Friday, December 31, 2010

Final Notes of Crude Year 2010

Recapping the last fortnight, I noted some pretty interesting market chatter in the run-up to the end of the year. Crude talk cannot be complete without a discussion on the economic recovery and market conjecture is that it remains on track.

In its latest quarterly Global Economic Outlook (GEO) Dec. edition, Fitch Ratings recently noted that despite significant financial market volatility, the global economic recovery is proceeding in line with its expectations, largely due to accommodative policy support in developed markets and continued emerging-market dynamism.

In the GEO, Fitch has marginally revised up its projections for world growth to 3.4% for 2010 (from 3.2%), 3.0% for 2011 (from 2.9%), and 3.3% for 2012 (from 3.0%) compared to the October edition of the GEO. Emerging markets continue to outperform expectations and Fitch has raised its 2010 forecasts for China, Brazil, and India due to still buoyant economic growth. However, the agency has revised down its Russian forecast as the pace of recovery proved weak, partly as a result of the severe drought and heatwave in the summer.

Fitch forecasts growth of 8.4% for these four countries (the BRICs) in 2010, and 7.4% for each of 2011 and 2012. While there are ancillary factors, there is ample evidence that crude prices are responding to positive chatter. Before uncorking something alcoholic to usher in the New Year, the oilholic noted that either side of the pond, the forward month crude futures contract capped US$90 per barrel for the first time in two years. Even the OPEC basket was US$90-plus.

Most analysts expect Brent to end 2012 at around US$105-110 a barrel and some are predicting higher prices. The city clearly feels a US$15-20 appreciation from end-2010 prices is not unrealistic.

Moving away from prices, in a report published on December 15th, Moody's changed its Oilfield Services Outlook to positive from stable reflecting higher earnings expectations for most oilfield services and land drilling companies in 2011.

However, the report also notes that the oilfield services sector remains exposed to significant declines in oil and natural gas prices, as well as heightened US regulatory scrutiny of hydraulic fracturing and onshore drilling activity, which could push costs higher and limit the pace and scale of E&P capital investment.

Peter Speer, the agency’s Senior Credit Officer, makes a noteworthy comment. He opines that although natural gas drilling is likely to decline moderately in 2011, many E&Ps will probably keep drilling despite the weak economics to retain their leases or avoid steep production declines. Any declines in gas-directed drilling are likely to be offset by oil drilling, leading to a higher US rig count in 2011.

However, Speer notes that offshore drillers and related logistics service providers pose a notable exception to these positive trends. "We expect many of these companies to experience further earnings declines in 2011, as the U.S. develops new regulatory requirements and permitting processes following the Macondo accident in April 2010, and as activity slowly increases in this large offshore market," he concludes.

Couldn’t possibly have ended the last post for the year without mentioning Macondo; BP’s asset sale by total valuation in the aftermath of the incident has risen to US$20 billion plus and rising. Sadly, Macondo will be the defining image of crude year 2010.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil Rig © Cairn Energy Plc

Sunday, December 12, 2010

No OPEC Production Change & No Surprise

As expected, no major surprises came out of OPEC's 158th Meeting in the Ecuadorian capital Quito where the cartel left its production quotas unchanged this weekend. Some four of the twelve oil ministers from member nations – namely those of Kuwait, Qatar, Nigeria and Iraq – did not even turn up and sent junior officials instead.

It was interesting listening to an APTV recording of a press conference prior to the commencement of the OPEC meeting wherein none other than the Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told a media scrum, “You guys really worry too much about prices. They go up, they go down. What’s new?”

We ask only because there is the little matter of the price of black gold capping US$90 per barrel either side of the pond for the first time in two years. He predicted a few seconds later that there would be no increase in OPEC production and here we are a few days hence. Interestingly, on the same day as Naimi was chiding reporters in Quito, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) opined that OPEC may come under pressure over 2011 to raise production.

IEA currently expects oil demand in 2011 to rise by 1.3 million bpd; 260,000 bpd more than previously forecast. In an accompanying statement, it said, "Although economic concerns remain skewed to the downside, not least if current high prices begin to act as a drag on growth, more immediately demand could surprise to the upside."

Overall, Global oil supply reached 88.1 million barrels a day last month, hitherto its highest ever level. Furthermore, the IEA forecasts world demand to expand 1.5 per cent in 2011 to 88.8 million barrels a day, which if recorded would also be a record. Its medium term projections for world oil demand for 2009-2015 is an average rise of 1.4 million bpd each year; an increment from its June assessment.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: OPEC Logo © Gaurav Sharma

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Black Gold @ US$90-plus! No, Surely? Is it?

“You can’t be serious,” was often the trademark thunder of American tennis legend John McEnroe when an umpiring decision went against him. In a different context some commodities analysts might be thundering exactly the same or maybe not. In any case, deep down Mr. McEnroe knew the umpire was being serious.

On a not so sunny Tuesday afternoon in London, ICE Futures Europe recorded Brent crude oil spot price per barrel at US$91.32. This morning the forward month Brent futures contract was trading around US$90.80 to US$91.00. While perhaps this does not beggar belief, it certainly is a bit strange shall we say. I mean just days ago there was the Irish overhang and rebalancing in China and all the rest of it – yet here we are. Société Générale’s Global Heal of Oil research Mike Wittner believes the fundamental goalposts may have shifted a bit.

In a recent note to clients, he opines that underpinned by QE2, the expected environment of low interest rates and high liquidity next year should encourage investors to move into risky assets, including oil. “With downward pressure on the US dollar and upward pressure on inflation expectations, the impact should therefore be bullish for crude oil prices,” he adds.

The global oil demand growth for this year has been revised up sharply to 2.4 Mb/d from 1.8 Mb/d previously by SGCIB, mainly due to an unexpected surge in Q3 2010 OECD demand. The demand growth for next year has also been increased, to 1.6 Mb/d from 1.4 Mb/d previously (although still, as expected, driven entirely by emerging markets).

What about the price? Wittner says (note the last bit), “For 2011, we forecast front-month ICE Brent crude oil near US$93/bbl, revised up by $8 from $85 previously. With continued low refinery utilisation rates, margins are still expected to be mediocre next year, broadly similar to this year. The oil complex in 2011 should again be mainly led by crude, not products.”

YooHoo – see that – “mainly led by crude, not products.” Furthermore, SGCIB believes crude price should average US$95 in H2 2011, in a $90-100 range. Well there you have it and it is a solid argument that low interest rates and high liquidity environment is bullish for oil.

Elsewhere, a report published this morning on Asian refining by ratings agency Moody’s backs up the findings of my report on refinery infrastructure for Infrastructure Journal. While refinery assets are rather unloved elsewhere owing to poor margins, both the ratings agency and the Oilholic believe Asia is a different story[1].

Renee Lam, Moody's Vice President and Senior Analyst, notes: “Continued demand growth in China and India in the short to medium term will be positive for players in the region serving the intra-Asia markets. Given the stabilization of refining margins over the next 12 to 18 months, a further significant deterioration of credit metrics for the sector is not expected.”

While Moody's does not foresee a significant restoration of companies' balance-sheet strength in the near term, they are still performing (and investing in infrastructure) better than their western, especially US counterparts.

[1] Oil Refinery Infra Outlook 2011: An Unloved Energy Asset By Gaurav Sharma, Infrastructure Journal, Nov 10, 2010 (Blog regarding some of the basic findings and my discussion on CNBC Europe about it available here.)

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Graphic: ICE Brent Futures chart as downloaded at stated time © Digital Look / BBC, Photo: Oil Refinery © Shell

Monday, December 06, 2010

Some Crude Chatter from Moody’s & Other Stuff

There’s been some interesting chatter from Moody’s these past seven days on all things crude. Some of these stood out for me. Early last week in a note to clients, the rating agency opined that CNOOC Ltd's Aa3 issuer and senior unsecured ratings would not be immediately affected by the Chinese company's additional equity investment of US$2.47 billion in its 50% joint-venture Bridas Corp.

