dollar as the currency for international oil trade. In 2007, Tehran failed to persuade OPEC members to switch away from the dollar, which its then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called a “worthless piece of paper“.
Of course all fiat money amounts to “worthless pieces of paper” and as things currently stand, the USD is the least “worthless” of the lot which means that Iran’s insistence on being paid in a currency that Mario Draghi is hell bent on devaluing might seem strange to anyone who knows nothing about geopolitics.
Put simply, this has very little to do with economics and a whole lot to do with sending a message. “Iran shifted to the euro and canceled trade in dollars because of political reasons,” the same NOIC source told Reuters.
Right. So basically, Iran is looking to punish the US for instituting years of economic tyranny by de-dollarizing the oil trade.
This comes at a time when the petrodollar is under tremendous pressure. Russia and China are already settling oil sales in yuan and “lower for longer” crude has broken the virtuous circle whereby producing countries were net exporters of capital, recycling their USD proceeds into USD assets thus underwriting decades of dollar dominance.
The question, we suppose, is whether other producers move away from the dollar just as Russia and Iran have. If there’s a wholesale shift away from settling oil sales in greenbacks, another instrument of US hegemony will be dismantled and Washington’s leverage over “unfriendly” producers will have been broken.
The irony is this: if Iran follows through on its promises to flood an already oversupplied market, crude might not fetch any “worthless pieces of paper” at all – dollars or euros.
Earlier this week, before first JPM and then Wells Fargo revealed that not all is well when it comes to bank energy loan exposure, a small Tulsa-based lender, BOK Financial, said that its fourth-quarter earnings would miss analysts’ expectations because its loan-loss provisions would be higher than expected as a result of a single unidentified energy-industry borrower. This is what the bank said:
“A single borrower reported steeper than expected production declines and higher lease operating expenses, leading to an impairment on the loan. In addition, as we noted at the start of the commodities downturn in late 2014, we expected credit migration in the energy portfolio throughout the cycle and an increased risk of loss if commodity prices did not recover to a normalized level within one year. As we are now into the second year of the downturn, during the fourth quarter we continued to see credit grade migration and increased impairment in our energy portfolio. The combination of factors necessitated a higher level of provision expense.”
Another bank, this time the far larger Regions Financial, said its fourth-quarter charge-offs jumped $18 million from the prior quarter to $78 million, largely because of problems with a single unspecified energy borrower. More than one-quarter of Regions’ energy loans were classified as “criticized” at the end of the fourth quarter.
It didn’t stop there and as the WSJ added, “It’s starting to spread” according to William Demchak, chief executive of PNC Financial Services Group Inc. on a conference call after the bank’s earnings were announced. Credit issues from low energy prices are affecting “anybody who was in the game as the oil boom started,” he said. PNC said charge-offs rose in the fourth quarter from the prior quarter but didn’t specify whether that was due to issues in its relatively small $2.6 billion oil-and-gas portfolio.
Then, on Friday, U.S. Bancorp disclosed the specific level of reserves it holds against its $3.2 billion energy portfolio for the first time. “The reason we did that is that oil is under $30” said Andrew Cecere, the bank’s chief operating officer. What else will Bancorp disclose if oil drops below $20… or $10?
It wasn’t just the small or regional banks either: as we first reported, on Thursday JPMorgan did something it hasn’t done in 22 quarter: its net loan loss reserve increased as a result of a jump in energy loss reserves. On the earnings call, Jamie Dimon said that while he is not worried about big oil companies, his bank has started to increase provisions against smaller energy firms.
Then yesterday it was the turn of the one bank everyone had been waiting for, the one which according to many has the greatest exposure toward energy: Wells Fargo. To be sure, in order not to spook its investors, among whom most famously one Warren Buffet can be found, for Wells it was mostly “roses”, although even Wells had no choice but to set aside $831 million for bad loans in the period, almost double the amount a year ago and the largest since the first quarter of 2013.
What was laughable is that the losses included $118 million from the bank’s oil and gas portfolio, an increase of $90 million from the third quarter. Why laughable? Because that $90 million in higher oil-and-gas loan losses was on a total of $17 billion in oil and gas loans, suggesting the bank has seen a roughly 0.5% impairment across its loan book in the past quarter.
How could this be? Needless to say, this struck us as very suspicious because it clearly suggests that something is going on for Wells (and all of its other peer banks), to rep and warrant a pristine balance sheet, at least until a “digital” moment arrives when just like BOK Financial, banks can no longer hide the accruing losses and has to charge them off, leading to a stock price collapse.
Which brings us to the focus of this post: earlier this week, before the start of bank earnings season, before BOK’s startling announcement, we reported we had heard of a rumor that Dallas Fed members had met with banks in Houston and explicitly “told them not to force energy bankruptcies” and to demand asset sales instead.
Rumor Houston office of Dallas Fed met with banks, told them not to force energy bankruptcies; demand asset sales instead
— zerohedge (@zerohedge) January 11, 2016
We can now make it official, because moments ago we got confirmation from a second source who reports that according to an energy analyst who had recently met Houston funds to give his 1H16e update, one of his clients indicated that his firm was invited to a lunch attended by the Dallas Fed, which had previously instructed lenders to open up their entire loan books for Fed oversight; the Fed was shocked by what it had found in the non-public facing records. The lunch was also confirmed by employees at a reputable Swiss investment bank operating in Houston.
This is what took place: the Dallas Fed met with the banks a week ago and effectively suspended mark-to-market on energy debts and as a result no impairments are being written down. Furthermore, as we reported earlier this week, the Fed indicated “under the table” that banks were to work with the energy companies on delivering without a markdown on worry that a backstop, or bail-in, was needed after reviewing loan losses which would exceed the current tier 1 capital tranches.
In other words, the Fed has advised banks to cover up major energy-related losses.
Why the reason for such unprecedented measures by the Dallas Fed? Our source notes that having run the numbers, it looks like at least 18% of some banks commercial loan book are impaired, and that’s based on just applying the 3Q marks for public debt to their syndicate sums.
In other words, the ridiculously low increase in loss provisions by the likes of Wells and JPM suggest two things: i) the real losses are vastly higher, and ii) it is the Fed’s involvement that is pressuring banks to not disclose the true state of their energy “books.”
Naturally, once this becomes public, the Fed risks a stampeded out of energy exposure because for the Fed to intervene in such a dramatic fashion it suggests that the US energy industry is on the verge of a subprime-like blow up.
Putting this all together, a source who wishes to remain anonymous, adds that equity has been levitating only because energy funds are confident the syndicates will remain in size to meet net working capital deficits. Which is a big gamble considering that as we first showed ten days ago, over the past several weeks banks have already quietly reduced their credit facility exposure to at least 25 deeply distressed (and soon to be even deeper distressed) names.
However, the big wildcard here is the Fed: what we do not know is whether as part of the Fed’s latest “intervention”, it has also promised to backstop bank loan losses. Keep in mind that according to Wolfe Research and many other prominent investors, as many as one-third of American oil-and-gas producers face bankruptcy and restructuring by mid-2017 unless oil rebounds dramatically from current levels.
However, the reflexive paradox embedded in this problem was laid out yesterday by Goldman who explained that oil could well soar from here but only if massive excess supply is first taken out of the market, aka the “inflection phase.” In other words, for oil prices to surge, there would have to be a default wave across the US shale space, which would mean massive energy loan book losses, which may or may not mean another Fed-funded bailout of US and international banks with exposure to shale.
What does it all mean? Here is the conclusion courtesy of our source:
If revolvers are not being marked anymore, then it’s basically early days of subprime when mbs payback schedules started to fall behind. My question for bank eps is if you issued terms in 2013 (2012 reserves) at 110/bbl, and redetermined that revolver in 2014 at 86, how can you be still in compliance with that same rating and estimate in 2016 (knowing 2015 ffo and shut ins have led to mechanically 40pc ffo decreases year over year and at least 20pc rebooting of pud and pdnp to 2p via suspended or cancelled programs). At what point in next 12 months does interest payments to that syndicate start to unmask the fact that tranch is never being recovered, which I think is what pva and mhr was all about.
Beyond just the immediate cash flow and stock price implications and fears that the situation with US energy is much more serious if it merits such an intimate involvement by the Fed, a far bigger question is why is the Fed once again in the a la carte bank bailout game, and how does it once again select which banks should mark their energy books to market (and suffer major losses), and which ones are allowed to squeeze by with fabricated marks and no impairment at all? Wasn’t the purpose behind Yellen’s rate hike to burst a bubble? Or is the Fed less than “macro prudential” when it realizes that pulling away the curtain on of the biggest bubbles it has created would result in another major financial crisis?
The Dallas Fed, whose new president Robert Steven Kaplan previously worked at Goldman Sachs for 22 years rising to the rank of vice chairman of investment banking, has not responded to our request for a comment as of this writing. ( source: ZeroHedge )
Over the weekend, we gave the Dallas Fed a chance to respond to a Zero Hedge story corroborated by at least two independent sources, in which we reported that Federal Reserve members had met with bank lenders with distressed loan exposure to the US oil and gas sector and, after parsing through the complete bank books, had advised banks to i) not urge creditor counterparties into default, ii) urge asset sales instead, and iii) ultimately suspend mark to market in various instances.
Moments ago the Dallas Fed, whose president since September 2015 is Robert Steven Kaplan, a former Goldman Sachs career banker who after 22 years at the bank rose to the rank of vice chairman of its investment bank group – an odd background for a regional Fed president – took the time away from its holiday schedule to respond to Zero Hedge.
This is what it said.
— Dallas Fed (@DallasFed) January 18, 2016
We thank the Dallas Fed for their prompt attention to this important matter. After all, as one of our sources commented, “If revolvers are not being marked anymore, then it’s basically early days of subprime when MBS payback schedules started to fall behind.” Surely there is nothing that can grab the public’s attention more than a rerun of the mortgage crisis, especially if confirmed by the highest institution.
As such we understand the Dallas Fed’s desire to avoid a public reaction and preserve semantic neutrality by refuting “such guidance.”
That said, we fully stand by our story, and now that we have engaged the Dallas Fed we would like to ask several very important follow up questions, to probe deeper into a matter that is of significant public interest as well as to clear up any potential confusion as to just what “guidance” the Fed is referring to.
“while we are taking what we believe to be the appropriate reserves for that, I’m just not prepared to give you a specific number right now as far as the amount of reserves that we have on that particular book of business. That’s just not something that we’ve traditionally done in the past.”
Since the Fed is an entity tasked with serving the public, and since it took the opportunity to reply in broad terms to our previous article, we are confident that Mr. Kaplan and his subordinates will promptly address these follow up concerns.
Finally, in light of this official refutation by the Dallas Fed, we are confident that disclosing the Fed’s internal meeting schedules is something the Fed will not object to, and we hereby request that Mr. Kaplan disclose all of his personal meetings with members of the U.S. and international financial system since coming to office, both through this article, and through a FOIA request we are submitting concurrently. (source: ZeroHedge)
Fed Scrambles as Oil ETN Premium Soars to New Highs
Over the weekend, Zero Hedge reported exclusively how the Dallas Fed is pulling strings behind the scenes to conceal the fallout from the oil market crash. By suspending mark-to-market on energy loans and distorting the accounting, they are postponing the inevitable as long as possible. The current situation is eerily reminiscent to the heyday of the mortgage market in 2007, when mortgage defaults started to pick up, and yet the credit default swaps that tracked them continued to decline, bringing losses to those brave enough to trade against the crowd.
Amidst the market chaos on Friday, a trader brought something strange to my attention. He asked me exactly what the hell was going on with this ETN he was watching. I took a closer look and was baffled. It took me awhile to put the pieces together. Then when I saw the story about mark-to-market being suspended, it all made sense.
Here is the daily premium for the last 6 months on the Barclays iPath ETN that tracks oil:
Initially, I thought this was merely a sign of retail desperation. As they faced devastating losses on their oil stocks, small investors turned to products like oil ETNs as they tried to grasp the elusive oil profits their financial adviser promised them a year ago. Oblivious to the cruel mechanics of ETNs, they piled in head first, in spite of the soaring premium to fair value. After all, Larry Fink is making the rounds to convince the small investor that ETFs are indeed safer than mutual funds. Because nothing says “safe” like buying an ETN that is 36% above its fair value.
Sure, there are differences between ETFs and ETNs, particularly regarding their solvency in the event of an issuer default, but the premium/discount problem plagues ETFs and ETNs alike. Nonetheless, widely trusted retail sources of investment information perpetuate the myth that ETNs do not have tracking errors.
I thought I had connected the dots on the Oil ETN story. It was just retail ignorance. Then I saw this comment from a Zero Hedge reader:
He had a point. On Friday, stocks were slammed, and the team known as 3:30 Ramp Capital was noticeably absent.
Or were they?
Behold, the missing 3:30 ramp has been found:
With the oil fallout quickly spreading, the Fed is resorting to behind-the-scenes manipulation of energy debt, and now, that apparently includes oil ETNs as well.
“Hysteria is impossible without an audience. Panicking by yourself is the same as laughing alone in an empty room. You feel really silly.” – Chuck Palahniuk
“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” – Dorothy M. Neddermeyer
The stock market decline has gained momentum in 2016, and much like a runaway train, the current decline will be hard to stop, until the persistent overvaluations plaguing the stock market over this current bull market are corrected.
The correction that has caused the average stock in the United States to correct over 25%, thus far, started as an innocuous move down in global equities, outside of the depression enveloping the downtrodden emerging markets and commodities stocks, and then spread from transportation stocks to market leaders like biotechnology companies. The first wave down culminated in a gut-wrenching August 2015 sell-off that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSEARCA:DIA) fall 1000 points at the open on August 24th, 2015. The panic was quickly brushed aside, but not forgotten, as market leading stocks made new highs in the fall of 2015.
That optimism, has given way to the reality that global quantitative easing has not provided the boost that its biggest supporters claimed. Now, everything is falling in tandem, and there is not much hope with the Fed nearly out of bullets, other than perhaps lower energy prices, to spark a true recovery.
The financial markets have taken notice, and are repricing assets accordingly. Just like forays to the upside are not one way affairs, the move down will not be a one-way adjustment, and investors should be prepared for sharp counter-trend rallies, and the price action yesterday, Thursday, January 14th, 2016 is a perfect example. To close, with leading stocks now suffering sizable declines that suggest institutional liquidation, investors should have their respective defensive teams on the field, and be looking for opportunistic, out-of-favor investments that have already been discounted.
The market correction is gaining steam and will not be completed until leading stocks and market capitalization indexes correct materially.
Small-Caps & Transports Led The Downturn:
While U.S. stocks have outperformed international markets since 2011, 2014 and 2015 saw the development of material divergences. Specifically, smaller capitalization stocks, measured by the Russell 2000 Index, and represented by the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (NYSEARCA:IWM), began under performing in 2014. Importantly, small-caps went on to make a new high in 2015, but their negative divergence all the way back in 2014, planted the seeds for the current decline, as illustrated in the chart below.
Building on the negative divergences, transportation stocks began severely under performing the broader markets in 2015. To illustrate this, I have used the charts of two leading transportation stocks, American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and Union Pacific Corporation (NYSE:UNP), which are depicted below. For the record, I have taken a fundamental interest in both companies as I believe they are leading operators in their industries.
The Next Dominoes – Oil Prices & High Yield Bonds:
Oil prices, as measured by the United States Oil Fund (NYSEARCA:USO) in the chart below, were actually one of the first shoes to drop, even prior to small-cap stocks, starting a sizable move down in June of 2014.
Industry stalwart Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) peaked in July of 2014, and despite tremendous volatility since then, has been in a confirmed downtrend.
As the energy complex fell apart with declining oil prices, high-yield bonds, as measured by the iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (NYSEARCA:HYG), and by the SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (NYSEARCA:JNK), made material new lows.
Yield Focused Stocks Take It On The Chin
As the energy downturn intensified, many companies that had focused on providing attractive yields, to their yield starved investors, saw their business models questioned at best, and implode at worst. The most prominent example was shares of Kinder Morgan (NYSE:KMI).
The fallout did not stop with KMI, as many MLP s and other yield oriented stocks continue to see declines as 2015 has rolled into 2016. Williams Companies (NYSE:WMB) has been especially hard hit, showing extreme volatility over the past several weeks.
Leading GARP Stocks Never Recovered:
Even though I have been bearish on the markets for some time, I was not sure if the markets would melt-up or meltdown in December of 2015, as I articulated in a Seeking Alpha article at the time.
In hindsight, the under performance of growth-at-a-reasonable-price stocks, like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD), which had struggled ever since the August 2015 sell-off, should have been an ominous sign.
FANG Stocks, The Last Shoe To Drop:
Even as many divergences developed in the financial markets over the last year, many leading stocks made substantial new highs in the fall of 2015, led by the FANG stocks. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), along with NASDAQ stalwarts Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), attracted global capital as growth became an increasingly scarce commodity. The last two weeks have challenged the assumption that these companies are a safe-haven, immune from declines impacting the rest of the stock market, as the following charts show.
The PowerShares QQQ ETF (NASDAQ:QQQ), which is designed to track the performance of the NASDAQ 100 Index, and counts five of the world’s ten largest market capitalization companies among its largest holdings, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, has outperformed the S&P 500 Index, as measured by the SPDRs S&P 500 ETF (NYSEARCA:SPY), for a majority of the current bull market, with a notable exception being the last week of 2015, and the first two weeks of 2016. Wholesale, sustained selling is now starting to grip the markets.
Conclusion – The Market Downturn Is Gaining Momentum:
The developing market correction is gaining momentum. Like an avalanche coming down a mountain, it is impacting everything it touches, and no sectors or companies, even the previously exalted FANG stocks, are immune from its reaches. Investors should have their respective defensive teams on the field, while looking for opportunities in undervalued, out-of-favor assets, as many stocks have been in their own bear markets for years.
Collapse in crude oil prices is a huge blow to areas where oil extraction and associated industries are the bread and butter of the economy.
As petro-economies suffer from the bust in crude prices, the effects are showing up in the housing market.
Take North Dakota, for example, which was on the front lines of the oil boom between 2011 and 2014. In fact, North Dakota is probably the most vulnerable to a downturn in housing because of low oil prices. The economy is smaller and thus more dependent on the oil boom than other places, such as Texas. The state saw an influx of new workers over the past few years, looking for work in in the prolific Bakken Shale. A housing shortage quickly emerged, pushing up prices. With the inability to house all of the new people, rent spiked, as did hotel rates. The overflow led to a proliferation of “man camps.”
Now the boom has reversed. The state’s rig count is down to 53 as of January 13, about one-third of the level from one year ago. Drilling is quickly drying up and production is falling. “The jobs are leaving, and if an area gets depopulated, they can’t take the houses with them and that’s dangerous for the housing market,” Ralph DeFranco, senior director of risk analytics and pricing at Arch Mortgage Insurance Company, told CNN Money.
New home sales were down by 6.3 percent in North Dakota between January and October of 2015 compared to a year earlier. Housing prices have not crashed yet, but there tends to be a bit of a lag with housing prices. JP Ackerman of House Canary says that it typically takes 15 to 24 months before house prices start to show the negative effects of an oil downturn.
According to Arch Mortgage, homes in North Dakota are probably 20 percent overvalued at this point. They also estimate that the state has a 46 percent chance that house prices will decline over the next two years. But that is probably understating the risk since oil prices are not expected to rebound through most of 2016. Moreover, with some permanent damage to the balance sheets of U.S. shale companies, drilling won’t spring back to life immediately upon a rebound in oil prices.
There are some other states that are also at risk of a hit to their housing markets, including Wyoming, West Virginia and Alaska. Out of those three, only Alaska is a significant oil producer, but it is in the midst of a budget crisis because of the twin threats of falling production and rock bottom prices. Alaska’s oil fields are mature, and have been in decline for years. With a massive hole blown through the state’s budget, the Governor has floated the idea of instituting an income tax, a once unthinkable idea.
The downturn in Wyoming and West Virginia has more to do with the collapse in natural gas prices, which continues to hollow out their coal industries. Coal prices have plummeted in recent years, and coal production is now at its lowest level since the Reagan administration. Shale gas production, particularly in West Virginia, partially offsets the decline, but won’t be enough to come to the state’s rescue.
Texas is another place to keep an eye on. However, Arch Mortgage says the economy there is much larger and more diversified than other states, and also better equipped to handle the downturn than it was back in the 1980s during the last oil bust.
