Saturday, December 20, 2014

On oil windfalls and African progress

Is the discovery of crude oil a blessing or curse for emerging economies? Does it further or hinder democracy and development? Is an oil rich nation’s currency destined to suffer from Dutch Disease?

These are profound questions and nowhere do they need to be answered more than in the continent of Africa. John Heilbrunn’s book Oil, Democracy and Development in Africa published by Cambridge University Press tackles the socioeconomic and political impact of oil in sub-Saharan Africa head on. 

In a somewhat refreshing take, Heilbrunn suggests that should historical and economic situations faced by African petrostates prior to the discovery of their oil be contextualised and discounted, there’s little evidence of a curse. Taking on a more optimistic tone than most, the author sets about a fascinating explanation of why he thinks even the most despotic and least accountable of African heads of state do use some proportion of oil revenues to improve their citizens' living standards.

Improvements have “failed to be uniform”, he admits, but that’s not to say there have been none. In a book of 270 pages, split by six detailed chapters, Heilbrunn writes there is much to be positive about while not losing sight of the biggest puzzle of them all – how the discovery of a natural resource changes the national and political psyche, as it is virtually impossible to predict “how political leaders respond to resource windfalls.”

While sum of all its parts makes this book a great read, Heilbrunn’s take on resource revenues, corruption and contracts in latter stages of the narrative should strike a chord with most readers. It has to be acknowledged that some African producers are pretty high on the corruption scale, but not every producer can be tarred with the same brush. 

All said, as Heilbrunn notes, oil can do nothing, being a mere mineral of variable qualities and marketability. “People choose how to oversee their extractive industries and the effects of oil production are consequences of policy choices.”

These choices alone determine the pace and scale of progress anywhere and not just Africa. Some of the book’s conclusions might surprise many readers, some might find the narrative a bit too optimistic for their linking, but for the Oilholic it’s a book containing some unassailable truths on African progress.

Heilbrunn is not attempting to gloss over what’s wrong at African petrostates. On the contrary, he puts forward what they are doing to get it right, with all their imperfections, following on from decolonisation and the inevitable expectations (plus subsequent windfall) a resource discovery brings with it.

The Oilholic would be happy to recommend it to fellow analysts, those interested in the oil and gas business, African development, politics and the resource curse hypothesis. Last but not the least, that growing chorus of commentators calling upon the wider world to ditch archaic conclusions and reassess the impact of natural resources on developing economies would also enjoy many of Heilbrunn’s conclusions.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Front Cover – Oil, Democracy and Development in Africa © Cambridge University Press, June, 2014.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Oil markets take in the 'Rouble Trouble' saga

The Oilholic is feeling somewhat melancholy today! A crisp rouble note yours truly kept as a memento following a visit to Moscow in June is now worth considerably less when pitted against one’s lucky dollar! 

At one stage over the past 24 hours, the US$1 banknote on the left was worth 79% of the RUB100 note on the right. One doubts whether a dollar would fetch a 100 roubles - but just putting it out there.

Barring a brief jump when the Russian government went for a free float of the currency back in November, there hasn’t been much to be positive about the rouble. Last evening’s whopper of an announcement by the Central Bank of Russia to raise interest rates by 650 basis points to 17% from 10.5% did little more than provide temporary respite.

Since January till date, Russia has spent has spent over $70 billion (and counting) in support of the rouble. Yet, the currency continues to feel the strain of escalating sanctions imposed by the West in tandem with a falling oil price.

However, there is a very important distinction to be made here. A falling oil price does not necessarily imply that Russian oil companies are in immediate trouble, repeat ‘immediate’ trouble. While a weak rouble makes imports costlier for the wider economy, which will almost certainly tip into a recession next year; oil – priced and exported in dollars - will get more ‘domestic’ bang for the converted bucks.

The Russian Treasury also adjusts tax and ancillary levies on oil exports in line with a falling (or rising) oil price. The policy is likely to keep things on a sound footing for the country’s oil & gas companies, including state-owned behemoths, for at least another 12 months.