The investment represents CNOOC's share of funding contributions for Bridas to purchase a remaining 60% interest in Pan American Energy, which is engaged in E&P ops in South America. Bridas plans to fund 70% of its purchase by equity and 30% by debt or additional contributions from shareholders.

CNOOC is funding its equity contribution to Bridas with internal resources on hand. The transaction would give it an additional 429 million BOE of proved reserves and 68,000 bpd daily production in South America, according to Moody’s. Completion of the transaction is expected to take place during H1 2011, that’s of course government and regulatory approvals pending.

However, the crude chatter of the week not just from Moody's, but from the entire market was the agency’s interesting analytical take on oil sands producers’ operating considerations. In a report titled – Analytical Considerations for Oil Sands Producers – the agency notes that while comparing oil sands development and production projects to conventional development and production projects, the former have much larger upfront development costs[1].

Such projects are more likely to incur construction cost overruns, and quite simply take much longer to reach breakeven cash flow. Other features include higher cash operating costs per barrel of oil equivalent, very long reserve life and low maintenance capital expenditures once in production, particularly of mining oil sands operations, the report said.

One might say that parts of the report are predictable but it must be noted that in analysing companies with relatively large oil sands exposure, Moody's balances the negative aspects of the difficult construction period against the anticipated long-term positive contributions from these assets. So well, on balance, I found the principal tenets to be very convincing.

Let us face it, whether peak oil will be here soon or not, “easy oil” (interchangeable with cheap oil) is most certainly gone. Cost overruns are unlikely to deter big oil. So far Shell has invested just under US$10 billion (River Oil Sands), Chevron US$9 billion (Athabasca), ExxonMobil US$5 billion (Kearl Oil sands investment) and BP is said to be catching up via its Sunrise oil sands investment.

Elsewhere, Desire Petroleum’s saga of will they find oil in the Falklands Is. or won't they or worse still when will they give up continues. Its share price saw wild swings and ended in a damp squib (haven’t we heard that before).

On the left, for the umpteenth time, here is Desire’s undesirable share chart (see the day's price nose-dive). To quote The Daily Mail’s inimitable Geoff Foster, “Many professional punters are gluttons for punishment. They continually get suckered into seat-of-your pants oil stocks and more often than not, live to regret it.”

I do not wish to tempt fate, but Desire Petroleum is no Cairn Energy. I do hope for Desire's sake that they do strike black gold in meaningful if not bountiful quantities. However, the market response to a whiff of positive news is nothing short of barmy.

[1] The report is available on Moody's web site.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil Sands, Canada © Shell, Graphic: Desire Petroleum Share Chart with stated time frame © Digital Look / BBC

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chinese Tightening, Irish Overhang & ITPOES at it!

It has been an interesting five days over which, most notably, analysts at Goldman Sachs opined on Monday that the Chinese government will in all likelihood employ more tightening measures on the economy but their impact on the burgeoning economy’s oil demand for is likely to be “limited.”

The Goldman guys believe a far greater near term risk will come from the “current exceptional strength in diesel demand, which could push Chinese oil demand to new highs in November and December.” Fair dues I say, but not the best of expressions when talking about Ireland.

As further details about its imminent bailout are awaited not many in the City were keen to commit further funds towards crude futures. However, some city types I know were fairly cool about both the fate of the Irish and the connection of the country's troubles with an equities overhang on either side of the pond.

From Goldman analysts, the Irish and the Chinese to the ITPOES who were at it again last week. ITPOES are of course, the (UK) Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, who warned the British government again last week that a new "peak oil threat" is likely to be felt in the UK within the next five years.

The ITPOES came into being in 2008 led by none other than the inimitable Sir Richard Branson. Their latest report, which is part rhetoric, part fact, is titled Peak Oil Implications of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and was released on Friday (Available here).

Deepwater drilling, they say, is expected to constitute 29 per cent of new global extraction capacity by 2015, up from only 5 per cent. The result is that any future delays or problems associated with deepwater drilling in wake of the BP Gulf of Mexico accident will have much greater impact on supply than is the case today. Wonder whether that implies the end of "cheap oil" rather than the nearing of "peak oil."

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil Rig, Santa Barbara Channel, USA © Rich Reid / National Geographic

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Of Mid-Nov Price Correction, BP & Lukoil

The price of crude has seen a fair bit of fluctuation week over week and I agree with analysts at Société Générale CIB who noted on Tuesday that "the modest short-term crude price correction has been driven by investor profit-taking, as well as an end to a surge in gasoil cracks, which had temporarily supported crude prices."

Prices actually peaked on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. Since then, the front-month crude prices have eased by US$2-3. At 18:05GMT on Tuesday, WTI forward month contract was trading at US$80.65/bbl and ICE Brent at US$83.60/bbl.

Elsewhere in this crude world, it was revealed on Tuesday that BP’s Rhim field off the coast of Scotland has been shutdown as it is understood that the field turned out to be a joint venture between it and financiers related to Iranian oil. The shutdown was triggered because extraction from the field could be in contravention of existing European Union sanctions against Iran, issued in October.

The company it is now seeking clarification from the UK government on how the sanctions would apply. Elsewhere, S&P Ratings Services affirmed its 'BBB-' long-term corporate credit rating and 'ruAA+' Russia national scale rating for Lukoil last week.

Concurrently, S&P also removed the ratings from CreditWatch, where they were placed on July 29, 2010. S&P credit analyst Andrey Nikolaev said, "The affirmation reflects our improved assessment of Lukoil's liquidity position, which we now assess as 'adequate' after the company successfully issued a $1 billion Eurobond."

S&P also anticipates that Lukoil will extend the terms of its committed credit lines over the next several weeks. "We now estimate Lukoil's ratio of sources to uses of liquidity at about 1.2x, factoring in the committed credit lines with the terms to be extended," Nikolaev added in an investment circular.

S&P views Lukoil's business risk profile as "satisfactory", underpinned by large and profitable upstream and downstream operations, which are largely concentrated in Russia. The ratings agency also views Lukoil's financial risk profile as 'intermediate', based on its modest debt leverage and our perception that it has fairly good access to bank funding and capital markets.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Andrew Rig, North Sea © BP Plc

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Talking Refinery Infrastructure on CNBC

This week marked the culmination of almost a month and a half of my research work for Infrastructure Journal on the subject of oil refinery infrastructure and how it is fairing. Putting things into context, like many others in the media I too share an obsession with the price of crude oil and upstream investment. I wanted to redress the balance and analyse investment in the one crucial piece of infrastructure that makes (or cracks) crude into gasoline, i.e. refineries. After all, the consumer gets his/her gasoline at the gas station – not the oil well. The depth of Infrastructure Journal's industry data (wherein a project’s details from inception to financial close are meticulously recorded) and the resources the publication made available to me made this study possible. It was published on Wednesday, following which I went over to discuss my findings with the team of CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe.

I told CNBC (click to watch) that my findings suggest activity in private or public sector finance for oil refinery projects, hitherto a very cyclical and capital-intensive industry currently facing poor margins, is likely to remain muted, a scenario which is not going to materially alter before 2012.

The evidence is clear, integrated oil companies have and will continue to divest in downstream assets particularly refineries because upstream investment culture of high risk, high rewards trumps it.

Growth in finance activity is likely to come from Asia in general and surprise, surprise India and China in particular. It is not that margins are any better in these two countries but given their respective consumers’ need for gasoline and diesel – margins become a lesser concern.

However, in the west, while refiners’ margins remain tight, new and large refinery infrastructure projects would see postponements, if not cancellations. In order to mitigate overcapacity, a number of mainly North American and European refiners or integrated companies will shutdown existing facilities, albeit quite a few of the shutdowns will be temporary.

Geoff Cutmore and Maithreyi Seetharaman probed me over what had materially changed, after all margins have always been tight? Tight yes, but my conjecture is that over the last five years they have taken a plastering. On a 2010 pricing basis, BP Statistical Review of World Energy notes that the 2009 refining average of US$4.00 per barrel fell below the 2008 figure of $6.50 per barrel; a fall of 38.5%. In fact, moving away from the average, on an annualised basis, margins fell in all regions except the US Midwest last year while margins in Singapore were barely positive.