But Texas won’t escape unscathed. The Dallas Fed says job growth will turn negative in a few months if oil prices don’t move back to $40 or $50 per barrel. Texas is expected to see an additional 161,200 jobs this year if oil prices move back up into that range. But while that could be the best-case scenario, it would still only amount to one-third of the jobs created in 2014. “The biggest risk to the forecast is if oil prices are in the range of $20 to $30 for much of the year,” Keith Phillips, Dallas Fed Senior Economist, said in a written statement. “Then I expect job growth to slip into negative territory as Houston gets hit much harder and greater problems emerge in the financial sector.”
After 41 consecutive months of increases in house prices in Houston, prices started to decline in third quarter of 2015. In Odessa, TX, near the Permian Basin, home sales declined by 10.6 percent between January and October 2015 compared to a year earlier.
Most Americans will still welcome low prices at the pump. But in the oil boom towns of yesterday, the slowdown is very much being felt.
By Chris at www.CapitalistExploits.at
As the housing boom of the 2000’s minted new millionaires every second Tuesday. So, too, the shale oil boom minted wealth faster than McDonald’s mints new diabetics.
Estimates by the UND Center for Innovation Foundation in Grand Forks, are that the North Dakota shale oil boom was creating 2,000 millionaires per year. For instance, the average income in Montrail County has more than doubled since the boom started.
Taken direct from Wikipedia:
Despite the Great Recession, the oil boom resulted in enough jobs to provide North Dakota with the lowest unemployment rate in the United States. The boom has given the state of North Dakota, a state with a 2013 population of about 725,000, a billion-dollar budget surplus. North Dakota, which ranked 38th in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001, rose steadily with the Bakken boom, and now has per capita GDP 29% above the national average.
I wonder how many North Dakotan’s have any idea the effect low oil prices are going exert on their living standards, freshly elevated house prices, employment stats, and government revenues.
We’re all about to find out. Here is the last piece in our 5-part series by Harris Kupperman exploring what this means for the fracking industry, oil in general, and the one topic nobody is paying much attention to: the petrodollar.
Date: 27 September 2015
Subject: There Will Be Blood – Part V
Starting at the end of 2014, I wrote a number of pieces detailing how QE was facilitating the production of certain real assets like oil where the production decision was no longer being tied to profitability. For instance, shale producers could borrow cheaply, produce at a loss and debt investors would simply look the other way because of the attractive yields that were offered on the debt. The overriding theme of these pieces was that the eventual crack-up in the energy sector would precipitate a crisis that was much larger than the great subprime crisis of last decade as waves of shale defaults would serve as the catalyst for investors to stop reaching for yield and once again try to understand what exactly they owned.
Fast forward 9 months from the last piece and most of these shale producers are mere shells of themselves. If you got out of the way—good for you. Amazingly, these companies can still find creative ways to tap the debt markets, stay alive and flood the market with oil. Eventually, most won’t make it and I believe that the ultimate global debt write-off is in the hundreds of billions of dollars—maybe even a trillion depending on which larger players stumble. That doesn’t even include the service companies or the employees who have their own consumer and mortgage debt.
I believe that shale producers are the “sub-prime” of this decade. As they vaporize hundreds of billions in investor capital, thus far, there has been a collective shrug as everyone ignores the obvious – until suddenly it begins to matter. By way of timelines, I think we are now getting to the early summer of 2008 – suddenly the smart people are beginning to realize that something is wrong. Credit spreads are the life-line of the global financial world. They’re screaming danger. I think the equity markets are about to listen.
High-yield – 10-year spread is blowing out
Then again, a few hundred billion is a rounding error in our QE world. There is a much bigger animal and no one is talking about it yet – the petrodollar.
Roughly defined, petrodollars are the dollars earned by oil exporting countries that are either spent on goods or more often tucked away in central bank war chests or sovereign wealth funds to be invested. I’ve read dozens of research reports on the topic and depending on how its calculated, this flow of capital has averaged between $500 billion and $1 trillion per year for most of the past decade. This is money that has been going into financial assets around the world – mainly in the US. This flow of reinvested capital is now effectively shut off. Since many of these countries are now running huge budget deficits, it seems only natural that if oil stays at these prices, this flow of capital will go in reverse as countries are forced to sell foreign assets to cover these deficits.
Over the past year, the carnage in the emerging markets has been severe. Barring another dose of QE, I think this carnage is about to come to the more developed world as the petrodollar flow unwinds and two decades of central bank inspired lunacy erupts.
We agree with Harris, and not coincidentally the petrodollar unwind forms a part of the global USD carry trade unwind I’ve been harping on about recently.
Capitalist Exploits subscribers will receive a free report on 3 actionable trades in the oil and gas sector later this week. Leave us your email address here to get the report.
“So, ladies and gentlemen… if I say I’m an oil man you will agree. You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, you can lose it all if you’re not careful.” – Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
West Texas Intermediate crude oil is at a 6-year low of $43 a barrel.
And back in December 2014, “Bond King” Jeff Gundlach had a serious warning for the world if oil prices got to $40 a barrel.
“I hope it does not go to $40,” Gundlach said in a presentation, “because then something is very, very wrong with the world, not just the economy. The geopolitical consequences could be — to put it bluntly — terrifying.”
Writing in The Telegraph last week, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard noted that with Brent crude oil prices — the international benchmark — below $50 a barrel, only Norway’s government is bringing in enough revenue to balance their budget this year.
And so in addition to the potential global instability created by low oil prices, Gundlach added that, “If oil falls to around $40 a barrel then I think the yield on ten year Treasury note is going to 1%.” The 10-year note, for its part, closed near 2.14% on Tuesday.
On December 9, 2014, WTI was trading near $65 a barrel and Gundlach said oil looked like it was going lower, quipping that oil would find a bottom when it starts going up.
WTI eventually bottomed at $43 in mid-March and spend most all of the spring and early summer trading near $60.
On Tuesday, WTI hit a fresh 6-year low, plunging more than 4% and trading below $43 a barrel.
In the last month, crude and the entire commodity complex have rolled over again as the market battles oversupply and a Chinese economy that is slowing.
And all this as the Federal Reserve makes noise about raising interest rates, having some in the market asking if these external factors — what the Fed would call “exogenous” factors — will stop the Fed from changing its interest rate policy for the first time in over almost 7 years.
In an afternoon email, Russ Certo, a rate strategist at Brean Capital, highlighted Gundlach’s comments and said that the linkages between the run-up, and now collapse, in commodity prices since the financial crisis have made, quite simply, for an extremely complex market environment right now.
“There is a global de-leveraging occurring in front of our eyes,” Certo wrote. “And, I suppose, the smart folks will determine the exact causes and translate what that means for FUTURE investment thesis. Today it may not matter other than accurately anticipating a myriad of global price movements in relation to each other.”
Last week, amid a renewed bout of crude carnage, Morgan Stanley made a rather disconcerting call on oil.
“On current trajectory, this downturn could become worse than 1986: An additional +1.5 mb/d [of OPEC supply] is roughly one year of oil demand growth. If sustained, this could delay the rebalancing of oil markets by a year as well. The forward curve has started to price this in: as the chart shows, the forward curve currently points towards a recovery in prices that is far worse than in 1986. This means the industrial downturn could also be worse. In that case, there would be little in analysable history that could be a guide to this cycle,” the bank wrote, presaging even tougher times ahead for the O&G space.
If Morgan Stanley is correct, we’re likely to see tremendous pressure on the sector’s highly indebted names, many of whom have been kept afloat thus far by easy access to capital markets courtesy of ZIRP.
With a rate hike cycle on the horizon, with hedges set to roll off, and with investors less willing to throw good money after bad on secondaries and new HY issuance, banks are likely to rein in credit lines in October when the next assessment is due. At that point, it will be game over in the absence of a sharp recovery in crude prices.
Against this challenging backdrop, we bring you the following commentary from Emanuel Grillo, partner at Baker Botts’s bankruptcy and restructuring practice who spoke to Bloomberg Brief last week.
* * *
Via Bloomberg Brief
How does the second half of this year look when it comes to energy bankruptcies?
A: People are coming to realize that the market is not likely to improve. At the end of September, companies will know about their bank loan redeterminations and you’ll see a bunch of restructurings. And, as the last of the hedges start to burn off and you can’t buy them for $80 a barrel any longer, then you’re in a tough place.
The bottom line is that if oil prices don’t increase, it could very well be that the next six months to nine months will be worse than the last six months. Some had an ability to borrow, and you saw other people go out and restructure. But the options are going to become fewer and smaller the longer you wait.
Are there good deals on the horizon for distressed investors?
A: The markets are awash in capital, but you still have a disconnect between buyers and sellers. Sellers, the guys who operate these companies, are hoping they can hang on. Buyers want to pay bargain-basement prices. There’s not enough pressure on the sellers yet. But I think that’s coming.
Banks will be redetermining their borrowing bases again in October. Will they be as lenient this time around as they were in April?
A: I don’t know if you’ll get the same slack in October as in April, absent a turnaround in the market price for oil. It’s going to be that ‘come-to-Jesus’ point in time where it’s about how much longer can they let it play. If the banks get too aggressive, they’re going to hurt the value for themselves and their ability to exit. So they’re playing a balancing act.
They know what pressure they’re facing from a regulatory perspective. At the same time, if they push too far in that direction, toward complying with the regulatory side and getting out, then they’re going to hurt themselves in terms of what their own recovery is going to be. All of the banks have these loans under very close scrutiny right now. They’d all get out tomorrow if they could. That’s the sense they’re giving off to the marketplace, because the numbers are just not supporting what they need to have from a regulatory perspective.
Note: ALL prices used in this article are using current 2015 dollars, inflation adjusted using the
US BLS inflation calculator.
Generally, when I invest, I try to keep my thesis very simple. Find good companies, with good balance sheets and some kind of specific catalytic event on the horizon. But when one starts to concentrate their holdings in a sector, as I have recently in energy (see my recent articles on RMP Energy (OTCPK:OEXFF) and DeeThree Energy (OTCQX:DTHRF), you need to also get a good handle on the particular tail or headwinds that are affecting it. Sometimes a sector like oil (NYSEARCA:USO) can be subjected to such forces, like the recent oil price crash, where almost no company specific data mattered.
One of the biggest arguments, normally used by proponents of owning oil stocks as core holdings, in the energy sector is “Peak Oil.” For the unfamiliar, it is a theory forwarded first by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s regarding U.S. oil production. Essentially, the theory stated that the U.S. would reach a point where the oil reserves would become so depleted that it would be impossible to increase oil production further, or even maintain it at a given level, regardless of effort. This would inevitably lead to oil price rises of extreme magnitudes.
Since those early beginnings, the details have been argued over in an ever-evolving fashion. The argument has shifted with global events, technological developments, and grown to encompass nearly every basin in the world (even best-selling books have been written about peak oil like Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy by Matt Simmons about a decade ago) consuming endless bytes of the Internet in every kind of investment forum and medium of exchange.
In general, I believe that the term “peak oil” is a highly flawed one. Some picture peak oil in a Mad Max fashion, with oil supplies running out like a science fiction disaster movie. Others simply dismiss peak oil as having failed to predict these so-called peaks repeatedly (the world is producing a record amount of oil right now, so all previous absolute “Peak Oil” calls below these amounts are obviously wrong). But what people should be stating when they use these terms is a Peak Oil Price.
Using my own thinking and phrasing, I believe civilization has probably passed $25 Peak Oil. This means that if you set the oil price to $25 a barrel, there is no method available to humanity to provide enough oil to meet demand over any period of time that’s really relevant. I also believe we are in the middle of proving that we have also passed $50 Peak Oil. My final conjecture here is that we will prove in the near-term future to have reached $75 Peak Oil. I don’t believe we are quite at $100 Peak Oil.
Notice that in my formulation the term Peak Oil is always stated as a peak price. Oil is not consumed in a vacuum. The price affects the demand the world has for the product and simultaneously changes the ability of all sorts of entities (businesses and governments) to retrieve deposits of it. This is what I hope to prove in this article.
Well we have one thing we now have that previous entrants into the Peak Oil melee didn’t, which is the recent price crash in oil. Peak oil is often falsely portrayed as a failed idea since it hasn’t resulted in a super squeeze to ultra high prices. These spike prices are viewed as the really critical element by energy investors since they are trying to find the best case. After all, who doesn’t want to own an oil producer if they can identify a spot in which oil prices will rise to some enormous number.
But that is the wrong way to go about it for your oil investments over the long haul. Because what $50 Peak Oil really provides is a floor. In a world where we have passed $25 Peak Oil, it should be impossible, without exogenous events of enormous magnitude (world war, etc.), to press the price of the product below that price. If you could do so, you would immediately disprove the thesis. You would then know the floor provided by whichever peak oil price level you selected was wrong. The same idea seems to hold true for $50 Peak Oil now.
To prove this “floor” we need to choose times of extreme stress in the oil markets, and look at those oil prices and see what the bottoms were. For these examples, let’s select WTI oil, whose weekly average prices are reported all the way back to 1986 by the EIA.
Let’s take the three big crashes in the oil markets. I will use a full year’s average to try to smooth out the various difficulties presented by weather, seasonal effects, or various one-off events (outages, etc.). The first crash I will use as a benchmark is The 1986 Oil Crash. The 1986 breakdown was a supply crash, caused by supply swamping demand. How big a disaster was it for the oil industry?
In 1986, the Saudis opened the spigot and sparked a four-month, 67 percent plunge that left oil just above $10 a barrel. The U.S. industry collapsed, triggering almost a quarter-century of production declines, and the Saudis regained their leading role in the world’s oil market.
This was quite a crash obviously. Triggering a 25 year decline? Not going to find a lot worse than this. So in inflation adjusted dollars what was WTI oil at for the year of 1986? It sold for around $32 a barrel. Now let’s note that at this time WTI crude was actually at a higher price vs. Brent and other world prices. On a Brent basis, crude would have been just around $25 for the year. This will prove to be an important point in a short while.
The next crash we will use to benchmark was the 2008 Financial Crisis. On this website, I should hope that this world crisis will need no introduction and little explanation. This crash in oil prices (and just about every other thing priced by human beings) was a demand crash. The financial disintegration across the world led to massive drops in demand, as jobs were lost across the world by the millions. So with this demand crash what was the average price of WTI crude in the year 2009? It sold in that year for a little over $60.
The last crash I will add is the current drop, starting sometime around October by my reckoning. I would find it hard to imagine any reader of this article is unfamiliar with the current situation in North America or the world regarding oil, at least in a headline sense. This seems to be a supply crash again, where North American-led tight oil drillers have caused an increase in production that the world’s demand couldn’t handle at the $100 price level. Since then, prices have dropped down to a level that suppresses the production of oil and enhances demand.
In the first four months of 2015, the North American oil rig count has already dropped by more than 50% as compared to last year and the demand for oil has begun to increase according to EIA statistics. The current price of WTI oil has been just over $49 as an average for the year 2015. However, let us note that WTI oil now sells for a large discount to world prices, and during the previous two crashes, WTI sold for a premium.
Now we have three data points. Each one is a fairly long period of time, not just a single week. We know that the world in 1986 nearly ended for the oil industry, yet in current dollars, WTI oil was unable to trade for a year below $30 a barrel. Then we had in 2008 and 2009 an economic crisis which was widely described as being the most dire financial disaster since WWII. In 2009, WTI oil still ended up trading well over the 1986 low. In fact it was nearly double that price. This shows just how hard it can be using almost any technique to push oil prices below a true peak number.
Now we have another supply led crunch. One that is widely described as the worst oil crash since 1986, a nearly 30 year time gap. We are attacking the oil price from the supply side instead of 2008’s demand side. Yet thus far, in 2015, oil is still trading more than 50% higher than the 1986 year average, inflation adjusted. In fact, WTI, when adjusted for its current discount to world prices, is trading close to its 2009 average price. Again, nearly double the price of the 1986 crash.
What does this all mean for investing? It means to me that $25 Peak Oil is behind us. You couldn’t really hit and maintain that number in the 1986 crash when many more virgin conventional reservoirs of oil were available. Despite the last three oil crises, not one of them could get WTI oil to $25 and keep it there. Now, using much more expensive oil resources (shale fracing, deep water drilling, arctic development, etc.), it doesn’t seem like the last two disasters have been able to press WTI oil much below $50 for a material length of time. In this recent crash, the $50 floor was able to be reached only with several years of hyper-investment made possible by the twin forces of sustained high prices and access to ultra-cheap capital. Both of these forces are no longer present in the oil markets.
Therefore, I think using a $50 Peak Oil number is a very reasonable hard floor to use when stress testing your oil stocks. It means that when I am choosing a stock that produces oil, it can survive both from supply and the demand led crashes using the worst the world can throw at it.
Some will say this reasoning is simplistic. One could claim any number of variables in the future (technology, peace in the Middle East, etc.) could change all the points I am relying on here. But we have thrown everything at the oil complex between 2008 and now; both from the supply side and the demand sides; breakdowns of the whole world economy, wars, sanctions, natural disasters, hugely stupid governmental policies, OPEC’s seeming fade to irrelevance, biofuels, periods of ultra-high prices, technological progress, electric cars, etc. Yet, here we stand with these numbers staring us in the face.
In conclusion, I feel these price points prove the reality of $50 Peak Oil (WTI). If WTI oil averages more than $50 in 2015 (which I strongly feel the data shows will happen), then it will confirm my thesis that no matter what happens in the world, human beings cannot seem to produce the amount of oil they require for less than that number. Therefore, one will know what the hard floor for petroleum is provided by the hugely complex interplay of geology, politics, economics, and technology by simply measuring those effects on one easy-to-measure point of data, namely price. This version of peak oil also means I have a minimum to test my selections on. I can buy companies that can at least deal with that floor, then make large profits as the prices rise from that hard floor. All oil fields deplete, and for the past twenty years, the solution has universally been to add more expensive technological solutions, exploit smaller or more physically difficult deposits, or use more expensive alternatives. The oil market does not have the same options available to it like it did 1986. Large, cheap conventional oil deposits are no longer available in sufficient supply, which is likely what the oil price is telling us by having higher Peak Floors during crashes. Without the magic of sustained ultra high prices, the investment levels that made this run at the $50 Peak Oil level will not exist going into the future. This means that the Peak Oil floor price should be creeping higher as a sector tailwind, giving a patient and selective investor a tremendous advantage for themselves.
The fall in U.S. rigs drilling for oil quickened a bit this week, data showed on Friday, suggesting a recent slowdown in the decline in drilling was temporary, after slumping oil prices caused energy companies to idle half the country’s rigs since October.
Drillers idled 31 oil rigs this week, leaving 703 rigs active, after taking 26 and 42 rigs out of service in the previous two weeks, oil services firm Baker Hughes Inc said in its closely watched report.
With the oil rig decline this week, the number of active rigs has fallen for a record 20 weeks in a row to the lowest since 2010, according to Baker Hughes data going back to 1987.
Since the number of oil rigs peaked at 1,609 in October, energy producers have responded quickly to the steep 60 percent drop in oil prices since last summer by cutting spending, eliminating jobs and idling rigs.
After its precipitous drop since October, the U.S. oil rig count is nearing a pivotal level that experts say could dent production, bolster prices and even coax oil companies back to the well pad in the coming months.
Pioneer Natural Resources Co, a top oil producer in the Permian Basin of West Texas, said this week it will start adding rigs in June as long as market conditions are favorable. U.S. crude futures this week climbed to over $58 a barrel, the highest level this year, as a Saudi-led coalition continued bombings in Yemen.
That was up 38 percent from a six-year low near $42 set in mid March on oversupply concerns and lackluster demand, in part on expectations the lower rig count will start reducing U.S. oil output.
After rising mostly steadily since 2009, U.S. oil production has stalled near 9.4 million barrels a day since early March, the highest level since the early 1970s, according to government data.
The Permian Basin in West Texas and eastern New Mexico, the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing shale oil basin, lost the most oil rigs, down 13 to 242, the lowest on record, according to data going back to 2011.
Texas was the state with the biggest rig decline, down 19 to 392, the least since 2009.
In Canada, active oil rigs fell by four to 16, the lowest since 2009. U.S. natural gas rigs, meanwhile, climbed by eight to 225, the same as two weeks ago.
“Come down to Houston,” William Snyder, leader of the Deloitte Corporate Restructuring Group, told Reuters. “You’ll see there is just a stream of consultants and bankruptcy attorneys running around this town.”
But it’s not just in Houston or in the oil patch. It’s in retail, healthcare, mining, finance…. Bankruptcies are suddenly booming, after years of drought.