How things unfold beyond that is anybody’s guess. First off, several Russian oil & gas players would need their next round of refinancing late next year or early on in 2016. With several international debt markets off limits owing to Western sanctions, the state will have to step in at least partially.

Secondly, the oil price is unlikely to stage a recovery before the summer, and would be nowhere near $100 per barrel. If it is still below $85 come June, as the Oilholic thinks it would be and the rouble does not recover, then corporate profits would take a plastering regardless of however much the Russian Treasury adjusts its tax takings. 

Of course, not all in trouble would be Russian. Austrian, French and German banks with exposure to the country, accompanied by Russia-centric ETFs and Arctic oil & gas exploration will be hit hard.

Oil majors with exposure to Russia are already taking a hit. In particular, BP springs to mind. However, as the Oilholic opined in a Forbes article earlier this year - while BP could well do without problems in Russia, the company can indeed cope. For Total and Exxon Mobil, the financial irritants that their respective Russian forays have become of late would not be of major concern either.

Taking a macro viewpoint, market chatter about a repetition of the 1998 crisis is just that – chatter! Never say ‘never’ but a Russian default is highly unlikely.

Kit Juckes, global head of forex at Société Générale, says, “Comparisons with past crises – and 1998 in particular – are inevitable. The differences are more important than the similarities. Firstly, emerging market central banks (including and especially Russia) have vastly larger currency reserves with which to defend their currencies.

“Secondly, US real Fed Funds are negative now, where they had risen sharply from 1994 onwards. That's a double-edged sword as merely the thought of Fed tightening has been enough to spark a crisis after such a long period of zero rates, but when the dust settles, global investors will still need better yields than are on offer on developed market bonds.”

The final difference, Juckes says, is that the rouble, in particular, is falling from a very great height in real terms. “It has only fallen below the pre-1998 peak in the last few days. It's still not cheap unless we believe that the gains in the last 16 years are all justified by productivity – an argument that works for some emerging market economies rather more than it does for Russia.," he concludes.

Finally, there is no disguising one pertinent fact in the entire ongoing Russian melee – the manifestly obvious lack of economic diversification with the country. Russia has remained stubbornly reliant on oil & gas exports and its attempts to diversify the economy seem even feebler than Middle Eastern sheikdoms of late.

For this blogger, the lone voice of reason within Russia has been former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. As early as 2012, Kudrin repeatedly warned of impending trouble and overreliance on oil & gas exports. Few Kremlin insiders listened then, but now many probably wish they had! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Image: Dollar versus Rouble: $1 and RUB100 banknotes © Gaurav Sharma, 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

That $60-floor, refining & FTSE100 oil majors

The US$60 per barrel floor was well and truly breached on Friday as the WTI dropped to $57.48 at one point. The slump is continuing into the current week as Brent lurks around $60 in early Asian trading. 

The scenario that most said would set alarm bells ringing within the industry is here. Since no one is predicting the current supply glut to ease anytime soon, not least the Oilholic, that the readers should expect further drops is a no brainer. Odds have shortened considerably on OPEC meeting well before June as was announced last month.

Nonetheless, speaking in Dubai, OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri said, “The decision [not to cut production] has been made. Things will be left as is. We are assessing the situation to determine what the real reasons behind the decrease in oil prices are.” So is perhaps half the world!

In the Oilholic’s humble opinion Brent could even dip below $50 fairly soon. However, supply constriction will eventually kick-in to support prices over the second half of 2015. In the interim, we’ll see a few interesting twists and turns.

As for oil and gas companies, Fitch Ratings reckons the much beleaguered European refining sector is likely to end the year in much better shape than 2013. In the first edition of its European Refining Dashboard, the ratings agency noted that refining margins in the third quarter rose to their highest level since at least the start of 2013 as “product prices fell more slowly than crude oil prices.”

The Oilholic feels it’s prudent not to ignore the emphasis on the words “more slowly”. Fitch says overcapacity and intense competition from overseas refineries still plague European refining.