Negative demand has in effect exasperated overcapacity both in Europe and North America. BP notes that global crude runs fell by 1.5 million bpd in 2009 with the only growth coming from India and China where several new refining capacities, either private or publicly financed, were commissioned. Its research further reveals that most of the 2 million bpd increase in global refining capacity in 2009 was also in China and India. Furthermore, global refinery utilisation fell to 81.1% last year; the lowest level since 1994.

In fact does it surprise anyone that non-OECD refinery capacity exceeded that of the OECD for the first time in 2009? It doesn’t surprise me one jot. I see this trend continuing in 2010 and what happens thereafter would depend on how many OECD existing refineries facing temporary shutdown are brought back onstream and/or if an uptick in demand is duly noted by the OECD nations. A hope for positive vibes on both fronts in the short to medium term is well...wishful thinking.

Refineries were once trophy assets for integrated oil companies but in the energy business people tend to have short memories. Alas, as I wrote for Infrastructure Journal (my current employers) and told CNBC Europe (my former employers), now they are the unloved assets of the energy business.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo 1: Gaurav Sharma on Squawk Box Europe © CNBC, Nov 10, 2010, Photo 2: Oil Refinery Billings, Montana © Gordon Wiltsie / National Geographic Society

Monday, October 25, 2010

Life After the Gulf Spill for Dudley & BP

I had the pleasure of listening to Robert Dudley this morning in what was his first major speech since taking over from Tony Hayward as the group chief executive of BP and there were quite a few noteworthy things to take away from it.

Speaking to delegates at the UK business lobby group CBI’s 2010 annual conference, Dudley said BP had learnt from the Gulf of Mexico tragedy of April 20 and added his own apology for the incident to that of his predecessor and colleagues.

He said that earning and maintaining trust is central to BP’s licence “to operate in society”, as for any business. Crucial to that was re-establishing confidence in BP and its ability to manage risk. “I am determined for BP to succeed in both,” he added emphatically.

Dudley opined that a silver lining of the event is the significant and sustained advance in industry preparedness that will now exist going forward from the learnings and the equipment and techniques invented by necessity under pressure to contain the oil and stop the well.

Not looking too overwhelmed by the task at hand, Dudley also defended BP’s position noting that it found that no single factor caused the tragedy, and that the well design itself, despite what “you have heard”, does not appear to have contributed to the accident. This has been further verified by recent retrieval of equipment.

Predictably there was much talk by Dudley about winning back trust and restoring the oil giant’s reputation. BP new American chief executive said “British Petroleum” was a part of the American community and would not cut and run from the US market. For good measure, he added that there was too much at stake, both for BP and the US.

“The US has major energy needs. BP is the largest producer of oil and gas in the country and a vital contributor to fulfilling them. We also employ 23,000 people directly, have 75,000 pensioners and have ½ million individual shareholders. Our investments indirectly support a further 200,000 jobs in the US. We have paid roughly US$25 billion in taxes, duties and levies in the last several years. These are significant contributions to the US economy,” Dudley explained.

Moving away from defending his own company, Dudley then launched a robust defence of offshore drilling. “The fact is that until this incident, over 5,000 wells had been drilled in over 1,000 feet of water with no serious accident. BP had drilled safely in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico for 20 years. As business people are telling political leaders all the time, we cannot eliminate risks, but we must manage them,” he concluded.

He also had a pop at the media – noting that while BP’s initial response was less than perfect, for much of the media the Macondo incident seemed like the only story in town. Overall, a solid performance by the new boss of BP in front of what can be safely regarded as a largely sympathetic audience.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo 1: Aerial of the Helix Q4000 taken shortly before "Static Kill" procedure began at Macondo (MC 252) site in Gulf of Mexico, August 3, 2010. Photo 2: Robert Dudley, Group Chief Executive, BP © BP Plc

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Third Time Lucky for OMV?

OMV’s takeover of Turkey’s Petrol Ofisi A.S. should be applauded for the Austrian company’s sheer persistence in its attempts to acquire strategic assets, if nothing else. It has a mixed record at best when it comes to takeover attempts, as I was joking with my old colleague CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick at the OPEC summit in Vienna ten days ago.

OMV was successful in acquiring Romania’s Petrom in 2004 but failed spectacularly in its takeover attempt of Hungary’s MOL which was swiftly and successful rejected by the Hungarians in June 2007. As I had just arrived in Vienna from Budapest, Steve said, as only Steve can, that I’d been "MOL"-ing over OMV’s fortunes in the wrong city. The failed bid for MOL aside, OMV also tried and failed to acquire utility Verbund.

In a statement on Friday, OMV said the Turkish acquisition, slated at €1 billion ($1.4 billion) is a further step in its growth strategy and aims at "positioning Turkey as a third hub, besides Austria and Romania."

OMV would now own 95.75% of the Turkish company after buying out Dogan Holding's stake of 54.17% stake in it; formalities are set to be completed within the next three months. The companies have also agreed to pay a dividend to Petrol Ofisi shareholders prior to that.

Ahead of the announcement, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s noted that Petrol Ofisi's credit profile would benefit were OMV to become its majority owner. It placed the Turkish company’s 'B+' long-term corporate credit ratings on CreditWatch with positive implications.

Per Karlsson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor's, said, "The positive implications of the CreditWatch placement reflect our view that should such a transaction materialize we are likely to raise the ratings on Petrol Ofisi by one notch or more."

As for takeover attempts – looks like OMV has been third time lucky!

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Photo: OMV Petrol Station, Austria © OMV

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Performance of Russian Oil Co’s Remains “Robust”

A recent report by ratings agency Moody’s suggests that Russian integrated oil and gas companies demonstrated financial robustness during the economic downturn, as "certain key features" acted to support their operational and financial profiles.

It notes that negative effects of low oil prices were mitigated by a devaluation in the Rouble and favourable changes to the Russian tax system, which along with cost-containment initiatives and good access to funding boosted the companies' resilience to market turmoil. In fact, the ratings agency said outlook for the sector is stable.

The report titled "Russian Integrated Oil and Gas Companies: 2009-10 Review and 2011 Outlook", further suggests that since late 2009 and all through H1 2010, the operating and financial performance of Russian players gradually improved post-recession, lifted by relativelyhigher oil prices as the global economy recovered.

Moody’s now feels that the operating performance of Russian oil companies is likely to improve in 2010 and in 2011 on the back of stronger oil prices and ongoing cost-cutting and modernisation initiatives. However, the ratings agency does not believe there will be a major upwards trend in profitability in H2 2010 or in 2011, due to the growing tax burden and inflation in non-controllable costs, notably energy and transportation tariffs.

Furthermore, it must be noted that despite overseas overtures, the current reserves and production bases of Russian companies remain concentrated in their own backyard. This, according to the report, "exposes them to geological and geopolitical risk."

Despite the lack of positive ratings momentum, in 2010, Russian players benefited from greater access to bank and bond funding, with lenders offering longer maturities at lower rates. Moody's expects lending conditions to continue to improve in 2011. In addition, overall free cash flow improved in 2010 and will likely remain marginally positive in 2011 as companies ramp-up capital expenditure on projects that were delayed during the downturn.

Continuing with Russia, on October 22 Moody's assigned a provisional rating of (P)Baa2 to the upcoming Eurobond issue by Lukoil via Lukoil International Finance B.V., its indirect and wholly owned subsidiary. The rating is based on an irrevocable and unconditional guarantee from the Russian company and is in line with the company's issuer rating of Baa2. The outlook is stable, according to Moody’s.

The proceeds are largely expected to be used by Lukoil for general corporate purposes, as well as refinancing of existing indebtedness. Moody's believes the Eurobond issue will support Lukoil's liquidity position.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Photo: Oil Drill Pump, Russia © Lukoil

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nigeria is a Crude Spot with Crude Oil, Says Peel

Nigeria is a complicated country - a confused ex-colonial outpost with a complex ethnic and tribal mix turned into a unified nation and given its independence by the British some five decades ago. Having crude oil in abundance complicates things even further.