In the first quarter, 26 publicly traded corporations filed for bankruptcy, up from 11 at the same time last year, Reuters reported. Six of these companies listed assets of over $1 billion, the most since Financial-Crisis year 2009. In total, they listed $34 billion in assets, the second highest for a first quarter since before the financial crisis, behind only the record $102 billion in 2009.
The largest bankruptcy was the casino operating company of Caesars Entertainment that has been unprofitable for five years. It’s among the zombies of Corporate America, kept moving with new money from investors that had been driven to near insanity by the Fed’s six-plus years of interest rate repression.
Next in line were Doral Financial, security services outfit Altegrity, RadioShack, and Allied Nevada Gold. The first oil-and-gas company showed up in sixth place, Quicksilver Resources [Investors Crushed as US Natural Gas Drillers Blow Up].
Among the largest 15 sinners on the list, based on Bankruptcydata.com, are six oil-and-gas related companies. But mostly in the lower half. So far, larger energy companies are still hanging on by their teeth.
This isn’t the list of a single troubled sector that ran out of luck. This isn’t a single issue, such as the oil-price collapse. This is the list of a broader phenomenon: too much debt across a struggling economy. And now the reckoning has started.
So maybe the first-quarter surge of bankruptcies was a statistical hiccup; and for the rest of the year, bankruptcies will once again become a rarity.
Wishful thinking? The list only contains publicly traded companies that have already filed. But the energy sector, for example, is full of companies that are owned by PE firms, such as money-losing natural gas driller Samson Resources. It warned in March that it might have to use bankruptcy to restructure its crushing debt.
Similar troubles are building up in other sectors with companies owned by PE firms. As a business model, PE firms strip equity out of the companies they buy, load them up with debt, and often pay special dividends out the back door to themselves. These companies are prime candidates for bankruptcy.
Restructuring specialists are licking their chops. Reality is setting in after years of drought when the Fed’s flood of money kept every company afloat no matter how badly it was leaking. These folks are paid to renegotiate debt covenants, obtain forbearance agreements from lenders, renegotiate loans, etc. At some point, they’ll try to “restructure” the debts.
“There is a ton of activity under the water,” explained Jon Garcia, founder of McKinsey Recovery & Transformation Services.
Just on Wednesday, gun maker Colt Defense, which is invoking a prepackaged Chapter 11 filing, proposed to exchange its $250 million of 8.75% unsecured notes due 2017 for new 10% junior-lien notes due in 2023, according to S&P Capital IQ/LCD. But at a pro rata of 35 cents on the dollar!
Equity holders are out of luck. The haircut would “address key issues relating to Colt’s viability as a going concern,” the filing said. It would allow the company “to attract new financing in the years to come.” Always fresh money!
Also on Wednesday, Walter Energy announced that it would skip the interest payment due on its first-lien notes. In early March, when news emerged that it had hired legal counsel to explore restructuring options, these first-lien notes plunged to 64.5 cents on the dollar and its shares became a penny stock.
None of them has shown up in bankruptcy statistics yet. They’re part of the “activity under water,” as Garcia put it.
But these Colt Defense and Walter Energy notes are part of the “distressed bonds” whose values have collapsed and whose yields have spiked in a sign that investors consider them likely to default. These distressed bonds, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data, have more than doubled year over year to $121 billion.
The actual default rate, which lags behind the rise in distressed debt levels, is beginning to tick up. Yet it’s still relatively low thanks to the Fed’s ongoing easy-money policies where new money constantly comes forward to bail out old money.
But once push comes to shove, equity owners get wiped out. Creditors at the lower end of the hierarchy lose much or all of their capital. Senior creditors end up with much of the assets. And the company emerges with a much smaller debt burden.
It’s a cleansing process, and for many existing investors a total wipeout. But the Fed, in its infinite wisdom, wanted to create paper wealth and take credit for the subsequent “wealth effect.” Hence, with its policies, it has deactivated that process for years.
Instead, these companies were able to pile even more debt on their zombie balance sheets, and just kept going. It temporarily protected the illusory paper wealth of shareholders and creditors. It allowed PE firms to systematically strip cash out of their portfolio companies before the very eyes of their willing lenders. And it prevented, or rather delayed, essential creative destruction for years.
But now reality is re-inserting itself edgewise into the game. QE has ended in the US. Commodity prices have plunged. Consumers are strung out and have trouble splurging. China is slowing. Miracles aren’t happening. Lenders are getting a teeny-weeny bit antsy. And risk, which everyone thought the Fed had eradicated, is gradually rearing its ugly head again. We’re shocked and appalled.
It has been a persistent ugly list of municipal bankruptcies: Detroit, MI; Vallejo, San Bernardino, Stockton, and Mammoth Lakes, CA; Jefferson County, AL. Harrisburg, PA; Central Falls, RI; Boise County, ID.
There are many more aspirants for that list, including cities bigger than Detroit. Detroit was the test case for shedding debt. If bankruptcy worked in Detroit, it might work in Chicago. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to make Chapter 9 bankruptcies legal for cities in his state, which is facing its own mega-problems.
“Bankruptcy law exists for a reason; it’s allowed in business so that businesses can get back on their feet and prosper again by restructuring their debts,” Rauner said. “It’s very important for governments to be able to do that, too.”
His plan for sparing Illinois that fate is to cut state assistance to municipalities, which doesn’t sit well with officials at these municipalities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office countered that balancing the state budget on the backs of the local governments is itself a “bankrupt” idea.
Puerto Rico doesn’t even have access to a legal framework like bankruptcy to reduce its debts, but it won’t be able to service them. It owes $73 billion to bondholders, about $20,000 per-capita – more than any of the 50 states. If you own a muni bond fund, you’re probably a creditor. Bond-fund managers use its higher-yielding debt to goose their performance. But now some sort of default and debt relieve is in the works. The US Treasury Department is involved too.
“People before debt,” the people in Puerto Rico demand. It’s going to be expensive for bondholders.
That’s the ugly drumbeat in the background of New York Fed President William Dudley’s speech today at the New York Fed’s evocatively named workshop, “Chapter 9 and Alternatives for Distressed Municipalities and States.”
So they’re doing workshops on municipal bankruptcies now….
“We at the New York Fed are committed to playing a role in ensuring the stability of this important sector,” he said, referring to the sordid finances of state and local governments. But he wasn’t talking about future bailouts by the Fed. He was issuing a warning to municipalities and their creditors about “the emerging fiscal stresses in the sector.”
It’s a big sector. State and local governments employ about 20 million people – “nearly one in seven American workers.” The sector accounts for about $2 trillion, or 11%, of US GDP. And its services like public safety, education, health, water, sewer, and transportation, are “absolutely fundamental to support private sector economic activity.”
The problem is how all this and other budget items have gotten funded. There are about $3.5 trillion in municipal bonds outstanding. So Dudley makes a crucial distinction:
When governments invest in long-lived capital goods like water and sewer systems, as well as roads and bridges, it makes sense to finance these assets with debt. Debt financing ensures that future residents, who benefit from the services these investments produce, are also required to help pay for them. This principle supports the efficient provision of these long-lived assets.
“Unfortunately,” he said, governments borrow to “cover operating deficits. This kind of debt has a very different character than debt issued to finance infrastructure.” It’s “equivalent to asking future taxpayers to help finance today’s public services.”
In theory, 49 states require a balanced budget every year, but it’s easy enough to “find ways to ‘get around’ balanced budget requirements” and cover operating expenses with borrowed money, he said, including the widespread practice of “pushing the cost of current employment services into the future” by underfunding pensions and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees.
The total mountain of unfunded liabilities remains murky, but estimates for unfunded pension liabilities alone “range up to several trillion dollars.” With these unfunded liabilities, employees are the creditors. That would be on top of the $3.5 trillion in official debt, where bondholders are the creditors.
And eventually, high debt levels and the provision of services clash as in Detroit and Stockton, he said, and render public sector finances “unsustainable.”
But cutting services to the bone to be able to service the ballooning debt entails a problem: citizens can vote with their feet and move elsewhere, thus reducing the tax base and economic activity further. To forestall that, municipalities may alter their priorities and favor the provision of services over debt payments. “This may occur well before the point that debt service capacity appears to be fully exhausted,” he said.
In other words, the prioritization of cash flows to debt service may not be sustainable beyond a certain point. While these particular bankruptcy filings [by Detroit and Stockton] have captured a considerable amount of attention, and rightly so, they may foreshadow more widespread problems than what might be implied by current bond ratings.
That was easy to miss: foreshadow more widespread problems than what might be implied by current bond ratings. Dudley in essence said that current bond ratings – and therefore current bond prices and yields – don’t reflect the ugly reality of state and municipal financial conditions.
It was a warning for states and municipalities to get their financial house in order “before any problems grow to the point where bankruptcy becomes the only viable option.”
It was a warning for public employees and retirees – in their role as creditors – to not rely on promises made by their governments concerning pensions and retiree healthcare benefits.
And it was a warning for municipal bondholders that their portfolios were packed with risky, but low-yielding securities that might end up being renegotiated in bankruptcy court, along with claims by public employees and what’s left of their pension funds. And it was a blunt warning not to trust the ratings that our infamous ratings agencies stamp on these municipal bonds.
Some states are worse than others. Even with capital gains taxes from the booming stock market and startup scene raining down on my beloved and crazy state of California, it ranks as America’s 7th worst “Sinkhole State,” where taxpayers shoulder the largest burden of state debt.
The shale oil revolutionaries are retreating in disarray, and cheap foreign oil may banish them to the margins of the market.
As oil and natural gas move into a period of low prices, new data shows that North American drillers may not have the wherewithal to keep producing shale wells, which make up 90 percent of new drilling. In fact, if prices remain low for years to come, which is a real possibility, then investors may never see a return on the money spent to drill shale wells in the first place.
The full cost of producing oil and natural gas at a representative sample of U.S. companies, including capital spent to build the company and buy assets, is about $80 per barrel of oil equivalent, according to a study from the Bureau of Economic Geology’s Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas.
The analysis of 2014 corporate financial data from 15 of the top publicly traded producers, which I got an exclusive look at before it’s published this week, determined that companies will have a hard time recovering the capital spent that year and maintaining production unless prices rise above $80 a barrel.
The price for West Texas Intermediate has spent most of the year below $50 a barrel.
Low prices, though, won’t mean that producers will shut in existing wells. Many of these same companies can keep pumping to keep cash coming into the company, and they can still collect a 10 percent return above the well’s operating costs at $50 a barrel of oil. They just won’t make enough money to invest in new wells or recover the capital already spent.
This harsh reality of what it will take to keep the shale revolution going shows how vulnerable it is to competition from cheap overseas oil.
“Everyone walks around thinking that they know how much this stuff costs because they see published information on what people spend to just drill wells,” explained Michelle Foss, who leads the Houston-based research center. “That is not what it takes for a company to build these businesses, to recover your capital and to make money.” The bureau was founded in 1909 and functions as the state geological agency.
Low oil prices will also exacerbate the economic impact of low natural gas prices. For years natural gas has kept flowing despite prices below $4 for a million British thermal units because about 50 percent of wells produced both gas and liquids, such as crude oil and condensate.
True natural gas costs
High oil prices have helped companies subsidize natural gas wells, but lower oil prices mean natural gas wells that don’t produce liquids will need to stand on their own economics.
The center’s analysis found that among the sample companies focused primarily on gas, prices will need to top $6 a million BTUs just to cover full costs and rise above $12 a million BTUs to recover the capital expended to develop the wells.
“We have important resources, but people have to be realistic about the challenges of developing them,” Foss told me. “There will have to be higher prices.”
Everyone predicts prices will rise again. The only questions are how quickly and to what price. Some experts predict WTI prices will reach $70 a barrel by the end of 2015, while others see $60. The soonest most expect to see $80 a barrel oil is in 2017. Saudi Arabian officials have said they believe the price has stabilized and don’t see oil returning to $100 a barrel for the next five years.
High prices and shale
The Saudi opinion is particularly important because that nation can produce oil cheaper than any other country and can produce more oil than any other country. As the informal leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saudi Arabia kept the price of oil inside a band between $80 and $100 a barrel for years. Now, the Saudis appear ready to keep the price low.
That’s because high prices inspired the shale revolution, where American companies figured out how to economically drill horizontally into tight rocks and then hydraulically fracture them to release oil and natural gas. Since OPEC countries rely on high oil prices to finance their governments, everyone assumed OPEC would cut production and keep revenues high.
Arab leaders, though, were more concerned about holding on to market share and allowed prices to fall below levels that make most shale wells economic. Foss, who recently returned from meetings in the United Arab Emirates, said OPEC is unlikely to change course because developing countries are seeking alternatives to oil and reducing demand.
“The Saudis and their partners see pressures on oil use everywhere they look, and what they want is their production, in particular their share of the global supply pie, to be as competitive as it can be to ensure they’ve got revenue coming into the kingdom for future generations,” she said.
OPEC is afraid rich countries like the U.S. are losing their addiction to oil, and by lowering prices hope to keep us hooked. And OPEC has plenty of product.
“There’s 9 million barrels a day in current and potential production capacity in Iraq and Iran that is tied up by political conflicts, and if you sort that out enough, that’s a flood of cheap oil onto the market,” Foss said.
On the losing end
If prices remain low, the big losers will be the bond holders and shareholders of indebted, small and medium-size companies that drill primarily in North America. Since these companies are not getting high enough prices to pay off capital expenditures through higher share prices or interest payments , they are in serious trouble.
The inability of Denver-based Whiting Petroleum to sell itself is an example. The board of the North Dakota-focused company was forced to issue new shares, reducing the company’s value by 20 percent, and take on more expensive debt. Quicksilver Resources, based in Fort Worth, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 17 because it couldn’t make the interest payments on its debt and no one was willing to invest more capital.
Until one of these companies is bought, we won’t know the true value of the shale producers at the current oil and natural gas prices.
But as more data reaches the market, there is a real danger that these companies are worth even less than investors fear, even though they may have high-quality assets.
On Friday, March 20, Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) reported that the crude oil rig count had fallen an additional 41 rigs to 825 active rigs. This was the 15th straight week and 25th out of 26 weeks that the rig count has declined. Active oil rigs are now at the lowest level since the week ending March 18th, 2011 and total drilling rigs (oil + natural gas) are the fewest since October 2009. Overall, the oil rig count is down 49% in the 23 weeks since peaking in October. Nevertheless, in its weekly Petroleum Report, the EIA announced last Wednesday that domestic oil production set yet another record high of 9.42 million barrels per day. Since the rig count peaked the week of October 10, 2014 and began its subsequent collapse, oil production has climbed 460,000 barrels per day, or 5.2%. This continued increase in production in the face of a plummeting rig count has confounded journalists, flummoxed investors, and inflated supplies to record highs leading to a continued slump in oil prices.
The two main questions on traders’ minds are 1) why is oil production still at record highs five months after the rig count started dropping? And 2) when, if at all, will oil production begin to fall and how far will it fall? This article provides a comprehensive analysis of the principles behind the relationship between oil drilling and production, applies it to the current crude oil climate, and predicts where both production and the rig count will go in the coming year.
Before we discuss the real-world oil production and drilling situation – an extremely complex picture with over 1 million rigs producing oil – let’s look at a simple, hypothetical situation. The first key point is that once an oil well is drilled, its production is not constant. In fact, production not only begins to decline almost immediately, it does so in an exponential fashion. After analyzing production curves from multiple wells, I will be estimating weekly oil production from a single oil well by the following equation:
Daily Oil Production From Single Well = (Initial Daily Production)/(1+ (Week # from start of production*K)
Where K is a constant equal to 0.06
When graphed using a well that initially produces 1000 barrels of oil per week this equation is represented by Figure 1 below:
Figure 1: Crude oil production curve of single, hypothetical well showing exponential decay.
There are two take home points to note from this chart. First, initial decay is very rapid, with weekly production declining by about 75% after 1 year. Second, after the initial rapid decay, production declines much slower and becomes approximately linear with decay rates of 5-10% per year. Although this graph ends after 2 years or 104 weeks, production continues slowly and steadily beyond 5 years.
Figure 1 represents production from a single well. What happens when we add multiple wells over a period of time? The process by which multiple functions – in this case, oil wells – are added over time is known as Convolution. As noted before, even after an oil well has been active for many years, it is still producing a small volume of oil, a fraction of its initial output. However, there are a LOT of these old, low-output rigs – over 1.1 million in fact. When the number of drilling rigs decreases – thus reducing the number of new wells that come into the service – the old, stable wells plus the production from the declining number of new wells is initially enough to buffer the decline in rig count and net output will continue to rise.
Let’s illustrate this with a simple example. Imagine a new oil field monopolized with a single company that owns 30 oil rigs. The company adds five new rigs each month. Each rig is able to drill 1 new well per month. After six months, the company has deployed all of its rigs to the field. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter the company encounters financial difficulties and is forced to withdraw rigs at a rate of 5 per month until zero remain drilling. Figure 2 below compares active drilling rigs and total wells in this field.
Figure 2: Rig count and total well count of hypothetical oil field
Note that after the rig count peaks and begins to decline, total wells continue to increase before ultimately peaking at 180, where it remains for the remainder of the 20-month period.
Each well initially produces 200 barrels of oil per day and declines according to Equation 1 and the chart in Figure 1. Figure 3 below shows total oil field production overlaid with the total rig count of the field.
Figure 3: Oil Production from hypothetical oil field illustrating how crude oil production can continue to climb despite a sharp reduction in the rig count due to convolution.
Oil production initially climbs rapidly as more rigs are added to the field, reaching 500,000 barrels per month by the time the rig count peaks after 6 months. However, even though the rig count declines to zero six months later, total production continues to increase and peaks at 770,000 barrels per month in month 10 – 4 months after the rig count peaked. Production then begins to decline, but slowly. Even by month 20 after the rig count has been at zero for eight months, production has only declined by 33%.
This is obviously a simply, insular example, but it illustrates several important points. First, there is a delay between when the rig count peaks and when production begins to decline as the combination of old, accumulated oil wells and the continued addition of new wells by the declining rigs is sufficient to coast production higher initially. Second, even when production begins to decline, it is blunted, with production declining a fraction of the actual reduction in rig count. For those interested, the Following Article delves into these principles further and provides useful insight.
Let’s now apply these principles to actual domestic oil production. Before we can set up the model, there are three baseline metrics that need to be established: 1) Rate that rigs drill a well, 2) Time between initial spudding of a well and when it begins production, and 3) Initial production rate of new oil wells.
The EIA has released well counts on a quarterly basis for the past two years. Their data shows that the ratio of new wells to rigs has increased slowly from around 4.75 per quarter in 2012 to 5.3 per quarter in 2014. This equates to about 0.4 wells per week per rig presently. For the model, I used a linear reduction in drilling efficiency with drilling rates down to 0.3 wells per week per rig in 2006.
It takes 15-30 days to drill a new oil well. Once the hole is dug, the well must be completed. It typically takes another week for the rig to be removed and new equipment to be set up. A further week is devoted to hydraulic fracturing. Initial flow back and priming of production takes place over the next 3-4 days. Over the final week, the well is primed for continuous production including installation of tank batteries, the pump jack, and assorted power connections. The well is then connected to the pipeline and permanent production begins. Thus, it takes roughly two months from initial spudding of the well to when it begins production. However, once a well is completed it does not always begin to produce immediately and may not do so for up to six months.
Initial oil production rates have increased markedly over the past decade as drilling technology has improved. The EIA released the chart shown below in Figure 4 showing yearly initial production rates in the Eagleford Shale.
Figure 4: Yearly production rates in Eagleford Shale Formation showing rapidly increased initial rates of production 2009-2014. (Source: EIA)
Initial rates increased from less than 50 barrels per day (or 350 per week) in 2009 to nearly 400 barrels per day (or 2800 per week) in 2014. Note that the decay rate has also increased such that by 2-3 years, all wells are approaching the same output despite the significant differences in increased production. This is a relatively new oil formation and older formations produced more oil initially prior to 2010. For my model, I assumed initial production of 2625 barrels of oil per well per week in 2014-2015 with initial production declining to 1400 barrels per well per week in 2006.
Using this data and the methodology discussed in the example above, a modeled projection of U.S. oil production is created dating back to 2006. This data is shown in Figure 5 below and is compared to actual oil production, calculated on a weekly basis. My preferred unit of time is 1 week as this is the frequency that both the rig count and oil production numbers are released.