“Further capacity reductions may be needed to restore the long-term supply and demand balance in Europe, while competition from Middle Eastern, Russian and US refineries, which generally have access to cheaper feedstock and lower energy costs, remains strong,” it added.

More generally speaking, in the Oilholic’s assessment of the impact of lower oil prices on the FTSE 100 trio of Shell, BP and BG Group; both Shell and BP outperformed in the last quarter by 6% and 11% respectively, according to published data, while BG Group’s underwhelming performance had much to with other operational problems and not the price of the crude stuff. 

While published financial data is backward looking, and the slump in prices had not become as pronounced at the time of quarterly results as it currently is, it's not all gloomy. However, the jury is still out on BG Group. The company is responding with incoming CEO Helge Lund waiting to take charge in March. Last week, BG Group agreed to sell its wholly-owned subsidiary QCLNG Pipeline Company to APA Group, Australia’s largest gas infrastructure business, for approximately $5 billion.

QCLNG Pipeline company owns a 543 km underground pipeline network linking BG Group’s natural gas fields in southern Queensland to a two-train LNG export facility at Gladstone on Australia’s east coast. 

The pipeline was constructed between 2011 and 2014 and has a current book value of US$1.6 billion. “The sale of this non-core infrastructure is consistent with BG Group’s strategy of actively managing its global asset portfolio,” it said in a statement.

While largely welcoming the move, most analysts have reserved judgement for the moment. “The sale is broadly supportive to the company's credit profile. However, we will need to be comfortable with the use of proceeds and progress with BG's planned output expansion before we change the current negative outlook,” as analysts at Fitch wrote in a note to clients.

Reverting back to Shell and BP, the former has quietly moved ahead of the latter and narrowed the gap to market leader ExxonMobil. Strong downstream results helped all three, but Shell’s earnings recovery over the year, was the most impressive according to Neill Morton, analyst at Investec.

“Despite its modest valuation premium, we would favour Shell’s more defensive qualities over BP in the current uncertain industry environment,” he added. Let's not forget the Gulf of Mexico oil spill fallout that BP is still getting to grips with.

Moving away from FTSE 100 oil majors and refiners, UN Climate Change talks in Peru ended on a familiar underwhelming note. Delegates largely cheered at the conclusion (which came two days late) because some semblance of something was achieved, i.e. a framework for setting national pledges to be submitted at a summit next year.

The final communiqué which can’t be described as anything other than weak is available for download here should it interest you. Problem here is that developed markets like lecturing emerging markets on CO2 emissions, something which the former ignored for most of 20th century. It won't work. Expect more acrimony, but hope that there is light at the end of a very long tunnel. 

On a closing note, here’s the Oilholic’s latest Forbes column on the Saudis not showing any signs of backing down in the ongoing tussle for oil market share.

Also over past few weeks, this blogger reviewed a few ‘crude’ books, namely – Energy Trading and Risk Management by Iris Marie Mack, Marketing Big Oil by Mark Robinson, Putin and the Oligarch by Richard Sakwa and Ownership and Control of Oil by Bianca Sarbu. Here’s hoping you find the reviews useful in deciding whether (or not) the titles are for you. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo:  Refinery, Quebec, Canada © Michael Melford / National Geographic

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

‘Petroleum Club’, policy choices & ‘crude’ control

Several nations are about to join the ‘Petroleum Club’ of crude oil producers where they’ll rub shoulders with well established patrons of the hydrocarbon exporters' fraternity.

The policymaking choices they face today could have a massive bearing on the future direction of their economies and overall management of national oil wealth. Every national market’s direction is ultimately shaped by the level of control its government wishes to have over domestic exploration and production.

Some do not have a national oil company (NOC), yet others give most of the decision-making and clout to a state entity. Factoring in developments and case studies till date, academic Bianca Sarbu delves into the key issue of state influence in her book Ownership and Control of Oil published by Routledge.