Some say the history of crude oil extraction has a dark and seedy side; most say nowhere is it more glaringly visible than in Nigeria. On the back of having interviewed Nigeria's petroleum minister - Diezani Kogbeni Alison-Madueke for Infrastructure Journal, I recently read a candid book on the country titled - A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria's Oil Frontier written by Michael Peel, a former FT journalist, who spent many-a-year in Nigeria. He presents a warts n' all account about this most chaotic and often fascinating of African countries shaped by oil, driven by oil and in more ways than one - held to ransom by oil.

The author dwells on how the discovery of black gold has not been quite the bonanza for its peoples who remain among the poorest and most deprived in this world. End result is growing dissent and chaos - something which was glaringly visible between 2006-2009 when the oil rich Niger Delta went up in flames.

Peel's book is split into three parts, comprising of nine chapters, containing a firsthand and first rate narration of the violence, confusion, partial anarchy and corruption in Nigeria where its people who deserve better have to contend with depravity and pollution. Some have risen up and abide by their own rule - the rule of force, rather than the law.

If you seek insight into this complex country, Peel provides it. If you seek a travel guide - this is one candid book. If you seek info on what went wrong in Nigeria from a socioeconomic standpoint, the author duly obliges. Hence, this multifaceted work, for which Peel deserves top marks, is a much needed book.

I feel it addresses an information gap about a young nation, its serious challenges, addiction to its oil endowment and the sense of injustice the crude stuff creates for those who observe the oil bonanza from a distance but cannot get their hands into the cookie jar.

Peel notes that the chaos of Niger delta is as much a story of colonial misadventure, as it is about corporate mismanagement, corruption in the bureaucracy and a peculiar and often misplaced sense of entitlement that creates friction between the country's haves and have nots.

Drop into the mix, an unfolding ecological disaster and you get a swamp full of dollars whose inhabitants range from impromptu militias with creative names to Shell, from terrorists to ExxonMobil, from leaking pipelines to illegal crude sales.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Book Cover © I.B. Tauris

Monday, October 18, 2010

Final Thoughts From the 157th OPEC Conference

Alongside Thursday’s decision by OPEC to hold its official oil production target at 24.84 million barrels a day, i.e. the level set following a production cut in December 2008; the cartel also noted that global oil demand had dipped in two concurrent years; a situation unseen since the 1980s.

It bemoaned the “rollercoaster” ride in crude prices, particularly between Q4 2007 and Q1 2009. As usual speculators were blamed, with OPEC noting that oil had increasingly emerged as an asset class, with “excessive speculation adding appreciably to market volatility.”

It also appears that the cartel is irked by renewable energy initiatives or at least the talk of renewable energy. OPEC believes that the ambiguity of a number of energy and environmental policies, often with “evidently over-ambitious targets”, particularly in developed regions, has led to uncertainty in regards to future oil demand requirements.

The 158th OPEC conference would be held in Quito, Ecuador on December 11th, where the cartel hopes to publish its Long Term Strategy, as discussed by its 12 member nations here in Vienna on Thursday. Following that, OPEC would meet again in June 2011 in Vienna.

In a surprise move, it was confirmed Iran would assume OPEC presidency in January 2011; it last held the post in 1975. And last but not the least, there is finally a lady at the OPEC table – Nigeria's petroleum minister - Diezani Kogbeni Alison-Madueke, who having been a Shell executive took a certain amount of delight in telling the assembled press scrum that she had been in male dominated industries before and pretty much held her own!

To summarise, OPEC – in line with prevailing sentiment – noted that the market remains well supplied and given the downside risk to the global economy, did not feel the need to raise production.

That’s it from Vienna – time to say Auf Wiedersehen!

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Nigeria's petroleum minister Diezani Kogbeni Alison-Madueke (Centre), © Gaurav Sharma, OPEC 157th Conference, Vienna, Oct 14, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

UK Drilling Activity Down But Exploration is Rising

Offshore drilling in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) dipped 20% Q3 2010 on an annualised basis, according to the latest oil and gas industry figures obtained from Deloitte.

It’s Petroleum Services Group (PSG), revealed in a report published on Friday that a total of 24 exploration and appraisal wells were spudded in the UK sector between July 1 and September 30, compared with 30 exploration and appraisal wells during the corresponding period last year.

Concurrently, PSG also said a 4% quarter over quarter rise was noted in the number of wells spudded in the UKCS in the third quarter of this year, attributed to higher levels of exploration drilling in the UKCS, up 32% for the first three quarters of 2010 when compared to the same period of 2009.

Overall, international deal activity saw a marked increase during the third quarter of 2010, following a period of no activity at all in the previous quarter. Most notable were the corporate acquisitions announced following KNOC’s acquisition of Dana and EnQuest’s decision to buy Stratic Energy.

However, corporate level activity within the UK has decreased since the second quarter of 2010 with only one corporate asset sale announced compared to three announcements and one completion in the previous quarter.

Graham Sadler, managing director of Deloitte’s PSG, commented in a statement that seeing deal activity in the UK decreasing for a second consecutive quarter was not a major surprise.

“There is evidence of a shift in company strategy as organisations are opting for less costly and less risky policies as they look to adjust their portfolios. This is reflected in the fact that the number of farm-ins announced has almost tripled this quarter to 11, in comparison with just four announcements during the second quarter. Until more confidence in the recovery of the market becomes further evident, this may be a trend that continues in the future,” Sadler said.

Elsewhere in the UKCS, Norway saw seven exploration and appraisals wells spudded, which represents a 56% decrease when compared to the number of wells drilled in the second quarter of this year.

Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland also reported low levels of drilling activity according to the Deloitte report while the four wells spudded in the Cairn Energy drilling programme in Greenland marked the first activity in the region for a decade.

On the pricing front, despite the overall decreased activity, the price of Brent Crude oil has remained stable throughout the whole of the third quarter of 2010, achieving a quarterly average of US$76.47 per barrel.

Carrying on with the theme, I met several analysts here at OPEC who think Brent appears to be winning the battle of the indices. The sentiment is gaining traction. David Peniket, President and Chief Operating Officer of Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) Futures Europe remarked in May that WTI is an important US benchmark but that it does not reflect the fundamentals of the global oil market in the way that Brent reflects them.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Andrew Rig-North Sea © BP

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is Big Oil Really "Big" Any More?

A number of energy journalists have been asking this question at a pace which has gathered momentum over the past decade. Books have even been written about it. On Oct 7th, a week prior to Thursday’s OPEC conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a discussion under the auspices of S&P and Platt’s which touched on the subject in some detail, contextualising it with the Peak Oil hypothesis.

Here in Vienna, understandably, I find few takers for the hypothesis; at least not at OPEC HQ. But one statement has struck me. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of OPEC's foundation, in his opening address to the conference earlier on Thursday, Wilson Pástor-Morris, Minister of Non-Renewable Natural Resources of Ecuador and President of the Conference, noted:

“OPEC began as a group of five heavily exploited, oil-producing developing countries seeking to assert their sovereign rights in an oil market dominated by the established multinational oil companies. Today OPEC is a major player on the world energy stage. Our 12 Member Countries are masters of their own destiny in their domestic oil sectors and their influence reaches out into the energy world at large.”

Need one say more? OPEC feels NOCs are dominant; so does much of the rest of the market to a great extent. Pástor-Morris also said the issue production quota 'compliance' also featured in OPEC discussions, as the cartel reviews its production agreement.

“But we shall not lose sight of the bigger picture. Neither should anyone else. The achievement of market order and stability is the responsibility of all parties. It is not just a burden for OPEC alone. We all stand to gain from market stability, and so we must all contribute to achieving it and maintaining it,” he added.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Holly Rig, Santa Barbara, California, USA © James Forte / National Geographic Society

OPEC Leaves Production Levels Unchanged!