Figure 5: Projected oil production based on my model vs. observed crude oil production vs. Baker Hughes Rig Count [Sources: Baker Hughes, EIA]
Overall, this model accurately projects oil production based on active drilling rigs. Between 2006 and 2015, the average error was 88,000 barrels per day, or 1.2%. Over the past six months, this error has averaged just 44,000 barrels per day. The model correctly shows production continuing to increase despite the sharp reduction in active drilling rigs. It is interesting to note that the largest deviation between projected oil production and observed production occurred in late 2009 and early 2010, or shortly after the rig count bottomed out from the previous oil price collapse. The model predicted that oil production would decline somewhat while actual production actually just leveled off before beginning a new rally once the rig count rebounded later in 2010.
This model can be used to project how oil production might behave heading into the future. To do so, we must make assumptions about how the rig count might behave heading into the future. First, let’s pretend that the rig count stays unchanged at 825 active oil rigs for the next 1 year. Figure 6 below projects crude oil production to 1 year.
Figure 6: Projected oil production based the rig count remaining unchanged at 825 [Sources: Baker Hughes, EIA]
Using this projection, crude oil production will peak during the week ending April 10 at 9.51 million barrels per day and then begin declining. By next March 2016, production will have declined to 8.68 million barrels per day, down 9.5% from the projected peak. Again, this goes to show the buffering capacity of older rigs, given that a sustained 50% reduction in the rig count results in a comparatively small <10% decrease in output.
Two qualifying notes are necessary. This model shows a relatively short period of time between production plateauing and production beginning its decline. 1) Given that this model assumes all completed wells are producing oil within 3 months of spudding, it is certainly possible that the production curve may flatten out for a longer period of time due to additional completed wells that have been idle are slowly hooked up to pipelines over the next several months. 2) This model also makes the assumption that all rigs produce oil equally. If rigs drilling less-productive oil fields have been selectively retired while those drilling richer fields have remained active, the rate of decline will similarly be slower and less than projected.
The most recent historical comparison to the events currently unfolding took place in 2008-2009 following the collapse of oil from record highs during the great recession from a high of $146/barrel to near $30/barrel. The rig count during that event was likewise slashed by 50% before rapidly recovering when prices rebounded. However, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison since drilling technology has changed substantially – decline rates are much more rapid, initial production is nearly double that in 2008, etc – and inferences cannot necessarily be made about the future of production. However, let’s assume that the current rig count follows a similar trend. If so, the rig count will slow its descent and bottom out in roughly six weeks near 760-780. If the rig count follows the trend seen in 2009, the count will then rapidly rise and will reach 1330 by this time next year. Production will again peak during the week of April 10, before declining. Production will bottom out in late October near 8.9 million barrels per day, down just 6.3% from its peak before again increasing late in the year.
However, the decline in oil in 2008-2009 was based more on the combination of a bubble bursting and a slumping economy than fundamental forces while the current slump is predicated on a supply/demand mismatch. I expect this will keep prices and rigs down significantly longer than in 2008-2009. Let’s amplify the 2008-2009 rig count curve and project instead that rigs bottom out near 730-750 and that the rate of recovery is roughly half that of 2008-2009 with total rigs at just 950 this time next year. Using this model, production will continue to slowly decline through the New Year and flatten out near 8.7 million barrels per day by March 2016, down 8.4% from the peak. I believe that this is a more realistic model for crude oil production. This projection is shown below in Figure 7.
Figure 7: Projected oil production based on 2008-2009 rig count [Sources: Baker Hughes, EIA]
What does this mean for the supply/demand situation? As I have discussed in my previous articles, crude oil supply and demand are severely mismatched. This has led to oil inventories skyrocketing to a record high of 458 million barrels, a huge 98.7 million barrels above the five-year mean for March. Applying the projected production curve shown in Figure 7 to crude oil storage yields some surprising results. Even with just an 8.7% reduction in supply, the inventory surplus will narrow markedly. These results are shown below in Figure 8, which compares the five-year average storage level and current and projected storage levels. Note: These projections assume that total imports will remain flat and that total demand will follow the five-year average.
Figure 8: Projected crude oil storage based on projected oil production data vs. 5-year average [Source: EIA]
While the rig count continues to climb and then plateaus, I expect that the storage surplus will continue to widen with total inventories approaching 500 million barrels by early May. However, as production drops off, the inventory surplus begins to decline. By the last week of 2015, total supply has declined by 4.7 million barrels per week and projected inventory levels cross the five-year average for the first time since October 2014. Should the rig count begin the slow rise that is projected, by March of 2016, total storage levels will be 50 million barrels BELOW the five-year average. Even if the two qualifying statements discussed above verify or the rig count rises more rapidly than projected, I expect that, based on the drop in rig count already, crude oil inventories will be at or below average this time next year.
What does this mean for crude oil prices? There is a chicken and egg situation going on here. This article makes references to the rebound in rig count after bottoming out in the next month or two. This, of course, is predicated on a rise in price to make drilling again profitable. Without a rally, the count will continue to fall or, at the very least NOT rise, putting further pressure on supply and down-shifting the projected production curve further, making it more likely that prices will THEN rally. Until they finally do. One way or another, I do not see how crude oil can remain priced at under $45/barrel for longer than a few months. Something has to give. Drilling technology is simply not yet to the point where this is a profitable price range for the majority of companies.
Given that these projections show production increasing through early April, I would not be surprised to see continued short-term pressure on oil prices. As I discussed in My Article Last Week, storage at Cushing, the closely watched oil pipeline hub, continues to fill rapidly and threatens to reach capacity by early May. I would welcome such an event, as crude oil would likely drop under $40/barrel presenting an even better buying opportunity. I therefore maintain a short-term bearish, long-term bullish stance on oil.
My favorite way to play a rally in oil is to short the VelocityShares 3x Inverse Crude Oil ETN (NYSEARCA:DWTI) to gain long exposure. This takes advantage of leverage-induced decay to at least partially negate the impact of contango on the ETF. The United States Oil ETF USO), on the other hand, is intended to track 1x the price of oil and leaves an investor directly exposed to contango, which is now 15% over the next six months. The same applies to the VelocityShares 3x Long Crude Oil ETN (NYSEARCA:UWTI), except that exposure to contango is now tripled to 45%.
The advantage to USO is in its safety. A short position in DWTI theoretically leaves an investor open to infinite losses should the price of oil continue to drop. Further, shares must be borrowed to short, which can cost 3-5% annually depending on the broker. And if, once a trader has a position, these shares are no longer available, the position can be forcibly closed at an inopportune time. A slightly less risky position would be the ProShares UltraShort Bloomberg Crude Oil ETF (NYSEARCA:SCO) that is more liquid and less volatile.
For this reason, I started a small position in USO on Thursday at $16.05 when oil erased its post-Fed Remarks gains from Wednesday. This position is equal to just 2% of my portfolio. I will add to my USO position once oil breaks $45/barrel and then again should the commodity break $42/barrel for a total exposure of 6% of my portfolio. Should oil continue to decline to under $40/barrel, I will begin to sell short DWTI at what I assume to be a safer entry point until 10% of my portfolio is allocated to oil ETFs.
Should oil rebound, I will look to take profits. Once the rig count bottoms, I will begin taking profits once oil reaches $50/barrel. I will selectively sell USO initially. I prefer to close out the position most exposed to contango initially in the event that oil reverses and I would otherwise be stuck holding it for an extended period of time. I will then close out DWTI if and when crude oil again reaches $60/barrel. While I believe that oil may ultimately see higher prices, I am concerned at the speed at which rigs may be re-deployed once drilling again becomes profitable. I believe that this will keep oil under $70/barrel for the foreseeable future and will look to exit prior to this level.
In conclusion, an oil production model based on 9 years of domestic production and rig count data is used to project oil production for the past 1 year. This model suggests that oil will bottom around the week ending April 10. However, this is just a modeled projection and the actual peak in production will depend on nuances in drilling discussed above. Nevertheless, I believe that the peak in oil production will represent a significant psychological inflection point and that crude oil is poised for a rally once production begins to roll over.
On the face of it, the oil price appears to be stabilizing. What a precarious balance it is, however.
Behind the facade of stability, the re-balancing triggered by the price collapse has yet to run its course, and it might be overly optimistic to expect it to proceed smoothly. Steep drops in the US rig count have been a key driver of the price rebound. Yet US supply so far shows precious little sign of slowing down. Quite to the contrary, it continues to defy expectations.
So said the International Energy Agency in its Oil Market Report on Friday. West Texas Intermediate plunged over 4% to $45 a barrel.
The boom in US oil production will continue “to defy expectations” and wreak havoc on the price of oil until the power behind the boom dries up: money borrowed from yield-chasing investors driven to near insanity by the Fed’s interest rate repression. But that money isn’t drying up yet – except at the margins.
Companies have raked in 14% more money from high-grade bond sales so far this year than over the same period in 2014, according to LCD. And in 2014 at this time, they were 27% ahead of the same period in 2013. You get the idea.
Even energy companies got to top off their money reservoirs. Among high-grade issuers over just the last few days were BP Capital, Valero Energy, Sempra Energy, Noble, and Helmerich & Payne. They’re all furiously bringing in liquidity before it gets more expensive.
In the junk-bond market, bond-fund managers are chasing yield with gusto. Last week alone, pro-forma junk bond issuance “ballooned to $16.48 billion, the largest weekly tally in two years,” the LCD HY Weekly reported. Year-to-date, $79.2 billion in junk bonds have been sold, 36% more than in the same period last year.
But despite this drunken investor enthusiasm, the bottom of the energy sector – junk-rated smaller companies – is falling out.
Standard & Poor’s rates 170 bond issuers that are engaged in oil and gas exploration & production, oil field services, and contract drilling. Of them, 81% are junk rated – many of them deep junk. The oil bust is now picking off the smaller junk-rated companies, one after the other, three of them so far in March.
On March 3, offshore oil-and-gas contractor CalDive that in 2013 still had 1,550 employees filed for bankruptcy. It’s focused on maintaining offshore production platforms. But some projects were suspended last year, and lenders shut off the spigot.
On March 8, Dune Energy filed for bankruptcy in Austin, TX, after its merger with Eos Petro collapsed. It listed $144 million in debt. Dune said that it received $10 million Debtor in Possession financing, on the condition that the company puts itself up for auction.
On March 9, BPZ Resources traipsed to the courthouse in Houston to file for bankruptcy, four days after I’d written about its travails; it had skipped a $60 million payment to its bondholders [read… “Default Monday”: Oil & Gas Companies Face Their Creditors].
And more companies are “in the pipeline to be restructured,” LCD reported. They all face the same issues: low oil and gas prices, newly skittish bond investors, and banks that have their eyes riveted on the revolving lines of credit with which these companies fund their capital expenditures. Being forever cash-flow negative, these companies periodically issue bonds and use the proceeds to pay down their revolver when it approaches the limit. In many cases, the bank uses the value of the company’s oil and gas reserves to determine that limit.
If the prices of oil and gas are high, those reserves have a high value. It those prices plunge, the borrowing base for their revolving lines of credit plunges. S&P Capital IQ explained it this way in its report, “Waiting for the Spring… Will it Recoil”:
Typically, banks do their credit facility redeterminations in April and November with one random redetermination if needed. With oil prices plummeting, we expect banks to lower their price decks, which will then lead to lower reserves and thus, reduced borrowing-base availability.
April is coming up soon. These companies would then have to issue bonds to pay down their credit lines. But with bond fund managers losing their appetite for junk-rated oil & gas bonds, and with shares nearly worthless, these companies are blocked from the capital markets and can neither pay back the banks nor fund their cash-flow negative operations. For many companies, according to S&P Capital IQ, these redeterminations of their credit facilities could lead to a “liquidity death spiral.”
Alan Holtz, Managing Director in AlixPartners’ Turnaround and Restructuring group told LCD in an interview:
We are already starting to see companies that on the one hand are trying to work out their operational problems and are looking for financing or a way out through the capital markets, while on the other hand are preparing for the events of contingency planning or bankruptcy.
Look at BPZ Resources. It wasn’t able to raise more money and ended up filing for bankruptcy. “I think that is going to be a pattern for many other companies out there as well,” Holtz said.
When it trickled out on Tuesday that Hercules Offshore, which I last wrote about on March 3, had retained Lazard to explore options for its capital structure, its bonds plunged as low as 28 cents on the dollar. By Friday, its stock closed at $0.41 a share.
When Midstates Petroleum announced that it had hired an interim CEO and put a restructuring specialist on its board of directors, its bonds got knocked down, and its shares plummeted 33% during the week, closing at $0.77 a share on Friday.
When news emerged that Walter Energy hired legal counsel Paul Weiss to explore restructuring options, its first-lien notes – whose investors thought they’d see a reasonable recovery in case of bankruptcy – dropped to 64.5 cents on the dollar by Thursday. Its stock plunged 63% during the week to close at $0.33 a share on Friday.
Numerous other oil and gas companies are heading down that path as the oil bust is working its way from smaller more vulnerable companies to larger ones. In the process, stockholders get wiped out. Bondholders get to fight with other creditors over the scraps. But restructuring firms are licking their chops, after a Fed-induced dry spell that had lasted for years.
Investors Crushed as US Natural Gas Drillers Blow Up
The Fed speaks, the dollar crashes. The dollar was ripe. The entire world had been bullish on it. Down nearly 3% against the euro, before recovering some. The biggest drop since March 2009. Everything else jumped. Stocks, Treasuries, gold, even oil.
West Texas Intermediate had been experiencing its biggest weekly plunge since January, trading at just above $42 a barrel, a new low in the current oil bust. When the Fed released its magic words, WTI soared to $45.34 a barrel before re-sagging some. Even natural gas rose 1.8%. Energy related bonds had been drowning in red ink; they too rose when oil roared higher. It was one heck of a party.
But it was too late for some players mired in the oil and gas bust where the series of Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings continues. Next in line was Quicksilver Resources.
It had focused on producing natural gas. Natural gas was where the fracking boom got started. Fracking has a special characteristic. After a well is fracked, it produces a terrific surge of hydrocarbons during first few months, and particularly on the first day. Many drillers used the first-day production numbers, which some of them enhanced in various ways, in their investor materials. Investors drooled and threw more money at these companies that then drilled this money into the ground.
But the impressive initial production soon declines sharply. Two years later, only a fraction is coming out of the ground. So these companies had to drill more just to cover up the decline rates, and in order to drill more, they needed to borrow more money, and it triggered a junk-rated energy boom on Wall Street.
At the time, the price of natural gas was soaring. It hit $13 per million Btu at the Henry Hub in June 2008. About 1,600 rigs were drilling for gas. It was the game in town. And Wall Street firms were greasing it with other people’s money. Production soared. And the US became the largest gas producer in the world.
But then the price began to plunge. It recovered a little after the Financial Crisis but re-plunged during the gas “glut.” By April 2012, natural gas had crashed 85% from June 2008, to $1.92/mmBtu. With the exception of a few short periods, it has remained below $4/mmBtu – trading at $2.91/mmBtu today.
Throughout, gas drillers had to go back to Wall Street to borrow more money to feed the fracking orgy. They were cash-flow negative. They lost money on wells that produced mostly dry gas. Yet they kept up the charade. They aced investor presentations with fancy charts. They raved about new technologies that were performing miracles and bringing down costs. The theme was that they would make their investors rich at these gas prices.
The saving grace was that oil and natural-gas liquids, which were selling for much higher prices, also occur in many shale plays along with dry gas. So drillers began to emphasize that they were drilling for liquids, not dry gas, and they tried to switch production to liquids-rich plays. In that vein, Quicksilver ventured into the oil-rich Permian Basin in Texas. But it was too little, too late for the amount of borrowed money it had already burned through over the years by fracking for gas below cost.
During the terrible years of 2011 and 2012, drillers began reclassifying gas rigs as rigs drilling for oil. It was a judgement call, since most wells produce both. The gas rig count plummeted further, and the oil rig count skyrocketed by about the same amount. But gas production has continued to rise since, even as the gas rig count has continued to drop. On Friday, the rig count was down to 257 gas rigs, the lowest since March 1993, down 84% from its peak in 2008.
Quicksilver’s bankruptcy is a consequence of this fracking environment. It listed $2.35 billion in debts. That’s what is left from its borrowing binge that covered its negative cash flows. It listed only $1.21 billion in assets. The rest has gone up in smoke.
Its shares are worthless. Stockholders got wiped out. Creditors get to fight over the scraps.
Its leveraged loan was holding up better: the $625 million covenant-lite second-lien term loan traded at 56 cents on the dollar this morning, according to S&P Capital IQ LCD. But its junk bonds have gotten eviscerated over time. Its 9.125% senior notes due 2019 traded at 17.6 cents on the dollar; its 7.125% subordinated notes due 2016 traded at around 2 cents on the dollar.
Among its creditors, according to the Star Telegram: the Wilmington Trust National Association ($361.6 million), Delaware Trust Co. ($332.6 million), US Bank National Association ($312.7 million), and several pipeline companies, including Oasis Pipeline and Energy Transfer Fuel.
Last year, it hired restructuring advisers. On February 17, it announced that it would not make a $13.6 million interest payment on its senior notes and invoked the possibility of filing for Chapter 11. It said it would use its 30-day grace period to haggle with its creditors over the “company’s options.”
Now, those 30 days are up. But there were no other “viable options,” the company said in the statement. Its Canadian subsidiary was not included in the bankruptcy filing; it reached a forbearance agreement with its first lien secured lenders and has some breathing room until June 16.
Quicksilver isn’t alone in its travails. Samson Resources and other natural gas drillers are stuck neck-deep in the same frack mud.
A group of private equity firms, led by KKR, had acquired Samson in 2011 for $7.2 billion. Since then, Samson has lost $3 billion. It too hired restructuring advisers to deal with its $3.75 billion in debt. On March 2, Moody’s downgraded Samson to Caa3, pointing at “chronically low natural gas prices,” “suddenly weaker crude oil prices,” the “stressed liquidity position,” and delays in asset sales. It invoked the possibility of “a debt restructuring” and “a high risk of default.”
But maybe not just yet. The New York Post reported today that, according to sources, a JPMorgan-led group, which holds a $1 billion revolving line of credit, is granting Samson a waiver for an expected covenant breach. This would avert default for the moment. Under the deal, the group will reduce the size of the revolver. Last year, the same JPMorgan-led group already reduced the credit line from $1.8 billion to $1 billion and waived a covenant breach.
By curtailing access to funding, they’re driving Samson deeper into what S&P Capital IQ called the “liquidity death spiral.” According to the New York Post’s sources, in August the company has to make an interest payment to its more junior creditors, “and may run out of money later this year.”
Industry soothsayers claimed vociferously over the years that natural gas drillers can make money at these prices due to new technologies and efficiencies. They said this to attract more money. But Quicksilver along with Samson Resources and others are proof that these drillers had been drilling below the cost of production for years. And they’d been bleeding every step along the way. A business model that lasts only as long as new investors are willing to bail out old investors.
But it was the crash in the price of “liquids” that made investors finally squeamish, and they began to look beyond the hype. In doing so, they’re triggering the very bloodletting amongst each other that ever more new money had delayed for years. Only now, it’s a lot more expensive for them than it would have been three years ago. While the companies will get through it in restructured form, investors get crushed.
HOUSTON – It’s official: The shale oil boom is starting to waver.
And, in a way, it may have souped-up rigs and more efficient drilling technologies to thank for that.
Crude production at three major U.S. shale oil fields is projected to fall this month for the first time in six years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Tuesday.
It’s one of the first signs that idling hundreds of drilling rigs and billions of dollars in corporate cutbacks are starting to crimp the nation’s surging oil patch.
But it also shows that drilling technology and techniques have advanced to the point that productivity gains may be negligible in some shale plays where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been used together for the past several years.
Because some plays are already full of souped-up horizontal rigs, oil companies don’t have as many options to become more efficient and stem production losses, as they did in the 2008-2009 downturn, the EIA said.
The EIA’s monthly drilling productivity report indicates that rapid production declines from older wells in three shale plays are starting to overtake new output, as oil companies drill fewer wells.
In the recession six years ago, the falling rig count didn’t lead to declining production because new technologies boosted how fast rigs could drill wells.
But now that oil firms have figured out how to drill much more efficiently, “it is not clear that productivity gains will offset rig count declines to the same degree as in 2008-09,” the EIA said.
Overall, U.S. oil production is set to increase slightly from March to April to 5.6 million barrels a day in six major fields, according to the EIA.