The author discusses different decisions taken by governments, subsequent outcomes, emerging themes and industry trends in their wake. In a book of just under 200 pages, split into six detailed chapters, Sarbu substantiates her arguments by pulling in case studies – both recent and historic – and puts forward conclusions confronting theoretical explanations.

The text is peppered with figures, tables and charts lending veracity to Sarbu’s scrutiny of government decisions in key oil producing countries. Her painstaking analysis of upstream policies on a pan-global level helps the readers compare and contrast what’s afoot, where, and why.

An entire chapter is dedicated to profiling Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi based on Sarbu’s in-depth research and direct interviews with over 30 energy experts on both countries. Holistic examination of NOCs’ role in oil production since the nationalisations of the 1970s from sheikdoms to democracies, leads the author to some interesting conclusions.

Sarbu opines that technical expertise of the NOC plays an important role in “explaining upstream policy choices,” especially when limits on the executive are low and “ruling elites are more likely to take economically rational decisions.”

From first impression to midway scrutiny, all the way up to ultimate conclusion, Sarbu’s treatment of the subject at hand is solid. Its an invaluable contribution towards wider understanding and contextualisation of policy frameworks within emerging and established oil producing countries and the impact they have had or are likely to have for better or worse.

The Oilholic would be happy to recommend this title primarily to industry consultants. That said policymakers, oil and gas sector professionals in general, as well as students of petroleum economics and the Middle East would appreciate it in near equal measure.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Front Cover – Ownership and Control of Oil © Routledge, May 2014.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The difficult art of marketing ‘Big Oil’

Given the historical and perhaps customary negativity surrounding oil and gas majors in the best of times, working on their marketing pitches and brand equity enhancement is not for the faint hearted.

Environmental disasters and subsequent public relations fiascos in wake of incidents such as Exxon Valdez and BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill have only reinforced negative perceptions about ‘Big Oil’ in the minds of many. 

It all dates way back to Standard Oil, a company often castigated for its practices in the last century, writes Mark Robinson, professor of marketing at Virginia International University, in his recent work Marketing Big Oil published by Palgrave Pivot.

With pitfalls aplenty for oil and gas marketing professionals, the author has attempted to offer guidance on the arduous task by going well beyond the mundane 'do’s' and 'don’ts' in a book of just under 160 pages, split into five parts and 17 splendidly sequenced chapters. As it happens, Robinson knows more than a thing or two about marketing Big Oil, having been an industry executive at Deloitte’s Global Energy & Resources Group and ExxonMobil.

His book provides adequate subjective treatment, lessons from history and what approaches to adopt if marketing Big Oil is what you do or intend to do. Starting with the historical context provided by Standard Oil, the author leads readers on to present day challenges faced by oil and gas companies as we’ve come to know them.

The Oilholic really liked Robinson’s no holds barred analysis of marketing and branding exercises undertaken by industry participants and his detailed examination of what worked and what tanked given the millions that were spent. The author says throwing money at a campaign is no guarantor of success as many companies within the sector have found out to their cost.

Managing pitfalls forms an integral part of Robinson’s message; just ask BP with its ‘Beyond Petroleum’ slogan. Perceived disconnect between the slogan, what the company was up to, and subsequent events made it sound farcical. The saga, what went wrong with the campaign and lessons in its wake are described in some detail by the author.

Additionally, a part of the book is dedicated to managing a brand crisis. The entire text is well referenced and accompanied by 14 brand lessons treating various crucial marketing facets. Analysis of the industry's use of social media, e-commerce, mobile apps and digital advertising is fascinating too.

Overall, Robinson’s engaging and timely book on a complex marketing arena brings forth some 'crude' home truths, backed up by historical context and lessons from the corporate world, all weaved into a balanced industry perspective on the state of affairs in a digitally savvy world.

Budding marketing professionals as well as industry veterans, and those interested in how some of world’s biggest oil and gas companies succeed (or fail) in etching their global brand equity would find this book to be a thoroughly good read.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Front Cover – Marketing Big Oil: Brand Lessons from the World's Largest Companies © Palgrave Macmillan, July 2014.

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