As widely expected, OPEC announced on Thursday that its members have agreed to keep its official oil production target at 24.84 million barrels a day. OPEC president Wilson Pastor-Morris said that the policy in place since December 2008, when it announced a record supply cut of 4.2 million barrels per day, is here to stay.

The cartel will next meet on December 11 in Quito, Ecuador to discuss the issue again. Despite being by pressed by journalists, OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri insisted that individual members' quotas need not be published. “We know how each country behaves, the market should be happy with total quotas,” he said.

He added, the ever present issue of compliance with quotas, was an important one. By OPEC's own assement compliance was at 61% but a Reuters report puts the figure at 57%. In an interesting development - perhaps the only surprise of the day - OPEC announced that Iran will take over the rotating presidency of OPEC in 2011 for the first time in 36 years. Iranian petroleum minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi assumes the presidency from January 2011; watch this space!

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: © Gaurav Sharma, OPEC 157th Meeting, Vienna, Oct 14, 2010

OPEC’s Own Version of He Said, She Said…

Over each of last three years, in the run-up to the cartel's meeting, OPEC Secretary Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri has tended not to give very much away. However, the 157th summit seems to be different; for over the last 6-12 months El-Badri has often stated that OPEC is comfortable with the crude oil price. In fact, he gave quite candid comments in June.

That said the price has remained in the circa of US$75 to US$85 per barrel and is heading higher as the US dollar has weakened in recent weeks. So El-Badri should indeed be comfortable with it.

But of course, no OPEC summit is complete with a bit of the old 'he said, she said'. The most important “he” in question is the Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi who plainly told a media scrum here in Vienna on Wednesday that, and I quote, "Everyone" is happy with the market. To the market that reads like a coded signal he is against increasing output.

The only "she" on the table is of course Nigeria's petroleum minister - Diezani Kogbeni Alison-Madueke – who said OPEC (as always) will be looking at overproduction and non-adherence to quotas, at "this particular conference."

Sheikh Ahmed al-Abdullah al-Sabah of Kuwait when asked how the price of crude was at the moment, gave a short and sweet reply. Quite simply, he noted that, “It’s good.” Concurrently, Venezuelan Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told a local TV network that "all" his colleagues agree they should leave the level of production stable.

Since arriving in Vienna, based on the 'he said, she said' rounds, I have had a jolly good natter with eight analysts here and a further three in London. All 11, as well as those at Société Générale expect a rollover in OPEC quotas and no change to actual output.

Finally as the forward month ICE Brent crude contract bounced to the stop-loss at US$84.55, analysts at Société Générale also believe a further range bound market is possible. "According to OPEC, the recent price rally does not reflect oil fundamentals (and we agree)," they wrote in an investment note.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: © Shell

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Vienna’s Most Oilholic of all Welcomes

As OPEC ministers and the world’s press descend on Vienna for the 157th OPEC meeting on Thursday, I cannot but help remarking that the city itself gives the most oliholic of all welcomes to its visitors whether you arrive by plane, train or automobile – or in my case – all three – but more on that later.

Landing on a night flight at Vienna airport one can get a direct view of an ocean of spotlights and night lamps of the OMV Schwechat refinery. Once you pull out of the airport, and your taxi or bus takes two right turns and hits the motorway, there’s the refinery again and well if you arrive by train say to Wien Meidling or Wien Westbahnhof stations – the oil tankers and carriages along the way simply cannot be missed.

Perhaps its not unusual to find oil and gas infrastructure in proximity of a major oil and gas town, something which quaint old Vienna is not, in my honest opinion. Still its OMV's hub, which is fast becoming a behemoth, or already is one if you asked a Hungarian analyst given its audacious but ultimately unsuccessful bid to acquire MOL in 2007.

Coming on to the subject of me having used planes, trains and automobiles – well I arrived in Vienna from London by plane earlier in the week, dashed off to Budapest for a meeting by train and have passed in front of the Schwechat refinery in automobiles of various descriptions – budget permitting - for the last six years.

It’s good to be back at OPEC, which is fast becoming an annual pilgrimage for me. Nothing about pricing in this blog post, but cant help observing though that OPEC would not change production quotas on Thursday.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Raffinerie Schwechat © OMV Refining & Marketing GmbH

Friday, September 24, 2010

Crude Sort of a Month (So far)

We are nearing the end of September and crude oil just cannot shake off the linkage with perceived (rather than prevalent) risks to the health of the global economy. In fact, for lack of a better phrase - the “on” or “off” risk has been causing price fluctuation for some eight weeks now.

My contacts in the City also voice concerns about the next round of G20 opting for further regulation on commodities trading. Although it is the kind of rhetoric they have indeed heard time and again over the decades; it irks their collective psyche.

Overall, most expect crude oil prices to remain in the range of $73 to $85 until at least Q1 2011. Analysts at Société Générale CIB actually have a much wider ranged forecast to the tune of US$70 to US$85. In the oil business its best to avoid generalisations especially when it comes to forecasts, but a return to a US$100 plus price is not forecast by much of the wider market before Q1 2012 at the earliest.

Furthermore, crude stocks haven’t altered all that much. Société Générale CIB’s Global Head of Oil Research Mike Wittner notes in a recent investment note that:

“Despite 12 months of global economic recovery, stocks are little changed from a year ago, and are still at the top of their five-year range. OECD combined crude and product inventories remain stubbornly high at over 61 days forward cover. In other words, the increase in crude and product consumption over recent quarters has been matched by an increase in supply of about the same magnitude.”

In fact the big story, which Wittner also alludes to in his note, is the surprisingly large increase in supply from non-OPEC exporters while the cartel’s output itself has been stable. Looking ahead to the OPEC summit on Oct 14, which I will be attending in Vienna, the cartel is widely tipped to hold production levels steady at 29.0 million barrels per day.

Elsewhere in this crude world, Moody’s outlined potential Deepwater Horizon disaster liabilities for Transocean in an interesting report published on Monday. The report notes that Transocean’s credit risk has increased due to the disaster, although it is hard to quantify by how much.

While much depends on unknown variables, Transocean's stake is likely to be limited to 10% of the total liabilities, which could reach as much as US$60 billion, Moody's said. The recent downgrade of Transocean's long-term credit rating to Baa3 from Baa2 reflects that.

Kenneth Austin, Vice President & Senior Credit Officer at Moody's, feels that Transocean has sufficient cash, free cash flow and credit arrangements to address a US$6 billion responsibility without losing its investment-grade rating. “But any damages beyond that could force the company to consider ways to raise additional capital," he added.

For now, Transocean's indemnification agreement with BP - the largest partner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig and Macondo well - leaves BP responsible for the damages, unless the oil giant challenges the agreement in court, the report said.

Finally, the wider market has got word on what is being touted as the mother of all energy stock floatation’s and the largest share issue in corporate history – i.e. Petrobras’ attempt to raise something in the region of US$64.5 to US$74.7 billion. News emerged on Thursday that the final valuation was US$70 billion.

Following my earlier query, a company spokeswoman told me that Petrobras issued 2.4 billion common shares priced at BRL 29.65 (US$17.12) each and 1.87 billion preferred shares at BRL26.30 (US$15.25) each. The capital from the much delayed IPO will finance development of offshore drilling in the country’s territorial waters. The Brazilian government also gets its fair “share” in return for giving Petrobras access to up to 5 billion barrels of oil.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil Drill Pump, North Dakota, USA © Phil Schermeister / National Geographic Society

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Veraciously Detailed Analysis of Prof. Gorelick

The debate over the “peak oil” hypothesis used to keep rearing its head from time to time in media and commodities circles – but of late it has become a bit of a permanent mainstream fixture, with regular discussions in the popular press.

No one discounts the fact that oil is a non-renewable and finite hydrocarbon, but the positions people take on either side of the hypothesis often evoke fierce emotions. Enter Prof. Steven M. Gorelick – the author of the brilliant book – Oil Panic and The Global Crisis: Predictions and Myths.