But output is falling in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and the Niobrara Shale in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas.
In those three fields, net production is expected to drop by a combined 24,000 barrels a day.
The losses were masked by production gains in the Permian Basin in West Texas and other regions.
Efficiency improvements are still emerging in the Permian, faster than in other oil fields because the region was largely a vertical-drilling zone as recently as December 2013, the EIA said.
Net crude output in the Bakken is expected to decline by 8,000 barrels a day from March to April. In the Eagle Ford, it’s slated to fall by 10,000 barrels a day. And in the Niobrara, production will dip by roughly 5,000 barrels a day.
But daily crude output jumped by 21,000 barrels in the Permian and by 3,000 barrels in the Utica Shale in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“People need to kinda settle in for a while.” That’s what Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said about the low price of oil at the company’s investor conference. “I see a lot of supply out there.”
So Exxon is going to do its darnedest to add to this supply: 16 new production projects will start pumping oil and gas through 2017. Production will rise from 4 million barrels per day to 4.3 million. But it will spend less money to get there, largely because suppliers have had to cut their prices.
That’s the global oil story. In the US, a similar scenario is playing out. Drillers are laying some people off, not massive numbers yet. Like Exxon, they’re shoving big price cuts down the throats of their suppliers. They’re cutting back on drilling by idling the least efficient rigs in the least productive plays – and they’re not kidding about that.
In the latest week, they idled a 64 rigs drilling for oil, according to Baker Hughes, which publishes the data every Friday. Only 922 rigs were still active, down 42.7% from October, when they’d peaked. Within 21 weeks, they’ve taken out 687 rigs, the most terrific, vertigo-inducing oil-rig nose dive in the data series, and possibly in history:
As Exxon and other drillers are overeager to explain: just because we’re cutting capex, and just because the rig count plunges, doesn’t mean our production is going down. And it may not for a long time. Drillers, loaded up with debt, must have the cash flow from production to survive.
But with demand languishing, US crude oil inventories are building up further. Excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, crude oil stocks rose by another 10.3 million barrels to 444.4 million barrels as of March 4, the highest level in the data series going back to 1982, according to the Energy Information Administration. Crude oil stocks were 22% (80.6 million barrels) higher than at the same time last year.
“When you have that much storage out there, it takes a long time to work that off,” said BP CEO Bob Dudley, possibly with one eye on this chart:
So now there is a lot of discussion when exactly storage facilities will be full, or nearly full, or full in some regions. In theory, once overproduction hits used-up storage capacity, the price of oil will plummet to whatever level short sellers envision in their wildest dreams. Because: what are you going to do with all this oil coming out of the ground with no place to go?
A couple of days ago, the EIA estimated that crude oil stock levels nationwide on February 20 (when they were a lot lower than today) used up 60% of the “working storage capacity,” up from 48% last year at that time. It varied by region:
Capacity is about 67% full in Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point for West Texas Intermediate futures contracts), compared with 50% at this point last year. Working capacity in Cushing alone is about 71 million barrels, or … about 14% of the national total.
As of September 2014, storage capacity in the US was 521 million barrels. So if weekly increases amount to an average of 6 million barrels, it would take about 13 weeks to fill the 77 million barrels of remaining capacity. Then all kinds of operational issues would arise. Along with a dizzying plunge in price.
In early 2012, when natural gas hit a decade low of $1.92 per million Btu, they predicted the same: storage would be full, and excess production would have to be flared, that is burned, because there would be no takers, and what else are you going to do with it? So its price would drop to zero.
They actually proffered that, and the media picked it up, and regular folks began shorting natural gas like crazy and got burned themselves, because it didn’t take long for the price to jump 50% and then 100%.
Oil is a different animal. The driving season will start soon. American SUVs and pickups are designed to burn fuel in prodigious quantities. People will be eager to drive them a little more, now that gas is cheaper, and they’ll get busy shortly and fix that inventory problem, at least for this year. But if production continues to rise at this rate, all bets are off for next year.
Natural gas, though it refused to go to zero, nevertheless got re-crushed, and the price remains below the cost of production at most wells. Drilling activity has dwindled. Drillers idled 12 gas rigs in the latest week. Now only 268 rigs are drilling for gas, the lowest since April 1993, and down 83.4% from its peak in 2008! This is what the natural gas fracking boom-and-bust cycle looks like:
Producing gas at a loss year after year has consequences. For the longest time, drillers were able to paper over their losses on natural gas wells with a variety of means and go back to the big trough and feed on more money that investors were throwing at them, because money is what fracking drills into the ground.
But that trough is no longer being refilled for some companies. And they’re running out. “Restructuring” and “bankruptcy” are suddenly the operative terms.
Debt funded the fracking boom. Now oil and gas prices have collapsed, and so has the ability to service that debt. The oil bust of the 1980s took down 700 banks, including 9 of the 10 largest in Texas. But this time, it’s different. This time, bondholders are on the hook.
And these bonds – they’re called “junk bonds” for a reason – are already cracking. Busts start with small companies and proceed to larger ones. “Bankruptcy” and “restructuring” are the terms that wipe out stockholders and leave bondholders and other creditors to tussle over the scraps.
Early January, WBH Energy, a fracking outfit in Texas, kicked off the series by filing for bankruptcy protection. It listed assets and liabilities of $10 million to $50 million. Small fry.
A week later, GASFRAC filed for bankruptcy in Alberta, where it’s based, and in Texas – under Chapter 15 for cross-border bankruptcies. Not long ago, it was a highly touted IPO, whose “waterless fracking” technology would change a parched world. Instead of water, the system pumps liquid propane gel (similar to Napalm) into the ground; much of it can be recaptured, in theory.
Ironically, it went bankrupt for other reasons: operating losses, “reduced industry activity,” the inability to find a buyer that would have paid enough to bail out its creditors, and “limited access to capital markets.” The endless source of money without which fracking doesn’t work had dried up.
On February 17, Quicksilver Resources announced that it would not make a $13.6 million interest payment on its senior notes due in 2019. It invoked the possibility of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to “restructure its capital structure.” Stockholders don’t have much to lose; the stock is already worthless. The question is what the creditors will get.
It has hired Houlihan Lokey Capital, Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics, “and other advisors.” During its 30-day grace period before this turns into an outright default, it will haggle with its creditors over the “company’s options.”
On February 27, Hercules Offshore had its share-price target slashed to zero, from $4 a share, at Deutsche Bank, which finally downgraded the stock to “sell.” If you wait till Deutsche Bank tells you to sell, you’re ruined!
When I wrote about Hercules on October 15, HERO was trading at $1.47 a share, down 81% since July. Those who followed the hype to “buy the most hated stocks” that day lost another 44% by the time I wrote about it on January 16, when HERO was at $0.82 a share. Wednesday, shares closed at $0.60.
Deutsche Bank was right, if late. HERO is headed for zero (what a trip to have a stock symbol that rhymes with zero). It’s going to restructure its junk debt. Stockholders will end up holding the bag.
On Monday, due to “chronically low natural gas prices exacerbated by suddenly weaker crude oil prices,” Moody’s downgraded gas-driller Samson Resources, to Caa3, invoking “a high risk of default.”
It was the second time in three months that Moody’s downgraded the company. The tempo is picking up. Moody’s:
The company’s stressed liquidity position, delays in reaching agreements on potential asset sales and its retention of restructuring advisors increases the possibility that the company may pursue a debt restructuring that Moody’s would view as a default.
Moody’s was late to the party. On February 26, it was leaked that Samson had hired restructuring advisers Kirkland & Ellis and Blackstone’s restructuring group to figure out how to deal with its $3.75 billion in debt. A group of private equity firms, led by KKR, had acquired Samson in 2011 for $7.2 billion. Since then, Samson has lost $3 billion. KKR has written down its equity investment to 5 cents on the dollar.
This is no longer small fry.
Also on Monday, oil-and-gas exploration and production company BPZ Resources announced that it would not pay $62 million in principal and interest on convertible notes that were due on March 1. It will use its grace period of 10 days on the principal and of 30 days on the interest to figure out how to approach the rest of its existence. It invoked Chapter 11 bankruptcy as one of the options.
If it fails to make the payments within the grace period, it would also automatically be in default of its 2017 convertible bonds, which would push the default to $229 million.
BPZ tried to refinance the 2015 convertible notes in October and get some extra cash. Fracking devours prodigious amounts of cash. But there’d been no takers for the $150 million offering. Even bond fund managers, driven to sheer madness by the Fed’s policies, had lost their appetite. And its stock is worthless.
Also on Monday – it was “default Monday” or something – American Eagle Energy announced that it would not make a $9.8 million interest payment on $175 million in bonds due that day. It will use its 30-day grace period to hash out its future with its creditors. And it hired two additional advisory firms.
One thing we know already: after years in the desert, restructuring advisers are licking their chops.
The company has $13.6 million in negative working capital, only $25.9 million in cash, and its $60 million revolving credit line has been maxed out.
But here is the thing: the company sold these bonds last August! And this was supposed to be its first interest payment.
That’s what a real credit bubble looks like. In the Fed’s environment of near-zero yield on reasonable investments, bond fund managers are roving the land chasing whatever yield they can discern. And they’re holding their nose while they pick up this stuff to jam it into bond funds that other folks have in their retirement portfolio.
Not even a single interest payment!
Borrowed money fueled the fracking boom. The old money has been drilled into the ground. The new money is starting to dry up. Fracked wells, due to their horrendous decline rates, produce most of their oil and gas over the first two years. And if prices are low during that time, producers will never recuperate their investment in those wells, even if prices shoot up afterwards. And they’ll never be able to pay off the debt from the cash flow of those wells. A chilling scenario that creditors were blind to before, but are now increasingly forced to contemplate.
According to the payroll jobs report today (March 6) the economy created 295,000 new jobs in February, dropping the rate of unemployment to 5.5%. However, the BLS also reported that the labor force participation rate fell and the number of people not in the labor force rose by 354,000.
In other words, the unemployment rate dropped because the labor force shrunk.
If the economy was in recovery, the labor force would be growing and the labor force participation rate would be rising.
The 295,000 claimed new jobs are highly suspect. For example, the report claims 32,000 new retail jobs, but the Census Bureau reports that retail sales declined in December and January. Why would retailers experiencing declining sales hire more employees?
Construction spending declined 1.1% in January, but the payroll jobs report says 29,000 construction jobs were added in February.
Zero Hedge reports that the decline in the oil price has resulted in almost 40,000 laid off workers during January and February, but the payroll jobs report only finds 2,900 lost jobs in oil for the two months.http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-03-06/did-bls-once-again-forget-count-tens-thousands-energy-job-losses
There is no sign in the payroll jobs report of the large lay-offs by IBM and Hewlett Packard.
These and other inconsistencies do not inspire confidence.
By ignoring the inconsistencies the financial press does not inspire confidence.
Let’s now look at where the BLS says the payroll jobs are.
All of the goods producing jobs are accounted for by the 29,000 claimed construction jobs. The remaining 259,000 new jobs–90%–of the total–are service sector jobs. Three categories account for 70% of these jobs. Wholesale and retail trade, transportation and utilities account. for 62,000 of the jobs. Education and health services account for 54,000 of which ambulatory health care services accounts for 19,900. Leisure and hospitality account for 66,000 jobs of which waitresses and bartenders account for 58,700 jobs.
These are the domestic service jobs of a turd world country.
John Williams (shadowstats.com) reports: “As of February, the level of full-time employment still was 1.0 million shy of its pre-recession peak.”
Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following. His latest book, The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West is now available.
The Fed should reject its inclination to raise rates, according to Jeffrey Gundlach. It’s rare that he agrees with Larry Summers, but in this case the two believe that the fundamentals in the U.S. economy do not justify higher interest rates.
Gundlach, the founder and chief investment officer of Los Angeles-based Doubleline Capital, spoke to investors in a conference call on February 17. The call was focused on the release of the new DoubleLine Long Duration Fund, but Gundlach also discussed a number of developments in the economy and the bond market.
Signals of an impending rate increase have come from comments by Fed governors that the word “patient” should be dropped from the Fed meeting notes, according to Gundlach. That word has taken on special significance, he explained, since Janet Yellen attached a two-month time horizon to it.
“If they drop that word,” Gundlach said, “it would be a strong signal that rates would rise in the following two months.”
The Fed seems “philosophically” inclined to raise rates, Gundlach said, even though the fundamentals do not justify such a move. Strong disinflationary pressure coming from the collapse in oil prices should caution the Fed against raising rates, he said.
Gundlach was asked about comments by Gary Shilling that oil prices might go as low at $10/barrel. “We better all hope we don’t get $10,” he said, “because something very deflationary would be happening in this world.” If that is the case, Gundlach said investors should flock to long-term Treasury bonds.
“I’d like to think that the world is not in that kind of deflationary precipice,” he said.
Oil will break below its previous $44 low, Gundlach said. But he did not put a price target on oil.
Gundlach warned that by mid-year, if the Fed does raise rates, “the sinister side of low oil may raise its head.” At that time, lack of hiring or layoffs in the fracking industry could cripple the economy, according to Gundlach.
In the short term, Gundlach said that the recent rise in interest rates is a signal that the “huge deflationary scare” –which was partly because of Greece – has dissipated. Investors should monitor Spanish and Italian yields, he said. If they remain low, it is a signal that Greece is not leaving the Eurozone or that, if it does, “it is not a big deal.”
Current government regulations imposed by the Bureau of Land Management are harming energy production and holding back the U.S. economy, a new study reveals.
“While federally owned lands are also full of energy potential, a bureaucratic regulatory regime has mismanaged land use for decades,” write The Heritage Foundation’s Katie Tubb and Nicolas Loris.
The report focuses on the Federal Lands Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. It is designed to empower states to regain control of their lands from the federal government in order to pursue their own energy goals. That is a challenge in an oil-rich state like Colorado.
“We need to streamline the process as there are very real consequences to poor [or nonexistent] management,” Tubb, a Heritage research associate, told The Daily Signal.
“Empowering the states is the best solution. The people who benefit have a say and can share in the benefits. If there are consequences, they can address them locally with state and local governments that are much more responsive to elections and budgets than the federal government.”
Emphasizing the need to streamline the process, Tubb pointed to the findings in the new report.
“The Bureau of Land Management estimates that it took an average of 227 days simply to complete a drill application,” Tubb said.
That’s more than the average of 154 days in 2005 and more than seven times the state average of 30 days, according to the report.
The report blames this increase in the application process on the drop in drilling on federal lands.
“Since 2009,” Tubb and Loris write, “oil production on federal lands has fallen by nine percent, even as production on state and private lands has increased by 61 percent over the same period.”
Despite almost “43 percent of crude oil coming from federal lands,” government-owned lands have seen a 13-point drop in oil production, from 36 percent to 23 percent.
The report also examines the recent oil-related job boom.
“Job creation in the oil and gas industry bucked the slow economic recovery and grew by 40 percent from 2007 to 2012, in comparison to one percent in the private sector over the same period,” according to the report.
That boom has had a big impact on jobs.
“Energy-abundant states like Colorado and Alaska would stand to benefit tremendously. We’ve seen oil and natural gas production increase substantially in Colorado over the past eight years, bringing jobs and economic activity to the state,” said Loris, an economist who is Heritage’s Herbert and Joyce Morgan fellow.
Tubb cautioned that any change will happen slowly. “The federal government likely will not release the land that easily.”
Loris agreed, noting the long-running debate about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“It was no surprise that the Alaskan delegation was up in arms when the administration proposed to permanently put ANWR off limits to energy exploration,” Loris told The Daily Signal. “Many in the Alaskan delegation and Alaskan natives, including village of Kaktovik—the only town in the coastal plain of ANWR, support energy development.”
“We are putting power to the people,” Tubb concluded.
We’re sure by now you are familiar with the main narrative behind the oil price crash. First, while oil production outside of North America is basically stagnant since 2005.
The shale revolution has dramatically increased supply in America.
The resulting oversupply has threatened OPEC and the de-facto leader Saudi Arabia has chosen a confrontational strategy not to make way for the new kid on the block, but instead trying to crush, or at least contain it. Can they achieve this aim, provided it indeed is their aim?
At first, one is inclined to say yes, for the simple reason that Saudi (and most OPEC) oil is significantly cheaper to get out of the ground.
This suggests that all OPEC has to do is to keep output high and sooner or later the oversupply will work itself off the market, and expensive oil is more likely to see cutbacks than cheaper oil, although this critically depends on incentives facing individual producers.
It is therefore no wonder that we’ve seen significant declines in rig counts and numerous companies have announced considerable capex declines. While this needs time to work out into supply cutbacks, these will eventually come.
For instance BP (NYSE:BP) cutting capex from $22.9B in 2014 to $20B in 2015, or Conoco (NYSE:COP) reducing expenditures by more than 30% to $11.5B this year on drilling projects from Colorado to Indonesia. There are even companies, like SandRidge (NYSE:SD), that are shutting 75% of their rigs.
It is often argued that the significant leverage of many American shale companies could accelerate the decline, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that.
While many leveraged companies will make sharp cutbacks in spending, which has a relatively rapid effect on production (see below), others have strong incentives to generate as much income as possible, so they might keep producing.
Even the companies that go belly up under a weight of leverage will be forced to relinquish their licenses or sell them off at pennies to the dollar, significantly lowering the fixed cost for new producers to take their place.
Many shale companies have actually hedged much of their production, so they are shielded from much of the downside (at a cost) at least for some time. And they keep doing this:
Rather than wait for their price insurance to run out, many companies are racing to revamp their policies, cashing in well-placed hedges to increase the number of future barrels hedged, according to industry consultants, bankers and analysts familiar with the deals. [Reuters]
Being expensive is not necessarily a sufficient reason for being first in line for production cuts. For instance, we know that oil from the Canadian tar sands is at the high end of cost, but simple economics can explain why production cuts are unlikely for quite some time to come.
The tar sands involve a much higher fraction as fixed cost:
Oil-sands projects are multibillion-dollar investments made upfront to allow many years of output, unlike competing U.S. shale wells that require constant injections of capital. It’s future expansion that’s at risk. “Once you start a project it’s like a freight train: you can’t stop it,” said Laura Lau, a Toronto-based portfolio manager at Brompton Funds. Current oil prices will have producers considering “whether they want to sanction a new one.” [Worldoil]
So, once these up-front costs are made, these are basically sunk, and production will only decline if price falls below marginal cost. As long as the oil price stays above that, companies can still recoup part of their fixed (sunk) cost and they have no incentive to cut back production.
But, of course, you have tar sand companies that have not yet invested all required up-front capital and new capex expenditures will be discouraged with low oil prices. So, there is still the usual economic upward sloping supply curve operative here.
The funny thing is American shale oil is at the opposite end of this fixed (and sunk) cost universe, apart from acquiring the licenses. As wells have steep decline curves, production needs constant injection of capital for developing new wells.
Production can therefore be wound down pretty quickly should the economics require, and it can also be wound back up relatively quickly, which we think is enough reason why American shale is becoming the new (passive) swing producer. This has very important implications:
So basically, shale is the proverbial toy duck which OPEC needs to submerge in the bathtub, but as soon as it releases the pressure, the duck will emerge again.
Declining cost curves
The shale revolution caught many by surprise, especially the speed of the increase in production. While technology and learning curves are still improving, witness how production cost curves have been pushed out in the last years:
There is little reason this advancement will come to a sudden halt, even if capex is winding down. In fact, some observers are arguing that producers shift production from marginal fields to fields with better production economics, and the relatively steep production decline curves allow them to make this shift pretty rapidly.
Others point out that even the rapid decline in rig count will not have an immediate impact on production, as the proportion of horizontal wells and platforms where multiple wells are drilled from the same location are increasing, all of which is increasing output per rig.
Another shift that is going on is to re-frack existing wells, instead of new wells. The first is significantly cheaper:
Beset by falling prices, the oil industry is looking at about 50,000 existing wells in the U.S. that may be candidates for a second wave of fracking, using techniques that didn’t exist when they were first drilled. New wells can cost as much as $8 million, while re-fracking costs about $2 million, significant savings when the price of crude is hovering close to $50 a barrel, according to Halliburton Co., the world’s biggest provider of hydraulic fracturing services. [Bloomberg]
Production cuts will take time
The hedging and shift to fields with better economics is only a few of the reasons why so far there has been little in the way of actual production cuts in American shale production, the overall oil market still remains close to record oversupply. The International Energy Agency (IEA) argues:
It is not unusual in a market correction for such a gap to emerge between market expectations and current trends. Such is the cyclical nature of the oil market that the full physical impact of demand and supply responses can take months, if not years, to be felt [CNBC].
In fact, the IEA also has explicit expectations for American shale oil itself:
The United States will remain the world’s top source of oil supply growth up to 2020, even after the recent collapse in prices, the International Energy Agency said, defying expectations of a more dramatic slowdown in shale growth [Yahoo].
OPEC vulnerable itself
Basically, the picture we’re painting above is that American shale will be remarkably resilient. Yes, individual companies will struggle, sharp cutbacks in capex are already underway, and some companies will go under, but the basic fact is that as quick as capex and production can fall, they can rise as quickly again when the oil price recovers.
How much of OPEC can the storm of the oil price crash, very much remains to be seen. There is pain all around, which isn’t surprising as one considers that most OPEC countries have budgeted for much higher oil prices for their public finances.
(click to enlarge)
You’ll notice that these prices are all significantly, sometimes dramatically, higher than what’s needed to balance their budgets. Now, many of these countries also have very generous energy subsidies on domestic oil use, supposedly to share the benefits of their resource wealth (and/or provide industry with a cost advantage).
So, there is a buffer as these subsidies can be wound down relatively painless. Some of these countries also have other buffers, like sovereign wealth funds or foreign currency reserves. And there is often no immediate reason for public budgets to be balanced.
But to suggest, as this article is doing, that OPEC is winning the war is short-sighted.
While doing damage to individual American shale oil producers and limiting its expansion, the simple reality is that for a host of reasons discussed above, OPEC can’t beat American shale oil production unless it is willing to accept $40 oil indefinitely. While some OPEC countries might still produce profitably at these levels, the damage to all OPEC economies will be immense, so, we can’t really see this as a realistic scenario in any way.
February 4th, 2015: Crude oil had rallied 20% in three days, with West Texas Intermediate jumping $9 a barrel since Friday morning, from $44.51 a barrel to $53.56 at its peak on Tuesday. “Bull market” was what we read Tuesday night. The trigger had been the Baker Hughes report of active rigs drilling for oil in the US, which had plummeted by the most ever during the latest week. It caused a bout of short covering that accelerated the gains. It was a truly phenomenal rally!
But the weekly rig count hasn’t dropped nearly enough to make a dent into production. It’s down 24% from its peak in October. During the last oil bust, it had dropped 60%. It’s way too soon to tell what impact it will have because for now, production of oil is still rising.
And that phenomenal three-day 20% rally imploded today when it came in contact with another reality: rising production, slack demand, and soaring crude oil inventories in the US.
The Energy Information Administration reported that these inventories (excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) rose by another 6.3 million barrels last week to 413.1 million barrels – the highest level in the weekly data going back to 1982. Note the increasingly scary upward trajectory that is making a mockery of the 5-year range and seasonal fluctuations:
Oil production in the US is still increasing and now runs at a multi-decade high of 9.2 million barrels a day. But demand for petroleum products, such as gasoline, dropped last week, according to the EIA, and so gasoline inventories jumped by 2.3 million barrels. Disappointed analysts, who’d hoped for a drop of 300,000 barrels, blamed the winter weather in the East that had kept people from driving (though in California, the weather has been gorgeous). And inventories of distillate, such as heating oil and diesel, rose by 1.8 million barrels. Analysts had hoped for a drop of 2.2 million barrels.
In response to this ugly data, WTI plunged $4.50 per barrel, or 8.5%, to $48.54 as I’m writing this. It gave up half of the phenomenal three-day rally in a single day.
Macquarie Research explained it this way:
In our experience, oil markets rarely exhibit V-shaped recoveries and we would be surprised if an oversupply situation as severe as the current one was resolved this soon. In fact, our balances indicate the absolute oversupply is set to become more severe heading into 2Q15.
Those hoping for a quick end to the oil glut in the US, and elsewhere in the world, may be disappointed because there is another principle at work – and that principle has already kicked in.
As the price has crashed, oil companies aren’t going to just exit the industry. Producing oil is what they do, and they’re not going to switch to selling diapers online. They’re going to continue to produce oil, and in order to survive in this brutal pricing environment, they have to adjust in a myriad ways.
“Efficiency and innovation, when price falls, it accelerates, because necessity is the mother of invention,” Michael Masters, CEO of Masters Capital Management, explained to FT Alphaville on Monday, in the middle of the three-day rally. “Even if the investment only spits out quarters, or even nickels, you don’t turn it off.”
Crude has been overvalued for over five years, he said. “Whenever the return on capital is in the high double digits, that’s not sustainable in nature.” And the industry has gotten fat during those years.
Now, the fat is getting trimmed off. To survive, companies are cutting operating costs and capital expenditures, and they’re shifting the remaining funds to the most productive plays, and they’re pushing 20% or even 30% price concessions on their suppliers, and the damage spreads in all directions, but they’ll keep producing oil, maybe more of it than before, but more efficiently.
This is where American firms excel: using ingenuity to survive. The exploration and production sector has been through this before. And those whose debts overwhelm them – and there will be a slew of them – will default and restructure, wiping out stockholders and perhaps junior debt holders, and those who hold the senior debt will own the company, minus much of the debt. The groundwork is already being done, as private equity firms and hedge funds offer credit to teetering oil companies at exorbitant rates, with an eye on the assets in case of default.
And these restructured companies will continue to produce oil, even if the price drops further.
So Masters said that, “in our view, production will not decrease but increase,” and that increased production “will be around a lot longer than people are forecasting right now.”
After the industry goes through its adjustment process, focused on running highly efficient operations, it can still scrape by with oil at $45 a barrel, he estimated, which would keep production flowing and the glut intact. And the market has to appreciate that possibility.
The number of rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the Permian Basin fell 37 this week to 417, according to the weekly rotary rig count released Friday by Houston-based oilfield service company Baker Hughes.
This week’s count marked the ninth-consecutive decrease for the Permian Basin. The last time Baker Hughes reported a positive rig-count change was Dec. 5, when 568 rigs were reported. Since then, the Permian Basin has shed 151 rigs, a decrease of 26.58 percent.
For the year, the Permian Basin has shed 113 rigs, or 21.32 percent.
In District 8, which includes Midland and Ector counties, the rig count fell 19 this week to 256. District 8 has shed 58 rigs, 18.47 percent, this year.
Texas lost 41 rigs this week for a statewide total of 654. The Lone Star State has 186 fewer rigs since the beginning of the year, a decrease of 22.14 percent.
In other major Texas basins, there were 168 rigs in the Eagle Ford, down 10; 43 in the Haynesville, unchanged; 39 in the Granite Wash, down one; and 19 in the Barnett, unchanged.
The Haynesville shale is the only major play in Texas to have added rigs this year. The East Texas play started 2015 with 40 rigs.
At this time last year, there were 483 rigs in the Permian Basin and 845 in Texas.
In the U.S., there were 1,456 rigs this week, a decrease of 87. There were 1,140 oil rigs, down 83; 314 natural gas rigs, down five; and two rigs listed as miscellaneous, up one.
By trajectory, there were 233 vertical drilling rigs, down two; 1,088 horizontal drilling rigs, down 80; and 135 directional drilling rigs, down five.
The top five states by rig count this week were Texas; Oklahoma with 176, down seven; North Dakota with 132, down 11; Louisiana with 107, down one; and New Mexico with 78, down nine.
The top five basins were the Permian; the Eagle Ford; the Williston with 137, down 11; the Marcellus with 71, down four; and the Mississippian with 53, down one.
In the U.S., there were 1,397 rigs on land, down 85; nine in inland waters, down three; and 50 offshore, up one. There were 48 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, up one.
Canada’s rig count fell 13 this week to 381. There were 184 oil rigs, down 16; 197 natural gas rigs, up three; and zero rigs listed as miscellaneous, unchanged. Canada had 621 rigs a year ago this week, a difference of 240 rigs compared to this week’s count.
The number of rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the North America region, which includes the U.S. and Canada, fell 100 this week to 1,837. There were 2,392 rigs in North America last year.
On Friday, Baker Hughes released its monthly international rig count for January. The worldwide total was 3,309 rigs. The U.S. ended January with 1,683 rigs, just more than half of all rigs worldwide.
The following are January’s rig counts by region, with the top three nations in each region in parentheses:
— Africa: 132 (Algeria: 97; Nigeria: 19; Angola: 14)
— Asia-Pacific: 232 (India: 108; Indonesia: 36; China offshore: 33)
— Europe: 128 (Turkey: 37; United Kingdom offshore: 15; Norway: 13)
— Latin America: 351 (Argentina: 106; Mexico: 69; Venezuela: 64)
— Middle East: 415 (Saudi Arabia: 119; Oman: 61; Iraq: 60)
Television pundits and business writers who are relentlessly pounding the table on how cheaper home heating oil and gas at the pump is going to provide a consumer windfall and ramp up economic activity have a simplistic view of how things work.
Oil-related companies in the U.S. now account for between 35 to 40 percent of all capital spending. Announcements of sharp cutbacks in capital spending and job reductions by these companies create big ripples, forcing related companies to trim their own budgets, revenue assumptions, and payrolls accordingly.
The announcements coming out of the oil patch are picking up steam and it’s not a pretty picture. Last week Schlumberger said it would eliminate 9,000 jobs, approximately 7 percent of its workforce, and trim capital spending by about $1 billion. Yesterday, Baker Hughes, the oilfield services company, announced 7,000 in job cuts, roughly 11 percent of its workforce, and expects the cuts to all come in the first quarter. Baker Hughes also announced a 20 percent reduction in capital spending. This morning, the BBC is reporting that BHP Billiton will cut 40 percent of its U.S. shale operations, reducing its number of rigs from 26 to 16 by the end of June.
When Big Oil cuts capital spending, we’re not talking about millions of dollars or even hundreds of millions of dollars; we’re talking billions. Last month, ConocoPhillips announced it had set its capital budget for 2015 at $13.5 billion, a reduction of 20 percent. Smaller players are also announcing serious cutbacks. Yesterday Bonanza Creek Energy said it would cut its capital spending by 36 to 38 percent.
Other big industrial companies in the U.S. are also impacted by the sharp slump in oil, which has shaved almost 60 percent off the price of crude in just six months. As the oil majors scale back, it reduces the need for steel pipes. U.S. Steel has announced that it will lay off approximately 750 workers at two of its pipe plants.
On January 15, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City released a dire survey of what’s ahead in its “Fourth Quarter Energy Survey.” The survey found: “The future capital spending index fell sharply, from 40 to -59, as contacts expected oil prices to keep falling. Access to credit also weakened compared to the third quarter and a year ago. Credit availability was expected to tighten further in the first half of 2015.” About half of the survey respondents said they were planning to cut spending by more than 20 percent while about one quarter of respondents expect cuts of 10 to 20 percent.
The impact of all of this retrenchment is not going unnoticed by sophisticated stock investors, as reflected in the major U.S. stock indices. On days when there is a notable plunge in the price of crude, the markets are following in lockstep during intraday trading. Yes, the broader stock averages continued to set new highs during the early months of the crude oil price decline in 2014 but that was likely due to the happy talk coming out of the Fed. It is also useful to recall that the Dow Jones Industrial Average traveled from 12,000 to 13,000 between March and May 2008 before entering a plunge that would take it into the 6500 range by March 2009.
Both the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and Fed Chair Janet Yellen have assessed the plunge in oil prices as not of long duration. The December 17, 2014 statement from the FOMC and Yellen in her press conference the same day, characterized the collapse in energy prices as “transitory.” The FOMC statement said: “The Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate.”
If oil were the only industrial commodity collapsing in price, the Fed’s view might be more credible. Iron ore slumped 47 percent in 2014; copper has slumped to prices last seen during the height of the financial crisis in 2009. Other industrial commodities are also in decline.
A slowdown in both U.S. and global economic activity is also consistent with global interest rates on sovereign debt hitting historic lows as deflation takes root in a growing number of our trading partners. Despite the persistent chatter from the Fed that it plans to hike rates at some point this year, the yield on the U.S. 10-year Treasury note, a closely watched indicator of future economic activity, has been falling instead of rising. The 10-year Treasury has moved from a yield of 3 percent in January of last year to a yield of 1.79 percent this morning.
All of these indicators point to a global economy with far too much supply and too little demand from cash-strapped consumers. These are conditions completely consistent with a report out this week from Oxfam, which found the following:
“In 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. Almost all of that 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years.”
The oil boom that lifted home prices in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana is coming to an end.
Crude oil prices have crashed since June, falling by more than 54 percent to less than $50 a barrel. That swift drop has started to cripple job growth in oil country, creating a slow wave that in the years ahead may devastate what has been a thriving real estate market, according to new analysis by the real estate firm Trulia.
“Oil prices won’t tank home prices immediately,” Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko explained. “Rather, falling oil prices in the second half of 2014 might not have their biggest impact on home prices until late 2015 or in 2016.”
History shows it takes time for home prices in oil country to change course.
Kolko looked at the 100 largest housing markets where the oil industry accounted for at least 2 percent of all jobs. Asking prices in those cities rose 10.5 percent over the past year, compared with an average of 7.7 percent around the country.
Prices climbed 13.4 percent in Houston, where 5.6 percent of all jobs are in oil-related industries. The city is headquarters to energy heavyweights such as Phillips 66, Halliburton and Marathon Oil. Asking prices surged 10.2 percent in Fort Worth and 10.1 percent in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In some smaller markets, oil is overwhelmingly dominant — responsible for more than 30 percent of the jobs in Midland for instance.
The closest parallel to the Texas housing market might have occurred in the mid-1980s, when CBS was airing the prime-time soap opera “Dallas” about a family of oil tycoons.
In the first half of 1986, oil prices plunged more than 50 percent, to about $12 a barrel, according to a report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Job losses mounted in late 1986 around Houston. The loss of salaries eventually caused home prices to fall in the second half of 1987.
That led Kolko to conclude that since 1980, it takes roughly two years for changes in oil prices to hit home prices.
Of course, there is positive news for people living outside oil country, Kolko notes.
Falling oil prices lead to cheaper gasoline costs that reduce family expenses, freeing up more cash to spend.
“In the Northeast and Midwest especially, home prices tend to rise after oil prices fall,” he writes in the analysis.
Oilfield worker on a rig
Active pumping rig located on Highway 385 south of Odessa, photographed Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2014. James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram. Source: MRT.com
MIDLAND — With oil prices plummeting by more than 50 percent since June, the gleeful mood of recent years has turned glum here in West Texas as the frenzy of shale oil drilling has come to a screeching halt.
Every day, oil companies are decommissioning rigs and announcing layoffs. Small firms that lease equipment have fallen behind in their payments.
In response, businesses and workers are getting ready for the worst. A Mexican restaurant has started a Sunday brunch to expand its revenues beyond dinner. A Mercedes dealer, anticipating reduced demand, is prepared to emphasize repairs and sales of used cars. And people are cutting back at home, rethinking their vacation plans and cutting the hours of their housemaids and gardeners.
Dexter Allred, the general manager of a local oil field service company, began farming alfalfa hay on the side some years ago in the event that oil prices declined and work dried up. He was taking a cue from his grandfather, Homer Alf Swinson, an oil field mechanic, who opened a coin-operated carwash in 1968 — just in case.
“We all have backup plans,” Allfred said with a laugh. “You can be sure oil will go up and down, the only question is when.”
Indeed, to residents here in the heart of the oil patch, booms and busts go with the territory.
“This is Midland and it’s just a way of life,” said David Cristiani, owner of a downtown jewelry store, who keeps a graph charting oil prices since the late 1990s on his desk to remind him that the good times do not last forever. “We are always prepared for slowdowns. We just hunker down. They wrote off the Permian Basin in 1984, but the oil will always be here.”
It is at times like these that Midland residents recall the wild swings of the 1980s, a decade that began with parties where people drank Dom Pérignon out of their cowboy boots. Rolls-Royce opened a dealership, and the local airport had trouble finding space to park all the private jets.
By the end of the decade, the Rolls-Royce dealership was shut and replaced by a tortilla factory, and three banks had failed.
There has been nothing like that kind of excess over the past five years, despite the frenzy of drilling across the Permian Basin, the granddaddy of U.S. oil fields. Set in a forsaken desert where tumbleweed drifts through long-forgotten towns, the region has undergone a renaissance in the last four years, with horizontal drilling and fracking reaching through multiple layers of shale stacked one over the other like a birthday cake.
But since the Permian Basin rig count peaked at around 570 last September, it has fallen to below 490, and local oil executives say the count will probably go down to as low as 300 by April unless prices rebound.
The last time the rig count declined as rapidly was in late 2008 and early 2009, when the price of oil fell from more than $140 to under $40 a barrel because of the financial crisis.
Unlike traditional oil wells, which cannot be turned on and off so easily, shale production can be cut back quickly, and so the field’s output should slow considerably by the end of the year.
The Dallas Federal Reserve recently estimated that the falling oil prices and other factors will reduce job growth in Texas overall from 3.6 percent in 2014 to as low as 2 percent this year, or a reduction of about 149,000 jobs created.
Midland’s recent good fortune is plain to see. The city has grown in population from 108,000 in 2010 to 140,000 today, and there has been an explosion of hotel and apartment construction. Companies like Chevron and Occidental are building new local headquarters. Real estate values have roughly doubled during the past five years, according to Mayor Jerry Morales.
The city has built a new fire station and recruited new police officers with the infusion of new tax receipts, which increased by 19 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone. A new $14 million court building is scheduled to break ground next month.
But the city has also put away $39 million in a rainy-day fund for the inevitable oil bust.
“This is just a cooling-off period,” Morales said. “We will prevail again.”
Expensive restaurants are still full and traffic around the city can be brutal. Still, everyone seems to sense that the pain is coming, and they are preparing for it.
“We are responding to survive, so that we may once again thrive when we come out the other side,” said Steven H. Pruett, president and chief executive of Elevation Resources, a Midland-based oil exploration and production company. “Six months ago there was a swagger in Midland and now that swagger is gone.”
Pruett’s company had six rigs running in early December but now has only three. It will go down to one by the end of the month, even though he must continue to pay a service company for two of the rigs because of a long-term contract.
The other day Pruett drove to a rig outside of Odessa he feels compelled to park to save cash, and he expressed concern that as many as 50 service workers could eventually lose their jobs.
But the workers themselves seemed stoic about their fortunes, if not upbeat.
“It’s always in the back of your mind — being laid off and not having the security of a regular job,” said Randy Perry, a tool-pusher who makes $115,000 a year, plus bonuses, managing the rig crews. But Perry said he always has a backup plan because layoffs are so common — even inevitable.
Since graduating from high school a decade ago, he has bought several houses in East Texas and fixed them up, doing the plumbing and electrical work himself. At age 29 with a wife and three children, he currently has three houses, and if he is let go, he says he could sell one for a profit he estimates at $50,000 to $100,000.
Just a few weeks ago, he and other employees received a note from Trent Latshaw, the head of his company, Latshaw Drilling, saying that layoffs may be necessary this year.
“The people of the older generation tell the young guys to save and invest the money you make and have cash flow just in case,” Perry said during a work break. “I feel like everything is going to be OK. This is not going to last forever.”
The most nervous people in Midland seem to be the oil executives who say busts may be inevitable, but how long they last is anybody’s guess.
Over a lavish buffet lunch recently at the Petroleum Club of Midland, the talk was woeful and full of conspiracy theories about how the Saudis were refusing to cut supplies to vanquish the surging U.S. oil industry.
“At $45 a barrel, it shuts down nearly every project,” Steve J. McCoy, Latshaw Drilling’s director of business development, told Pruett and his guests. “The Saudis understand and they are killing us.”
Pruett nodded in agreement, adding, “They are trash-talking the price of oil down.”
“Everyone has been saying ‘Happy New Year,’” Pruett continued. “Yeah, some happy new year.”
NEW YORK (Reuters) – DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach said on Tuesday there is a possibility of a “true collapse” in U.S. capital expenditures and hiring if the price of oil stays at its current level.
Gundlach, who correctly predicted government bond yields would plunge in 2014, said on his annual outlook webcast that 35 percent of Standard & Poor’s capital expenditures comes from the energy sector and if oil remains around the $45-plus level or drops further, growth in capital expenditures could likely “fall to zero.”
Gundlach, the co-founder of Los Angeles-based DoubleLine, which oversees $64 billion in assets, noted that “all of the job growth in the (economic) recovery can be attributed to the shale renaissance.” He added that if low oil prices remain, the U.S. could see a wave of bankruptcies from some leveraged energy companies.