In my years as a journalist who has written on oil and follows crude markets closely, I feel this book is among the most engaging, detailed and well written ones that I have come across in its genre. Gorelick examines both sides of the argument and allied “crude” topics in some detail. He notes that commentators on either side of the peak oil debate, their respective stances and the arguments are not free of some pretty major assumptions. This pertains, but is not limited, to the complex issue of oil endowments and the methodology of working them out.

The author examines data and market conjecture that both supports and rejects the idea that the world is running out of crude oil. Prior to entering the resource depletion debate, Gorelick charts the landscape, outlines the history of the oil trade and crude prospection and exploration.

Following on from that, he discusses the resource depletion argument followed by a refreshingly well backed-up chapter offering arguments against imminent global oil depletion. The veracity of the research is simply unquestionable and the figures are not substantiated by rants or guesswork, but by a methodical analysis which makes the author's argument sound extremely persuasive. If you are taken in by popular discourse or media chatter about the planet running out of oil, this book does indeed explode more than a few myths.

The text is backed-up by ample figures, graphics and forecasts from a variety of industry recognised sources, journals and organisations. Unlike a straight cut bland discourse, the narrative of this book is very engaging. It may well be data intensive, but if the whole point of the book is substantiating an argument - then the data adds value and makes for an informed argument - for which author deserves full credit.

Above anything else, I find myself in agreement with the author that the US, where production peaked a few decades ago, is a “pincushion of exploration relative to other parts of the world.” Backed-up by data, Gorelick explains that the Middle East, Eastern (& Central) Europe and Africa contain 75% of global crude reserves but account for only 13% of exploratory drilling. This must change.

Every key topic from the Malthusian doctrine to M.K. Hubert's approach, from Canadian Oil sands to drilling offshore and the relative cost of imported oil for consuming nations have been discussed in context of the resource depletion debate and in some detail.

Gorelick correctly notes that while the era of "easy" oil may well be over and how much oil is extracted from difficult sources remains to be seen. I quite agree with the author that the next or shall we say the current stage of extraction and prospection would ultimately be dictated by the price of oil.

Many commodities traders believe a US$50 per barrel price or above would ensure extraction from difficult to reach places. However, that is not to say that a high price equates to the planet running out of oil, according to the author. He writes so from a position of strength having spent years analysing industry data and I find it difficult not to be swayed by the force of his honest arguments.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Book Cover © Wiley

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eni’s Rating Downgrade & Other News

Moody's Investors Service lowered the long-term senior unsecured ratings of Eni S.p.A. (Eni) and its guaranteed subsidiaries to Aa3 from Aa2 and the senior unsecured rating of Eni USA Inc. to A1 from Aa3. In a note on Monday, it said the outlook for all ratings is stable.

Eni qualifies as a Government-Related Issuer (GRI) under Moody's methodology for such entities, given its 30.3% direct and indirect ownership by the Italian state. The downgrade reflects Moody's expectation that deleveraging process initiated by Eni management and recovery in the group's credit metrics will be gradual and unlikely to restore sufficient headroom to help underpin its business case analysis within the Aa range.

In other news, the U.S. EIA has cut its forecast for global oil demand in light of lower forecasts for global growth. EIA now expects global oil consumption to rise by 1.4 million barrels per day in 2011 against last month's projection of 1.5 million barrels. The consumption growth forecast for 2010 was unchanged at 1.6 million barrels per day.

On the pricing front, the EIA expects spot West Texas Intermediate crude prices to average US$77 a barrel in Q4 2010, down from its previous forecast of US$81. It added that crude prices are likely to climb to US$84 by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, as you know, BP published its internal report into the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the resultant oil spill last week. Given the ol’ day job of mine, I wanted to read it cover to cover – all 193 pages of it – before blogging about it. Having finally read it, goes without saying the oil giant is stressing on the fact that a "sequence" of failures caused the tragedy for which a "number of parties" were responsible. (To be read as Transocean and Halliburton)

In the report, conducted by BP's head of safety Mark Bly, the oil giant noted eight key failures that collectively led to the explosion. Most notably, BP said that both its staff as well and Transocean staff interpreted a safety test reading incorrectly "over a 40-minute period" which should have flagged up risks of a blowout and action could have been taken on the influx of hydrocarbons into the well.

BP was also critical of the cementing of the well - carried out by Halliburton - and the well’s blowout preventer. The report also notes that improved engineering rigour, cement testing and communication of risk by Halliburton could have identified flaws in cement design and testing, quality assurance and risk assessment.

It added that a Transocean rig crew and a team working for Halliburton Sperry Sun may have been distracted by "end-of-well activities" and important monitoring was not carried out for more than seven hours as a consequence.

Furthermore, BP said that there were "no indications" Transocean had tested intervention systems at the surface as was required by its company policy before they were deployed on the well. Crew may have had more time to respond before the explosion if they had diverted escaping fluids overboard, the report added.

BP’s outgoing Chief Executive Tony Hayward said, “To put it simply, there was a bad cement job and a failure of the shoe track barrier at the bottom of the well, which let hydrocarbons from the reservoir into the production casing. The negative pressure test was accepted when it should not have been, there were failures in well control procedures and in the blowout preventer; and the rig's fire and gas system did not prevent ignition.”

So there we have it – the oil giant is not absolving itself of the blame, but rather spreading it around. It came as no major surprise that both Halliburton and Transocean criticised and dismissed the report - though not necessarily in that order. The story is unlikely to go away as a national commission is expected to submit a report to President Barack Obama by mid-January 2011 followed by a Congressional investigation. The U.S. Justice department may yet step in as well if evidence of criminal wrongdoing of some sort emerges.

Away from the BP spill saga, French energy giant Total said last week that it could sell its 480 petrol stations in the UK as part of a strategic review of its British downstream operations as it refocuses on its core upstream strength and well something had to give.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: US Oil rig © Rich Reid / National Geographic Society

Monday, September 06, 2010

From a Sobering August to Sept's Crude Forecast!

August has been a sobering month of sorts for the crude market. Overall, the average drop in WTI crude for the month was well above 8% and the premium between Brent crude and WTI crude futures contracts averaged about US$2. The market perhaps needed a tempering of expectations; poor economic data and fears of a double-dip recession did just that.

Even healthy US jobs data released last week could not stem the decline; though prices did recover by about 2% towards the end of last week. On Friday, the crude contract for October delivery lost 0.6% or US$0.41 to $74.60 a barrel on NYMEX. This is by no means a full blown slump (yet!) given that last week’s US EIA report was bearish for crude. It suggests that stocks built-up by 3.4 million barrels, a figure which was above market consensus but less than that published by the API. This is reflected in the current level of crude oil prices.

Looking specifically at ICE Brent crude oil futures, technical analysts remain mildly bullish in general predicting a pause and then a recovery over the next three weeks. In an investment note discussing the ICE Brent crude oil contract for October delivery, Société Générale CIB commodities technical analyst Stephanie Aymés notes that at first the market should drift lower but US$74.40/73.90 will hold and the recovery will resume to 77.20 and 77.70/78.00 or even 78.80 (Click chart above).

On the NYMEX WTI forward month futures contract, Aymés also sees a recovery. “73.40 more importantly 72.60 will hold, a further recovery will develop to 75.55/90 and 76.45 or even 77.05/77.25,” she notes. By and large, technical charts from Société Générale or elsewhere are not terribly exciting at the moment with the price still generally trading pretty much within the US$70-80 range.

Elsewhere in the crude world, here is a brilliant article from BBC reporter Konstantin Rozhnov on how Russia’s recently announced privatisation drive is sparking fears of a return to the Yeltsin era sale of assets.

On a crudely related note, after a series of delays, Brazil’s Petrobras finally unveiled its plans to sell up to US$64.5 billion of new common and preference stock in one of the largest public share offerings in the world.

A company spokeswoman said on Friday that the price of new shares would be announced on September 23rd. The IPO could well be expanded from US$64.5 billion to US$74.7 billion subject to demand; though initially Petrobras would issue 2.17 billion common shares and 1.58 billion preferred shares. The share capital will finance development of offshore drilling in the country’s territorial waters.