Brent crude approached a near six-year low on Tuesday as the United Arab Emirates defended OPEC’s decision not to cut output and traders wondered when a six-month price rout might end.
Brent has fallen as low as just above $45 a barrel, near a six-year low, having averaged $110 between 2011 and 2013.
Gundlach said oil prices have to stop going down so “don’t be bottom-fishing in oil” stocks and bonds. “There is no hurry here.”
Energy bonds, for example, have been beaten up and appear attractive on a risk-reward basis, but investors need to hedge them by purchasing “a lot, lot of long-term Treasuries. I’m in no hurry to do it.”
High-yield junk bonds have also been under severe selling pressure. Gundlach said his firm bought some junk in November but warned that investors need to “go slow” and pointed out “we are still underweight.”
Gundlach said U.S. stocks could outperform other countries’ equities as the economic recovery looks stronger than its counterparts, though double-digit gains cannot be repeated.
He also reiterated that it’s possible yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note could drop to 1 percent in 2015. The 10-year yield traded around 1.91 percent on Tuesday, little changed from late on Monday after hitting 20-month low of 1.8640 percent.
“The 10-year Treasury could join the Europeans and go to 1 percent. Why not?” Gundlach told Reuters last month. “If oil goes to $40, then the 10-year could be going to 1 percent.”
The yield on 10-year German Bunds stood at 0.47 percent on Tuesday.
This is the title of the latest webcast from DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach, who just wrapped up a webcast giving his outlook for 2015.
We last heard from Gundlach in December when he held a presentation called “This Time It’s Different,” in which he talked about the oil markets, the dollar, and how the 10-year Treasury bond could get to 1%.
Among the things Gundlach believes 2015 has in store for the market is more volatility, lower Treasury yields, and a Federal Reserve rate hike, “just to see if they can do it.”
Gundlach spent a good chunk of his open talking about the effects that the decline in oil will have on jobs growth and capital investment in the US, noting that 35% of capital investment from the S&P 500 is related to the energy sector.
The bull case for the US in 2015, Gundlach said, is predicated primarily on the strength of the US labor market. Meanwhile the chart of the year so far is the US 10-year yield against other major economies, with the US clearly having space to converge towards the super-low yields seen on 10-year bonds in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland.
We’ve broken out a number of Gundlach’s slides below and added commentary taken as he spoke live on Tuesday.
Says that the “touchdown” part of the drop in oil is that consumers get more money in their pocket. “I think that’s one of the reasons, rightly, that people view the oil decline as somewhat positive.”
Gundlach says that there is a sinister side to the oil decline, which is potential impacts on employment in the US, particularly in the energy space.
Gundlach says “all of the job growth” from the recession until today can be attributed to the shale oil boom.
“And maybe some other things related to that.”
US stocks were the only really strong equity markets among major developed economies. Chinese and Indian stocks were big winners among emerging markets.
“It looks to me like the dollar is headed higher.”
Gundlach says he knows long dollar is a crowded trade, but the fundamentals bolstering a strong dollar remain in tact.
Additionally, Gundlach thinks the Fed will raise rates with a few more months of strong payrolls gains, which will only make the dollar stronger.
The best commodity in 2014 was gold.
Investable commodities have been losers for years.
Gundlach says you lost 800 basis points per annum over the last 10 years investing in commodities.
The number of companies worrying about poor sales is dropping, while there is a modest increase concerns about the quality of labor.
Gundlach says he is “from Missouri” on this one. He will wait to see wage growth show up before making the case for a lift off in wages.
Oil prices have been correlated with GDP growth 18 months forward.
And so this chart implies 3+% global growth going forward.
“On balance this should be viewed as an encouraging indicator.”
Gundlach doesn’t think, however that global growth is going to be upgraded in 2015, and like the last several years will be downgraded as the year goes along.
“It’s almost impossible for the gains from June 2014 to now to be repeated this year.”
“Lo and behold, they didn’t go up in 2013.”
“Let’s just say the S&P 500 has not gone up.”
“This seems to have been a predictable headwind, and it’s staring at us again.”
The path of least resistance to Gundlach seems to be for lower bond yields.
Gundlach says that oil just can’t stop going down. Last year, Treasury yields couldn’t stop going down, and this year oil can’t seem to stop going down.
Adds that contrarianism is dagnerous in commodities and stocks, says that contrarian investing is tempting, but oil is just a dangerous trade right now.
And so here we are.
“It’s too early to be going all-in on the concept that we’re at the bottom of the oil or junk bond cycle.”
Gundlach says DoubleLine is still underweight junk bonds.
Gundlach says CPI is down over the last six months, and it is going to be negative.
The employment situation looks like it might be time to raise rates, but the inflation data is saying the opposite.
Gundlach says something happened when investors got scared of Spanish and Italian bonds.
Since the financial crisis, every interest rate hike has been accompanied by a reversal, and Gundlach thinks this will happen again.
Gundlach says, as he did in December, that he thinks the Fed is going to raise rates “just to do it.”
“I expect this year to have substantially higher volatility than past years.”
“That could cause some trouble.”
Gundlach on the real estate market in China.
“There are lots of reasons to think rates should rise in five years, but not much in five days or five months.”
Gundlach says that with online sales at 9% of retail sales coming online, it seems low. But consider that you can’t buy gasoline online, you don’t really buy groceries online.
“People don’t want the median banana.”
This seems like a horrible idea, Gundlach says.
“If you hate corporate bonds yielding 3%, if you hate mortgages yielding 3%, then how could you want to own a Mall REIT yielding 3%?”
“You’ve got to see oil put in a low, a consolidation. Until then, Russia is dagnerous.”
“I think of all the car companies, Tesla is less of a car company than any other.”
“I’m surprised that anyone would change their car buying habits based on the six-month price of oil. Tesla isn’t so much a play on cars being sold, but on batteries being transformative in many phases of life.”
Gundlach again talking about potential for Tesla’s batteries to get homes entirely off the grid.
“Tesla has as good a chance as anybody to develop a battery that can change the world.”
Says that the stock is hugely overvalued if you just look at the auto sales.
For the second straight month, Midland showed the nation’s largest over-the-year percentage gain in employment, according to figures released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Midland reported a 6.2 percent increase in employment during the month of November. The number of employed increased from 95,200 to 96,000. Odessa (a drilling town next door to Midland) was second in the nation with a growth rate of 4.7 percent.
Midland also bettered its position among the metropolitan statistical areas with the lowest unemployment rates. In October, Midland was tied for fifth with a 2.5 percent jobless rate. In November, with the rate dropping to 2.3 percent, Midland was ranked fourth. Lincoln, Nebraska, took home the top spot with a 2.1 percent rate. Makato, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota, tied for second at 2.2 percent.
There were 14 MSAs with unemployment rates at or below 3 percent during the month of November, including Odessa at 2.8 percent. There were 34 MSAs at 3.5 percent or below.
The following are the lowest unemployment rates in the nation during the month of November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Lowest rates from October:
Bismarck, North Dakota, 2.0; Fargo, North Dakota, 2.2; Lincoln, Nebraska, 2.3. Also: Midland 2.5
Lowest rates from September:
Bismarck, North Dakota 2.1; Fargo, North Dakota 2.3; Midland 2.6
Lowest rates from August:
Bismarck, North Dakota 2.2, Fargo North Dakota 2.4; Midland 2.8.
Lowest rates from July:
Bismarck, North Dakota, 2.4; Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 2.7; Fargo, North Dakota, 2.8; Midland 2.9.
Lowest rates from June:
Bismarck, North Dakota, 2.6, Midland 2.9, Fargo, North Dakota, 3.0.
Lowest rates from May:
Bismarck, North Dakota, 2.2, Fargo, North Dakota, 2.5, Logan, Utah, 2.5, Midland 2.6.
Lowest rates from April:
Midland 2.3, Logan, Utah 2.5, Bismarck, North Dakota 2.6, Ames, Iowa 2.7.
Lowest rates from March:
Midland 2.7, Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, La. 3.1, Bismarck, N.D. 3.1, Odessa 3.3, Fargo, N.D. 3.3, Ames, Iowa 3.3, Burlington, Vt. 3.3
Lowest rates from February:
Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, La. 2.8; Midland 3.0; Lafayette, La. 3.1
Lowest rates from January:
Midland 2.9; Logan, Utah 3.3; Bismarck, N.D. 3.4
Lowest rates from December:
Bismarck, N.D. 2.8; Logan, Utah 2.8; Midland 2.8
Ever since the November 27th OPEC meeting the price of oil has plunged by about 20% and many stocks are off by much, much more. The doomsayers and shorts are out in force now, emboldened by the weakness in this sector. There is a tremendous amount of negative sentiment towards oil now. But this extreme level of negativity appears to be very overdone. It also seems to be based on psychology, forced margin call selling, panic selling and tax-loss selling. With all these factors, it’s been a perfect storm that has brought some small-cap oil stocks back to levels not seen since the depths of the financial crisis. Back in 2009, oil plunged to the $40 range, but the U.S. and the global economy were in free fall and oil consumption was also falling. The factors that drove oil to collapse in 2009 like bank failures, financial system imploding, home prices collapsing, massive layoffs, and other negatives that just do not exist today. That is why it does not make sense to be expecting oil to plunge back towards the lows seen in 2009. Furthermore, it is really important to realize that even when oil plunged in 2009, it rebounded very, very quickly (in spite of all the doomsayers back then). That is another big factor to consider because since the global economy is significantly stronger now, it could rebound sooner than most investors realize. Here are a few more reasons why this is a buying opportunity as oil is not likely to go down much more and why it is not likely to stay down for very long:
Reason #1: Energy company insiders are calling the recent plunge in stocks a “fire sale” and they are buying at a pace that has not been seen in years. Oil industry insiders have seen the ups and downs in oil prices and have experienced market pullbacks before. If oil company insiders are buying en masse now, there is a good chance that they see bargains and a strong future for oil. This supports the idea that there is a disconnect between the current market price of many oil stocks and the longer-term fundamentals of this industry. Citigroup (NYSE:C) recently made a strong case that indicates there is a disconnect between asset prices in the oil industry and the fundamentals. A Bloomberg article details some of the recent insider activity, it states:
“This is an absolute fire sale,” he said. “It’s an overreaction and the result is it’s oversold.” With valuations at a decade low, oil executives such as Rochford and Chesapeake Energy Corp.’s (NYSE:CHK) Archie Dunham are driving the biggest wave of insider buying since 2012, data compiled by the Washington Service and Bloomberg show. They’re snapping up stocks after more than $300 billion was erased from share values as crude slipped below $70 for the first time since 2010.”
Reason #2: Just because OPEC did not act at the November 27th meeting, it does not mean they won’t act. OPEC is scheduled to meet again in 2015, but there is always the possibility for an emergency meeting at any time. Even a statement from OPEC discussing the willingness to cut production or to address “cheating” by some members who are producing more than their quota allows could cause a significant short-covering rebound in the oil sector. A CNBC article points out that some industry watchers believe OPEC could act soon with an extraordinary or “emergency” meeting, it states:
“We see the possibility they call an extraordinary meeting sometime next year,” said Dominic Haywood, crude and products analyst with Energy Aspects. “We think they’re going to address countries not living within their quota.” OPEC has a quota of 30 million barrels a day, but it has been producing more.
On December 2, a Saudi Prince stated that his country would cut production if other countries would also participate. This seems the first “olive branch” since the OPEC meeting and it appears to be in response to the slide in oil since that meeting took place.
Reason #3: The perceived “glut” of oil is much smaller than most people realize. Furthermore, that excess supply could be taken out rather rapidly because cheaper oil is likely to lead to more demand and consumption. Toyota (NYSE:TM) just reported that sales of its 4Runner sport utility vehicle just jumped by 53% in November and sales of the Prius fell by 14% in the same period. This is just one example of how quickly demand for oil can rise and if you multiply even slight increases in global oil consumption because of much lower prices the numbers get quite large. Urban Carmel (a former McKinsey consultant and President of UBS Securities in Asia) believes that oil is going back to $80 per barrel and a recent article he wrote explains why the perceived glut is not going to last long, he states:
“Excess oil supply (over demand) is presently about 1 mbd. That would be a problem for oil prices except for one thing: existing fields lose about 6% of their production capacity each year, equal to about 5.5 mbd. That means that even if demand is flat, at least 4.5 mbd in new production is needed. Opec has spare capacity of only about 3 mbd. The remainder must come from new investment. New deep water and oil sand projects have a breakeven cost of about $80-90. There will be little incentive to make these investments unless the price of oil is at least $80. If the price stays lower than $80, supply will be insufficient for demand. It’s exactly under those circumstances that spikes higher in oil prices have occurred in the past.”
Reason #4: Oil can be very volatile, but it historically rebounds very quickly because it is used in very large quantities every day. The chart below shows that oil has reached a level that is giving investors a buy signal. Also, it is worth noting that prior oil price slides typically lasted about 20 weeks and the current slide is on week 25 which is another sign a rebound is way overdue. Oil and most oil stocks are extremely oversold now and that means a powerful relief and short covering rally could be coming soon. Some “smart money” investors are recognizing the buying opportunity at hand. Hedge funds are starting to position for a rebound in oil as there is a growing belief that the oil slide has run its course and is now due for a rally.
Oil is already down by about 40%, and the global economy is not in a current state that would support drastically lower prices as some are predicting. It is worth noting that most analysts and economists have a terrible track record when it comes to forecasting oil prices. If you had told anyone that oil was going to surge to over $100 within a couple years of the financial crisis you would have been ridiculed. I believe that the inaction at the OPEC meeting triggered margin call selling, and as we know, selling begets selling especially at this time of year when tax-loss selling fuels even more downside pressure. Some investors are making too much of the oil price decline by trying to connect the dots which should not be connected. I don’t believe that oil’s decline is a major sign of global economic weakness, I believe it is partially because supplies are temporarily a bit higher than needed, the dollar has been strong, and because too many speculators held futures contracts that were suddenly liquidated after the OPEC meeting sparked a sell-off. This has created bargains, especially in small-cap oil stocks. I have been primarily focusing my buying on companies that have no direct exposure to the price of oil and significant contract backlogs. This has led me to buy stocks like McDermott International (NYSE:MDR) which is now incredibly cheap at less than $3 per share. This company is an engineering and construction firm that specializes in the energy industry. It has a $4 billion contract backlog and it has about $900 million in cash and (incredibly) a market cap of just $584 million. That means that this company could buy all the outstanding shares and still have over $300 million left in cash on the balance sheet. McDermott shares are also trading for less than half of the stated book value which is $6.30 per share. On November 14, David Trice (a director) bought 20,000 shares at $4.16, which was about $83,000 worth of stock. But, due to immensely negative sentiment in the oil sector, panic selling, margin call selling, and tax-loss selling, this stock is down by about 40% just from when this insider bought, even though this company has no direct exposure to oil prices and enough business (with the $4 billion+ contract backlog) to keep it busy for the next two years. It also does projects for the natural gas industry and investors seem to have overlooked that natural gas prices have remained solid.
I also see opportunity in Willbros Group (NYSE:WG) which trades for just over $4 now (down from a high of about $13 this year). It specializes in pipeline projects for the energy industry which includes oil and gas, petrochemicals, refining as well as electric power. This stock took a hit several weeks ago when the company announced it would restate earnings due to a charge on a pipeline project that was estimated to reverse about $8 million in previously reported pre-tax income. This caused the company to be delayed in filing the latest financial report and the market overreacted by knocking off about $160 million in market cap in just a few days after the restatement issue was announced. Willbros Group has a strong balance sheet and a $1.7 billion backlog which absolutely dwarfs the restatement numbers and the market cap of just about $215 million. It also recently announced plans for an asset sale that is estimated to generate up to $125 million. For more details, read my recent article on Willbros Group.
I expect that small cap stocks like McDermott and Willbros will rebound as tax-loss selling should fade by December 19th which is the Friday before the holiday season. This causes most traders and investors to have completed their tax planning issues before taking off for the holidays and that often leads to a significant “Santa Claus” and “January Effect” rally in beaten-down small caps.
Brent oil in a contango will encourage traders to take delivery of crude and wait for higher prices, according to U.S. economist Dennis Gartman.
Brent for February delivery is $6.10 a barrel cheaper than the February 2016 contract. February Oman oil traded on the Dubai Mercantile Exchange is $8.30 cheaper than the year later contract after being $6 more expensive about six months ago.
“Not enough people pay attention to the importance of term structure,” Dennis Gartman, author of the Suffolk, Virginia-based Gartman Letter, said yesterday in a phone interview. “The market is saying it will pay traders to go into storage.”
Gartman said contango arbitrage is easier to trade on the broader benchmarks than the Oman contract because banks prefer to provide financing for markets that are more heavily traded. Investors can earn a “nearly riskless return” of 8 percent by selling crude futures and storing oil at current prices, Gartman said.
The cost of warehousing and lending has hindered popularity of the trade, Gartman said. Shipbroker Charles R. Weber said this month that oil tanker rates are too high to spur floating storage. There are 28.8 million barrels of oil being stored at Cushing, Oklahoma, about three million barrels above the 2014 average.
by Tyler Durden
For all those who think the upcoming carnage to the shale industry will be “contained” we refer to the following research report from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:
And the final punchline:
Sorry, not anymore.
Now, thanks to John Kerry’s “secret pact“, and America’s close “ally” in the middle-east, Saudi Arabia whose “mission” it no longer to bankrupt Russia but to crush America’s shale industry, the only question surround the only bright spot for America’s economy over the past 6 years is how long before most of the marginal producers file Chapter 11, or 7.
By Kyle Spencer
Investors are slowly waking up to the fact that Saudi Arabia is willing to take OPEC hostage to defend its market share, with Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi declaring that –
In a situation like this, it is difficult, if not impossible, that the kingdom or OPEC would carry out any action that may result in a reduction of its share in market and an increase of others’ shares.
Alas, rather than embrace the cheap petroleum paradigm that has dominated most of the 20th century, many investors continue to cling to old shibboleths. Case in point: Brian Hicks, a portfolio manager at US Global Investors, recently noted that –
The theme going into 2015 is mean reversion. Oil prices are below where they should be (emphasis mine), and hopefully they will start gravitating back to the equilibrium price of between $US80 and $US85 a barrel.
I emphasize the words “below where they should be” because the notion that oil (NYSEARCA:USO) prices belong somewhere – and it’s always higher, somehow – is the linchpin of the bullish thesis. But the question of why a high price regime should prevail over a low price regime is never satisfactorily explained.
Higher extraction costs? A sizable chunk of those costs are sunk costs that can simply be ignored in production decisions and lowering the effective breakeven price. A tighter focus on already drilled wells in areas with mature infrastructure could lower costs even further. Moreover, service sector costs fall as rigs are idled. Depleted reserves? Most resource-producing basins are experiencing an increasing yield over time despite the rapid depletion of individual wells. A lot of that is due to extraction efficiency, which is increasing at a phenomenal rate; in fact, one rig today brings on four times the amount of gas in the Barnett Shale than it did in 2006. Drill times in the Bakken are also falling, while new well production per rig is steadily rising since 2011.
Technically oversold? Good luck catching that knife. Traders have been pounding the table on “oversold conditions” since $80. Proponents of the Oversold Hypothesis who like to point historical examples of oil’s extreme short-term volatility for validation are conveniently ignoring the vast number of counter-examples like this TIME Magazine headline from June, 1981, which almost reads as if it could have been written yesterday:
1981 is an intriguing date for another reason: It marked the first time in over a decade that Non-OPEC nations countries outproduced OPEC. Despite repeated cuts by OPEC, it took five years for capitulation to set in. Nor are lower prices guaranteed to lead to cuts. Indeed, when oil prices plummeted from $4/bbl to 35 cents in 1862, the Cleveland wildcatters didn’t idle their pumps; they pumped faster to pay the interest on their debt.
Don’t Iran and Venezuela require higher oil prices in order to balance their budgets and head off domestic upheaval? Please. The Saudis don’t care about Iran’s budget problems. Venezuela is a non-entity despite it’s immense reserves. In fact, Venezuela’s hell-in-a-handbasket status was one of the major reasons for Cuba’s recent defection to the US.
Asian stimulus? The only reason that Japanese consumers know that oil prices are lower is from Western news headlines. The share of a day’s wages to buy a single gallon of gas in Japan is 5.59% vs. 2.45% in the US. Nevertheless, the Japanese are riding high compared to the BRICS: In Brazil, it’s 17.62%; in Russia, 7.95%; in India it’s 114.92%; in China it’s 23.54%. Not the most fertile ground for a demand-side revolution; especially since oil is priced in dollars rather than yen, reals, rubles, or rupees.
What about the US? Won’t lower prices lead to higher consumption? Despite what you read about our “insatiable thirst” for oil, Americans don’t actually drink the stuff. Our machines do, and those machines are becoming more and more efficient due to CAFE standards and new transportation technologies, especially NGVs. Demographic changes are also leading a secular decline in consumption. Fig. 2 below highlights the steady march down for miles traveled per capita as the Baby Boomers retire to slower paced lives.
The reality is that there’s little that an uptick in demand can do to offset oil’s continuing price collapse if the Saudis aren’t prepared to cut to the bone. The wildcatters certainly aren’t going to; on the contrary, they have every incentive (and no real alternative at this point) to pump like crazy to pay down debt and break OPEC’s back. Most doom and gloom prognostications for North American shale use full-cycle breakeven estimates like the ones presented in Figure 2.
Unfortunately for the bulls, all-in sustaining cost (full-cycle capex) is a totally irrelevant metric for establishing a floor on commodity prices. Commodities prices are based on the marginal cost of production of the most prolific producers, not the full-cycle costs of marginal, high cost producers lopped in with the market leaders. As Seth Kleinman’s group at Citi has pointed out –
…what counts at this stage is half-cycle costs, which are in the significantly lower band of $37 to $45 a barrel. This means that the floor is falling and may not be nearly as firm as the Saudi view assume(s).
The OPEC oil cartel no longer exists in any meaningful sense and crude prices will slump to $50 a barrel over the coming months as market forces shake out the weakest producers, Bank of America has warned.
Revolutionary changes sweeping the world’s energy industry will drive down the price of liquefied natural gas (LNG), creating a “multi-year” glut and a much cheaper source of gas for Europe.
Francisco Blanch, the bank’s commodity chief, said OPEC is “effectively dissolved” after it failed to stabilize prices at its last meeting. “The consequences are profound and long-lasting,“ he said.
The free market will now set the global cost of oil, leading to a new era of wild price swings and disorderly trading that benefits only the Mid-East petro-states with deepest pockets such as Saudi Arabia. If so, the weaker peripheral members such as Venezuela and Nigeria are being thrown to the wolves.
The bank said in its year-end report that at least 15pc of US shale producers are losing money at current prices, and more than half will be under water if US crude falls below $55. The high-cost producers in the Permian basin will be the first to “feel the pain” and may soon have to cut back on production.
The claims pit Bank of America against its arch-rival Citigroup, which insists that the US shale industry is far more resilient than widely supposed, with marginal costs for existing rigs nearer $40, and much of its output hedged on the futures markets.
Bank of America said the current slump will choke off shale projects in Argentina and Mexico, and will force retrenchment in Canadian oil sands and some of Russia’s remote fields. The major oil companies will have to cut back on projects with a break-even cost below $80 for Brent crude.
It will take six months or so to whittle away the 1m barrels a day of excess oil on the market – with US crude falling to $50 – given that supply and demand are both “inelastic” in the short-run. That will create the beginnings of the next shortage. “We expect a pretty sharp rebound to the high $80s or even $90 in the second half of next year,” said Sabine Schels, the bank’s energy expert.
Mrs Schels said the global market for (LNG) will “change drastically” in 2015, going into a “bear market” lasting years as a surge of supply from Australia compounds the global effects of the US gas saga.
If the forecast is correct, the LNG flood could have powerful political effects, giving Europe a source of mass supply that can undercut pipeline gas from Russia. The EU already has enough LNG terminals to cover most of its gas needs. It has not been able to use this asset as a geostrategic bargaining chip with the Kremlin because LGN itself has been in scarce supply, mostly diverted to Japan and Korea. Much of Europe may not need Russian gas at all within a couple of years.
Bank of America said the oil price crash is worth $1 trillion of stimulus for the global economy, equal to a $730bn “tax cut” in 2015. Yet the effects are complex, with winners and losers. The benefits diminish the further it falls. Academic studies suggest that oil crashes can ultimately turn negative if they trigger systemic financial crises in commodity states.
Barnaby Martin, the bank’s European credit chief, said world asset markets may face a stress test as the US Federal Reserve starts to tighten afters year of largesse. “Our biggest worry is the end of the liquidity cycle. The Fed is done and it is preparing to raise rates. The reach for yield that we have seen since 2009 is going into reverse”, he said.
Mr Martin flagged warnings by William Dudley, the head of the New York Fed, that the US authorities had tightened too gently in 2004 and might do better to adopt the strategy of 1994 when they raised rates fast and hard, sending tremors through global bond markets.
Bank of America said quantitative easing in Europe and Japan will cover just 35pc of the global stimulus lost as the Fed pulls back, creating a treacherous hiatus for markets. It warned that the full effect of Fed tapering had yet to be felt. From now on the markets cannot expect to be rescued every time there is a squall. “The threshold for the Fed to return to QE will be high. This is why we believe we are entering a phase in which bad news will be bad news and volatility will likely rise,” it said.
What is clear is that the world has become addicted to central bank stimulus. Bank of America said 56pc of global GDP is currently supported by zero interest rates, and so are 83pc of the free-floating equities on global bourses. Half of all government bonds in the world yield less that 1pc. Roughly 1.4bn people are experiencing negative rates in one form or another.
These are astonishing figures, evidence of a 1930s-style depression, albeit one that is still contained. Nobody knows what will happen as the Fed tries to break out of the stimulus trap, including Fed officials themselves.
by Martin Vleck
The OPEC leaving production quotas unchanged has naturally been the top news last week and most investors have spent at least some time over the weekend to reflect on the implications of the move on their portfolios. There have been several theories and explanations as to why the OPEC didn’t cut. The obvious reasons stretch from the lack of agreement between OPEC members on whether to cut, by how, and most importantly, how much production each country sacrifices. Other explanations include the strategy of the dominant OPEC member, Saudi Arabia, to let the prices fall in order to squeeze out high-cost oil producers, such as Canadian oil sands and U.S. shale oil. The explanations or speculations also include some supposed secret deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to damage Russia, Iran, ISIS and other “rogue” regimes or interest groups around the world. There are certainly many more theories for why OPEC didn’t cut.
Saudis are most probably thinking long term, so any explanation needs to include a combination of short term and long-term strategic goals. And the question also lingers whether OPEC still has enough power over oil prices.
There have been plenty of explanations why the OPEC didn’t cut production quotas. But there is one very long-term strategic reason why the price fall may be welcome by OPEC. This explanation has not been discussed too much, at least I haven’t seen it mentioned. Yet over the very long, very strategic time horizon, this would be the most probable explanation for letting the price of oil to fall now.
Who is the biggest competitor for the Saudis, or OPEC countries? Is it Canada? Is it the U.S.? Russia? Offshore Africa? The answer is no. Let me give you a hint. What is the biggest threat to not just Saudi Arabia, or OPEC, but to all oil producers? The answer is simple:
The biggest threat to all oil producers of the world is the high oil price. (No, that’s not a typo).
High price of oil spurs faster development and implementation of alternative energy technologies. It is just a matter of time before solar, wind and other alternative sources of energy will become competitive or cheaper than oil and gas in many applications. In some places they already are. Sometimes even without any subsidies and including the benefits that oil and gas industry receives in the form of free negative externalities, such as the damage to the water and environment in general. To be fair, the negative environmental impact of the solar panel production and disposition is rarely mentioned.
Moreover, the cost of generating alternative energy has been falling and there is no reason why the cost should stop falling as the technological process keeps leaping ahead. It will probably take centuries before the world runs out of good sunny or windy spots (Sahara, Saudi desert – interestingly, Southern U.S. for solar and plenty of shores for wind are just some examples), so the costs to extract additional alternative energy megawatts will not rise. Plus, the sun rises every day, so the source of this energy is almost infinite and doesn’t deplete or deteriorate. It is like a fixed cost which will never rise over time.
On the other hand, the reserves of oil and gas are finite and the cost of extracting an additional barrel of oil has been rising – and will most probably keep rising – due to cheap sources of oil being always extracted first as well as due to generally rising overall costs associated with oil production.
The recent technical development in the area of electricity storage (batteries, etc.) and alternative energy is surprisingly fast. Panasonic, Tesla and many others are investing in cheaper and more efficient large-scale batteries for economically viable electricity storage. The sales of electric cars, while still tiny, grow at rapid annual rates globally. Hydrogen fuel cell powered cars are emerging (Honda, Hyundai and Toyota already sold/leased some hydrogen models to the public, Audi has a fully functional prototype, many other brands are at similar stages but the technology is evolving rapidly). Ironically, hydrogen is usually produced from natural gas or methane. However, the efficiency is roughly 80%, which is extremely high, much higher than conventional combustion engines. Natural gas also has a much lower value for the oil and gas producers than the oil (lots of it is still just burnt on the spot). So the overall revenue for the oil and gas industry will be significantly lower from a hydrogen-powered car than from a conventional gasoline car. The same holds true for electric cars of course. The hydrogen fueling stations infrastructure is in its infancy, and only a true fan would buy/rent a hydrogen car now, but judging from the hydrogen car mileage and activities of car manufacturers, fuel cell infrastructure may be just 2-3 years behind the electric vehicle infrastructure. If some favorable legislation chips in, the gap could actually close very soon.
But cars are just one of many examples of how alternative energy sources threaten to replace significant volumes of oil in the future. On the other end of the spectrum are speculative developments, such as the fusion power which has been a fata-morgana for many decades. Even a working solution now would probably take five to ten years to make it commercially available. However, Lockheed Martin now claims to have made a breakthrough in fusion technology, offering no details though. So their claim may easily be just part of a creative PR campaign. (I am not suggesting they are lying, but I have to discount the information because there is no way to prove it)
Of course lots of oil will still need to be consumed, for many decades to come. But the market will be shrinking or stagnant in dollar terms. Actual physical volumes may moderately rise. The improvements in power consumption efficiencies are not exactly going to help the price and volume. On the other hand, growing global population and rising buying power of a global consumer is a major positive factor. All in all, I believe the current oil price weakness will continue only in the short run. The prices of WTI crude should stabilize in the medium term of several months or quarters at the level of $60-$80 per barrel.
Oil and gas revenues are often a dominant source of income for the producing countries. To say many are very dependent on oil and gas revenues is a gross understatement. Preserving at least some oil and gas revenue is a matter of life and death for these countries. Therefore, the only way to survive the next few decades for most oil and gas producing countries is to cut the price of oil drastically NOW. That is their only chance to at least slow down the development and implementation of alternative energy sources into widespread usage, before it is too late from their point of view. If they fail, the price of oil will get stuck at much lower levels almost permanently.
Higher-cost producers are planning to increase their oil/oil products exports to global markets. For example, Canada prepares to sign a free trade agreement with South Korea “in the coming months” which will cut crude oil and LNG duties by 3% and by 8% on refined products virtually immediately upon signing the deal, and this deal would serve as a “gateway to the wider Asia-Pacific region”). Similarly, the U.S. has been warming up to the idea of looser oil export policies and discussing a free trade deal with the EU. The fact that Saudi Arabia recently cut price for its Asian customers while raising them for the U.S. would give some more support the theory that the North American market and its producers are the prime target of its strategy. And this is probably the medium-term goal of the Saudis, according to my opinion.
The fact that oil prices topped in the middle of June, almost exactly on the date when the message about the planned free trade agreement with South Korea was officially released (June 16, 2014), is certainly an interesting coincidence. Or is it? Additionally, it is likely that the Saudis see the waning pricing power of OPEC due to flexible production from the U.S. shale oil fields which can be quickly boosted or cut in order to influence the total world production. This ability takes away the power over oil from the Saudis which have possessed this power to adjust production until recently. Therefore, the Saudis probably try to reign in all OPEC members and force them to respect the set quotas and share any potential cuts among all members, without the Saudis bearing most of the quota cut. But the falling oil price has an interesting historical parallel and implications.
Besides the conventional explanations for the current oil price slump, there is a surprising inverse historical parallel – the first and second oil price shock in the 70’s (1973 and 1979). Back then, prices of oil spiked rapidly and remained high and the time was generally characterized by booming population growth, young population, rapid inflation, high interest rates which subsequently caused a supply-side shock and a recession. But this period also spurred unprecedented innovation around the world with advances in robotics, miniaturization, semiconductors, and other fields which radically improved efficiencies which decreased energy and material intensity of production, especially in Japan.
The current situation is almost exactly the opposite. The price of oil is not rising but falling rapidly. Inflation is extremely low (parts of the world already experience deflation), aggregate demand is sluggish amid falling real income, almost non-existent population growth and aging population (in the U.S. and other developed countries). All this discourages investments in energy innovation and energy efficiency (low interest rates help a lot, though).
Existing alternative energy solutions are becoming more and more uneconomical compared to falling price of oil and gas, and the opportunity cost of using subsidized “green” energy is rising relative to cheaper oil. Existing subsidies suddenly may not be high enough to cover the costs to install further alternative energy capacities. Investments into further alternative energy R&D will be hard to obtain due to low potential ROI of the innovations if the future price of oil is expected to remain low. This will help conserve the status quo or at least slow down alternative energy advances. For the current oil producers – from all around the world, not only for Saudi Arabia or OPEC – lower prices are great news in the long run, even though they are painful now.
In the short run (several months and quarters), I am very bearish on oil prices because the oil producers have motivation to keep the price low until the highly leveraged, high-cost oil producers go out of business or are bought for pennies by their stronger competitors. Also, oil producing countries would need to maintain at least several quarters of weak oil to discourage long-term investments into alternative energy innovation, possibly until the current round of alternative energy R&D companies and some solar energy companies go out of business or consolidate.
However, over the medium to long term (years and decades), I am neutral to moderately bullish on oil prices as I believe the markets and industry will find a decent equilibrium around $60-80 per barrel. However, I don’t expect long-lasting spikes above $90-100 per barrel (barring the global security situation getting out of hand) because the flexible U.S. shale producers currently hold a permanent “call option” on the oil market. Every time the price spikes, they will quickly add more production, balancing the market. It is quite similar to the Bernanke put option, just working the opposite way and in oil.
I opened a long position in United States Oil ETF (NYSEARCA:USO) (selling covered calls to help mitigate contango issues) and Seadrill (NYSE:SDRL) late last week. I am also considering establishing a long position in British Petroleum (NYSE:BP). Furthermore, for long-term investors with high risk tolerance, I recommend smaller positions in more speculative and risky oil and gas services small-cap stocks which I analyzed in the past few weeks. These include Tidewater (NYSE:TDW), TGC Industries (NASDAQ:TGE), Dawson Geophysical (NASDAQ:DWSN), GulfMark Offshore (NYSE:GLF), Ion Geophysical (NYSE:IO) and CGG Industries (NYSE:CGG). I don’t hold any positions in any of these due to my preference for a highly concentrated portfolio but may decide to open long positions depending on future situation.
The global oil glut, as some call it, is caused by the toxic mix of soaring production in the US and lackluster demand from struggling economies around the world. Since June, crude oil prices have plunged 30%. It drove oil producers in the US into bouts of hand wringing behind the scenes, though they desperately tried to maintain brittle smiles and optimistic verbiage in public.
But everyone in the industry – particularly junk bondholders that have funded the shale revolution in the US – were hoping that OPEC, and not the US, would come to its senses and cut production.
So the oil ministers from OPEC members just got through with what must have been a tempestuous five-hour meeting in Vienna, and it was not pretty for high-cost US producers: the oil production target would remain unchanged at 30 million barrels per day.
“It was a great decision,” Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said with a big smile after the meeting.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were thus overriding the concerns from struggling countries such as Venezuela which, at these prices – and they’re plunging as I’m writing this – will head straight into default, or get bailed out by China, at a price, whatever the case may be.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez emerged from the meeting, visibly steaming, and refused to comment.
The US benchmark crude oil grade, West Texas Intermediate, plunged instantly. Even before the decision, it was down 30% from its recent high in June. As I’m writing this, it crashed through the $70-mark without even hesitating. It currently trades for $68.51. Chopped down by a full third from the peak in June.
This is what that Thanksgiving plunge looks like:
Nigerian Oil Minister said OPEC and Non-OPEC producers should share responsibility to stabilize the markets. I don’t know what he was thinking; maybe some intervention by central banks around the world, such as the coordinated announcement of “QE crude infinity” perhaps?
Ecuadorian Oil Minister called the decision a rollover. However, the Iranian Oil Minister, whose country must have a higher price, kept a positive face, saying, “I’m not angry.”
The next OPEC meeting will be held in June, 2015. So this is going to last a while. And there is no deus ex machina on the horizon.
It seems OPEC, or rather Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States, decided for now to live with the circumstances, to let the markets sort it out. High-cost producers around the world will spill red ink. Governments might topple. Junk bondholders and shareholders of oil-and-gas IPOs that have blindly funded the miraculous shale revolution in the US, lured by ever increasing hype, will watch more of their money go up in thick smoke.
And the bloodletting in the US fracking revolution will go on until the money finally dries up.
During the two weeks since my previous update, stocks in the Oil & Gas sector demonstrated what an optimist might interpret as “stability at the bottom.” The net effect of another sequence of high-amplitude intraday moves was a slight recovery from the two weeks ago levels across the vast majority of segments and stock groups, as shown on the chart below. It should be no surprise that those groups that had declined the most were also the biggest gainers in the past two weeks.
Most notable is the fact that the descend trend in the Oil & Gas stocks was interrupted (and even marginally reversed) in spite of the new lows posted by the price of oil. One could try to interpret this performance as an indication that the current price levels already discount the market’s fear that the oil price paradigm has shifted. This stability may also indicate that the wave of forced liquidations by hedge funds and in individual margin accounts has run its course and the worst part of this correction may be already behind us.
Even though this recent stock price “stability” is a welcome development, it provides little consolation to investors in the Oil & Gas sector who still see their positions trading far below the peak levels achieved last summer. The correction scorecard graph below summarizes average “peak-to-current” performance by individual stocks that are grouped together by sector and size. Individual stock performance is provided in full detail in the spreadsheets at the end of this note.
Mid- and small-capitalization stocks, in both Upstream and Oil Service segments, remain the worst performing groups, now trading at an average discount to each individual stock’s recent peak price of over 40%, a staggering decline. Large-capitalization E&P independents and large-capitalization oil service stocks are trading at a 20%-24% average discount.
Emerging markets Oil Majors were one of the worst performing categories during the past two weeks:
Petrobras (NYSE:PBR) continued to slide down, moving 12% down since my previous update. Petrobras stands out as one of the most disappointing Oil Majors in terms of stock performance in the past five years, having lost a staggering three-quarters of its value during that period. The company’s market capitalization currently stands at only $62 billion.
· Lukoil (OTCPK:LUKOY) and Petrochina (NYSE:PTR) are other examples of strong declines in the past two weeks, with the stocks losing 8% and 7%, respectively. Lukoil’s performance may in fact be interpreted as “solid,” given the continued deterioration of Russia’s political and credit risk.
A strong contrast is the performance of the three oil super-majors – Exxon (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) – that gained ~2% during the past two weeks and remain the best performing group in the Oil & Gas sector. I have argued in my earlier notes that, given the combined $0.9 trillion market capitalization of these three stocks, the resilient performance by the Super-majors has effectively isolated the correction in the Oil & Gas sector from the broader markets. From a fundamental perspective, the Super-majors are characterized by very low financial leverage, high proportion of counter-cyclical production sharing contracts (“PSAs”) and the effective hedge from downstream assets, which limits their exposure to the oil price decline.
After a dramatic underperformance, small- and mid-capitalization E&P stocks posted meaningful gains in the past two weeks. However, in most cases the recovery is “a drop in the bucket,” given that high-percentage moves are measured off price levels that sometimes are a fraction of recent peak prices. The sector remains a menu of bargains for those investors who believe in a recovery in oil prices.
Upstream MLPs were one of the exceptions in the E&P sector, declining by an average of 4% in the past two weeks. The largest Upstream MLP, Linn Energy (NASDAQ:LINE) and its sister entity LinnCo(NASDAQ:LNCO), are again trading close to their lows, after having enjoyed a strong bounce a month ago. The previously very wide gap in relative performance between Upstream MLPs and other Upstream equities has contracted substantially which, arguably, makes sense given that both categories of companies participate in the same business, irrespective of the corporate envelope.