Lastly, the US Navy and BP said late on Sunday that the Macondo well which spilled over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico poses no further risk to the environment. Admiral Thad Allen, a US official leading the government’s efforts, made the announcement after engineers replaced a damaged valve on the sea bed.

Concurrently, The Sunday Times reported that BP had raised the target for its asset sales from US$30 billion to US$ 40 billion to cover the rising clean-up cost of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The paper, citing unnamed sources, also claimed that BP was revisiting the idea of selling a stake in its Alaskan assets.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Graphics © SGCIB / CQG Inc. Photo: Alaska, US © Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic Society

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Oil Price, Petroaggressors & a Few Books I've Read

Since last week, the wider commodities market has continued to mirror equities. This trend intensified towards the end of last week and shows no sign of abating. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Brent crude is trading at a premium to its American cousin, a gap which widened over USD$2. On Tuesday (August 31) at 13:00 GMT, the Brent forward month futures contract was trading at US$76.10 a barrel (down 1.1%) versus WTI crude at US$73.83 (down 3.1%) in intraday trading.

This of course is ahead of the US energy department’s supplies update, due for publication on Wednesday. The report is widely tipped to show a rise in crude stockpiles and the US market is seen factoring that in. Overall, the average drop in WTI crude for the month of August is around 8.89% as the month draws to a close.

Having duly noted this, I believe that compared to other asset classes, the slant in oil still seems a more attractively priced hedge than say forex or equities. Nonetheless, with there being much talk of a double-dip recession, many commentators have revised their oil price targets for the second half of 2010.

Last month, the talk in the city of London was that crude might cap US$85 a barrel by the end of the year; maybe even US$90 according to Total’s CEO. Crude prices seen in August have tempered market sentiment. Analysts at BofA Merrill Lynch now believe the oil price should average US$78 per barrel over H2 2010 owing to lower global oil demand growth and higher-than-expected non-OPEC supply.

“Following robust increases in oil demand over the past 12 months on a stimulus-driven rebound, we now see some downside risk as slower growth sets in and OECD oil inventories remain high. Beyond 2011, oil markets should remain tight on solid EM fundamentals and potentially a looser monetary policy stance by EM central banks on the back of the recent crisis in Europe. Curves may flatten further as inventories return to normal levels and seasonal hedging activity picks up,” they wrote in an investment note.

Elsewhere, Russia's largest privately held oil company - Lukoil - reported a 16% drop in quarterly profits with net profit coming at US$1.95 billion for the April-June period. Revenues rose 28% to US$25.9 billion on an annualised basis. In statement to the Moscow stock exchange, Lukoil said it is coping with the difficult macroeconomic situation and securing positive cash flow thanks to implementing measures aimed at higher efficiency which were developed at the beginning of the year.

The company largely blamed production costs for a dip in its profits which rose 24% for the first half of 2010. In July, US oil firm ConocoPhillips, which owns a 20% stake in Lukoil, said it would sell its holdings. However, the Russian oil major issued no comment on whether it would buy-out ConocoPhillips’ holdings.

Reading investment notes and following the fortunes of Lukoil aside, I recently stumbled upon a brilliantly coined term – “petroaggressors” – courtesy of author and journalist Robert Slater. After all, little else can be said of Iran, Venezuela, Russia and others who are seeking to alter the energy security hegemony from the developed world in favour of the Third world.

In his latest book – Seizing Power: the global grab for oil wealth – Slater notes that the ranks of petroaggressors are flanked by countries such as India and China who are desperate to secure the supply of crude oil with very few scruples to fuel their respective economic growth.

It is mighty hard to imagine life without oil; such has been the dominance of the internal combustion engine on life in the developed world over the last six decades. Now the developing world is catching-up fast with the burgeoning economies of China and India leading the pack. End result is every economy, regardless of its scale is suddenly worried about its energy security. Slater opines that a grab for this finite hydrocarbon may and in some cases already is turning ugly.

In fact he writes that the West, led by the US (currently the world's largest consumer of crude oil), largely ignored the initial signs regarding supply and demand permutations. As the star of the major oil companies declines, Slater writes that their market share and place is being taken not by something better - but rather by state-run, unproductive and politics-ridden behemoths dubbed as National Oil Companies (NOCs).

If the peak oil hypothesis, ethical concerns, price speculation and crude price volatility were not enough, geopolitics and NOCs run by despots could make this 'crude' world reach a tipping point. Continuing on the subject of books, journalist Katherine Burton's latest work - Hedge Hunters: How Hedge Fund Masters Survived is a thoroughly decent one.

In it, she examines the fortunes of key players in the much maligned, but still surviving hedge fund industry. In the spirit of a true oilholic, I jumped straight to Chapter 9 on the inimitable Boone Pickens, before immersing myself in the rest of her book.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil rig © Cairn Energy Plc

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cairn Energy "Smells" Black Gold in Greenland

Barely a week after announcing the proposed sale of a 51% stake in its Indian unit to Vedanta in order to concentrate on its Greenland operations, Cairn Energy claims to have discovered gas in the self-governing Danish protectorate. It is usually a sign that the crude stuff may follow. In a statement, the company said its personnel had observed "early indications of a working hydrocarbon system" off Greenland’s coast at its Baffin Bay T8-1 prospection well. Apart from the T8-1 site, the energy company said plans to drill at least two other wells over the course summer were also on track.

Cairn chief executive Sir Bill Gammell says he is looking forward to assessing results of the remainder of the 2010 drilling programme. So does rest of the market; except for Greenpeace who have promptly dispatched a protest ship to the region.

The company's planned drilling target depth is in the region of 4,000 metres (or above) and energy sector analysts are not yet jumping with joy. Perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to Cairn’s announcement has been tempered by the fact that Scandinavian, British and American teams have all attempted drilling off the coast of Greenland in the past, i.e. in 1970-75 and then again in 2000. Neither of the drives resulted in success.

Still the Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, which has made developing oil activities one of its most important priorities aimed at creating enough revenues to replace the subsidy the protectorate receives from Denmark, would be hoping Cairn is lucky in striking black gold this time.

Meanwhile, the forward month crude oil futures contract dipped below US$72 a barrel in intraday trading across the pond as the wider commodities market mirrored equties trading; a trend noted over the last six trading sessions. I quite agree with Phil Flynn, analyst at PFG Best, who wrote in an investment note that: "Just when it seems oil is going to rally on strong economic optimism; it gets crushed with the realty of gluttonous supply."

London Brent crude was just about maintaining resistance above US$72 down 89 cents or 1.2% at US$72.55 around 14:45 BST. However, weaker economic data on either side of the Atlantic and fears of a double dip recession, most recently stoked by Bank of England’s MPC member Martin Weale have certainly not helped.

©Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil tanker ©Michael S. Quinton/National Geographic Society

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cairn Energy: Choosing Greenland over India?

It seems Cairn Energy has shifted its attention from India to Greenland. What else can be said of the Edinburgh-based independent upstream upstart’s announcement of plans to sell a 51% stake in its Indian operations to mining group Vedanta for up to US$8.5 billion?

After a week of nudges and winks, Cairn confirmed rumours of the sale doing the rounds in the city of London. The company’s Indian operations have a market capitalisation of just over US$14 billion which makes Cairn India, the country’s fourth largest oil company.

Apart from seeking a "substantial return of cash" to shareholders, it is now clear that Cairn hopes to pursue its drilling ambitions in Greenland with some vigour. In a media statement, Cairn’s chief executive Sir Bill Gammell said, “I am delighted to announce the proposed disposal of a significant shareholding in Cairn India in line with our objective of adding and realising value for shareholders.”

To fathom what the announcement means for Cairn energy is easy. In fact, market analysts I have spoken to reckon the sale would generate more than adequate capital for Cairn's Greenland prospection in the medium term. This makes Cairn pretty cash rich and the market wonders what the inimitable Bill Gammell has up his sleeve. That it could bag another similarly scaled production asset akin to its fields in India’s Rajasthan state is doubtful.

Working out what the deal means for Vedanta is trickier. Its chief executive Anil Agarwal gave a rather simplistic explanation. In a statement he said, “The proposed acquisition significantly enhances Vedanta's position as a natural resources champion in India. Cairn India's Rajasthan asset is world class in terms of scale and cost, delivering strong and growing cash flow.”

Hence, simply put Vedanta has stated its intentions of venturing beyond metals and make a headline grabbing foray into the oil and gas sector. The market would be watching how the two aspects of the business gel under the Vedanta umbrella, but there are precedents of success – most notably at BHP Billiton.

In a related development, Cairn energy was featured in Deloitte’s half-yearly assessment of UK independent oil and gas companies. At the end of H1 2010, according to Deloitte the top five UK independent oil companies by market capitalisation were - Tullow Oil, Cairn Energy, Premier Oil, SOCO International and Heritage Oil in that order. The top three have maintained their respective positions from December 2009 while SOCO International entered the top five with a 31% increase in market capitalisation.

Overall, the first half of the year was broadly positive for the UK independents, with market capitalisation of the majority of companies in the league table increasing by 4.6% over the 6 month period to 30 June 2010. It stood at £26.482 billion as of end-June. (Click box on the left for the entire list)

On the oil price front, the crude stuff plummeted nearly 7% over the course of the week ended Fri 13th on either side of the pond. The price resistance is presently above US$75 a barrel and I expect it to remain there despite some pretty disappointing economic data doing the rounds these days. Looking further ahead, analysts at Société Générale’s Cross Asset Research team forecast NYMEX WTI to average US$80 in Q3 2010 (revised down by $10) and $85 in Q4 2010 (revised down by $5).

Looking further ahead, an investment note states that they expect NYMEX WTI of US$92.30 in 2011 (revised down by $8.70). NYMEX WTI is forecast at US$88.30/$87.50 in Q1 2011/Q2 2011, increasing to $95/$98.30 in Q3 2011/Q4 2011. On a monthly average basis, Société Générale expects NYMEX WTI of US$87.50 in December 2010 and $100 in December 2011.

In truth, fear of a double dip recession persists in wider market, especially in the US, EU and UK. However, many crude traders are quietly confident that in such an event, India and China’s crude oil consumption will help maintain the oil price at US$70 plus levels.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo courtesy © Cairn Energy Plc. Chart Courtesy © Deloitte LLP

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Talking Crude: Of Profits, Tax rebates & Asset Sales

Last week was an eventful one in crude terms. Well it’d have to be if Shell and Exxon Mobil declare bumper profits. Both saw their quarterly profits almost double. Beginning with Shell, the Anglo-Dutch firm reported profits of US$4.5 billion on a current cost (of supply) basis, up from US$2.3 billion noted over the corresponding quarter last year.

Excluding one-off items, Shell's profit was $4.2 billion, compared with $3.1 billion last year. Unlike BP, Shell said it would pay a second quarter dividend of $0.42 per share. The oil giant's restructuring plans also appear to be bearing fruit achieving cost savings of $3.5 billion, beating the stated corporate savings target by about 15% and some six months ahead of schedule.

Furthermore, it is thought that as a result of the restructuring, 7,000 employees would leave Shell nearly 18 months ahead of schedule. It also said it expected to sell $7-$8 billion of assets over 2010-11. Concurrently, oil giant Exxon Mobil reported quarterly profits of $7.6 billion, well above the $4.1 billion it posted over the corresponding quarter last year. Revenue for the quarter rose 23% in year over year terms on annualised basis from $72.5 billion to $92.5 billion.

Meanwhile, rival BP reported a record $17 billion second quarter loss which the market half expected. The figure included funds to the tune of $32 billion set aside to cover the costs of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sticking with BP, it has emerged that the beleaguered oil giant included a tax credit claim of almost $10 billion in its Q2 results as it seeks to take the edge off the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on its corporate finances. Its income statement for the second quarter carries a pre-tax charge of $32.2 billion related to the oil spill and a tax credit of $9.79 billion.

Under domestic tax laws in the US, BP is entitled to deduct a proportion of its losses against US tax. The issue is likely to turn political – especially in an election year, when much more has been made out of far less. However, legally the US government can do precious little to prevent BP from claiming the tax credit.

Crude asset sales seem to be the order of the day. Following on from BP’s sale of assets and Shell’s announcement that it will sell too, news emerged that the Russian government also wants to join the party.

It plans to sell $29 billion worth of assets (not all which are energy sector assets) on the open markets. In the absence of official confirmation, local media speculation suggests minor stakes in Rosneft and Transneft may be put up for sale.

However, speaking to reporters in Moscow on July 29th, the country’s Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said, "We will sell significant stakes in state companies on the market. We plan to keep controlling stakes. Assets will be valued publicly, in line with market prices and tenders will be open. We are fully ruling out a situation when somebody sells something to someone at an artificially low price."

According to communiqués, the Russian government wanted to rake in $10 billion next year from asset sales. It has also approved a decision to increase mineral extraction taxes on gas producers by 61% from 2011.

Finally from a macro strandpoint, market consensus and comments from BP, Shell and Exxon officials seem to indicate that the top bosses of all three see mixed signals in the global economy. While their earnings figures, excluding BP for obvious reasons, have improved markedly from the quarterly lows of 2009, the overall industry outlook remains uncertain.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo courtesy © Shell

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Trying to Decipher Oil Majors’ Debt Ratings

Last month, BP’s image and shares were not the only things taking a plastering. Its bonds, due for repayment in 2013 were nearly downgraded to junk status trading at a price of less than 90 cents in the dollar. Given BP’s asset base, even if the ultimate cost of the Gulf of Mexico clean-up and legal costs amount to US$50 billion, there is not a cat in hell’s chance of the company defaulting on its debt obligation unless the oil price plummets dramatically. So quite frankly, the development was a load of rubbish which piled up owing to media pressure.

Now, it gets even more interesting. Following, BP’s asset sales to the tune of US$7 billion, Moody's cautiously placed the asset purchaser Apache Corporation’s ratings, including its A3 senior unsecured ratings, under review for downgrade on July 21st. However, Its P-2 commercial paper rating is not under review.

The ratings agency observes that while substantial existing cash and equity will fund the BP transaction, the: “leverage is amplified by the fairly low proportion of production and producing reserves relative to the price paid for the BP assets (by Apache), the corresponding substantial proportion of undrilled yet-to-be-funded proven undeveloped reserves and probable and possible acreage, the pending $3.9 billion acquisition of Mariner Energy and the June closing of its $1.050 billion acquisition of Devon Energy properties.”

Overall nearly US$5 billion of Apache’s rated debt is affected. Moody’s says that if Apache were to be downgraded, it would be no more than one notch. The principal methodology used in rating was the Independent Exploration and Production (E&P) Industry rating methodology published in December 2009.

I have reason to question the knee-jerk reaction of the markets to BP’s debt and but can find no reason to question Moody’s downgrade – except that caution has prevailed following the financial tsunami of 2008. Furthermore, a “who’s to say what might happen” sentiment is doing the rounds in the city of London. We’ve said time and again – from Enron to Lehman – that they were too big to fail. BP won’t fail, but the sentiment does not help and permeates across the oil and gas sector, with agencies being stricter than ever. Ratings agency, at the present moment in time are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They’d rather “do” then “don’t” seems to be the consensus.

In a speech at the British Bankers Association (BBA) International conference that I attended on July 13th, Deven Sharma, President of Standard & Poor's, said that the industry realised the issue of transparency and accountability. He added that sound, consistent oversight of ratings firms will help build confidence in ratings, which has clearly been affected by the crisis.

However, Sharma also noted that, "Most of our ratings during the last three years have performed broadly in line with previous periods of economic stress - including our ratings of corporates and sovereigns globally and our ratings of European structured securities. However, the performance of our ratings on US mortgage-related securities clearly has been disappointing, which we very much regret."

Sharma said serious steps are being taken to address the scenario through major changes to ratings process and analytics. "S&P's aim is to make our ratings more forward looking, more stable and more comparable across asset classes," he added. We hope so too Sir!

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo courtesy © Cairn Energy Plc

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