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 communiqu├ęs, 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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mainly About Fund Managers & BP

Do some mutual fund managers know something about BP that we don’t or rather the wider market does not?

The answer is a flat ‘no’. Following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill which began on April 20th, BP’s market value has declined 40%. All what these guys did was not react to the headlines. That is simply because they saw an opportunity based on the conjecture that BP is too big to file for a US Chapter 11 bankruptcy (even if it wanted to).

One contact of mine in the industry says, “When others panic we don’t. On the contrary we see value in a cheap stock because let’s face it - BP is not going to go bankrupt despite all the garbage in the popular press. Four weeks ago its stock was as cheap as it can get.”

There is a thought process behind all this. To begin with, the crude oil price has averaged US$78 a barrel for the first six months of the year and many in the market believe it will end the year above the US$80 mark. Furthermore, the oil giant’s financials indicate that it has been raking in over US$30 billion in operating income each year in recent financial years.

Additionally, BP is methodically making asset sales. It is in negotiations with US developer Apache Corp. with regard to a massive asset sale to the tune of US$12 billion according to UK media reports. Some reports are also naming Standard Chartered as the bank responsible for setting up the oil giant’s crisis fund of US$5.25 billion launched in May.

In a related development, Magellan Midstream Partners announced that it has agreed to acquire certain petroleum storage and pipelines for US$339 million, including about US$50 million in inventory from BP Pipelines (North America) Inc. Moody’s notes that the move will not impact Magellan’s Baa2 senior unsecured debt ratings and stable rating outlook at this time. Its rating has stayed at Baa2 since March 5, 2009.

Meanwhile BBC news has just reported that BP has temporarily stopped oil from leaking into the Gulf, pending further tests. A spokesman confirmed that further work is being carried out. Elsewhere political pressure continues to mount on the oil giant as US media reports suggests it could potentially be hit with a 7-year drilling ban.

Away from the oil spill, uncertainty off the Falkland Islands continues as shares in Falkland Oil & Gas fell sharply after the company said it would give up on one of its oil wells – Toroa – off the coast of the South Falklands.

Despite its optimism in May when it started drilling, the company now says there are no hydrocarbons there and it will plug the well. However, it said that it still hoped there was oil in the area. In June, Rockhopper Exploration said it was looking to raise US$75 million after striking above-expectation reserves of oil in the region. A number of the small scale UK oil & gas upstarts are searching for oil in the Falklands, despite strong opposition from Argentina.

Argentina and UK went to war over the Falkland Islands in 1982 after the former invaded. UK forces wrested back control of the islands, held by it since 1833, after a week long war that killed 649 Argentine and 255 British service personnel. The Islands have always be a bone of contention between the two countries. The prospect of oil in the region has renewed diplomatic spats with the Argentines complaining to the UN and launching fresh claims of sovereignty.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Logo courtesy © BP Plc

Friday, July 09, 2010

Moody’s Says Global Integrated Oil Industry Stable

A report published on Wednesday by Moody’s notes that the global integrated oil and gas industry outlook remains stable and the sector is likely to continue seeing a moderate recovery over the next 12-18 months. However, it adds that the recovery could be more subdued for international oil companies (IOCs).

Oil prices have generally averaged over US$75+ per barrel, and Moody’s has joined ranks with the wider market in noting that the oil sector is well past the bottom of the cycle.

Thomas Coleman, a Senior Vice President at Moody's, says, "The integrated oil companies on the whole enjoy a strong and competitive financial position today; with oil prices trading in a moderate level of about US$75 a barrel as the world's leading economies continue to emerge from the serious downturn of 2008-2009."

Overall, the report notes that the demand for crude oil will remain strong outside the OECD, as – well no prizes for guessing – China and other booming economies, most notably India, steadily increase consumption.

The report also notes that IOCs' earnings and cash flow are improving and could rise by almost 20% over the next 12-18 months - thanks to the H1 2010 revival in crude prices - but these companies remain exposed to fairly weak conditions in the refining sector, which is set to take on even more capacity in 2010 and in coming years.

In addition, high inventories worldwide and recent commodity price volatility amid deepening concerns over Eurozone debt issues further illustrate the risks to the sector, according to Moody's. On the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the ratings agency noted that the "costs of drilling in the Gulf will escalate dramatically when the US government's ongoing moratorium ends, though deepwater drilling is unlikely to come to permanent halt."

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo courtesy © Shell

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Crude Dips but Total Warns of Year-end Price Spike

Crude prices dipped yet again last week, especially towards the end of the week, as bearish trends witnessed in the wider financial markets clobbered commodities. Additionally, the US Department of Energy reported a 1.9 million barrel peak-to-trough decline of crude oil inventories (gasoline and distillate inventories both rose).

The drawdown was above expectations and NYMEX WTI August contract fell 30 cents to US$75.64 a barrel in New York following publication of the report. In fact, crude prices, instead of being the exception, were following the norm as commodities in general suffered their first negative quarter since 2008, if the past three months are anything to go by.

Problem these days is that higher institutional investor participation in commodities markets has without a shadow of doubt, at least in my mind, increased the connection between forex carry trade and stock market fluctuations with commodity assets. Still, most oil market commentators I have spoken to forecast crude prices as well as commodities prices to reverse last week’s losses as the supply and demand scenario has not been fundamentally altered. In fact, it remains strong.

However, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of oil major Total believes crude prices could spike on account of an entirely different reason – the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, he said that while it remained necessary to drill in deep waters to meet global demand for fuel, tougher safety rules could result in higher crude price.

"Total’s policy is clearly towards zero risk. All this means potential additional costs," de Margerie said, adding that oil prices could reach US$90 a barrel by end-2010.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo courtesy © Cairn Energy Plc

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Alcohol & Oil Don’t Mix Well on the Trading Desk!

Unfortunately, some idiots learn the hard way that alcohol and trading do not mix all that well. The crude story doing the rounds in the City these past 24 hours is a mildly humorous one. That is unless you happen to be Steven Noel Perkins, a former futures trader at PVM Oil Futures Ltd. in London.

It seems that in the early hours of the morning on June 30, 2009 following a weekend (plus a Monday) of excessive drinking, the great Mr. Perkins went to his desk at PVM and placed a trade for ICE Brent crude futures contract (for August 2009 delivery) in excess of 7,000 lots representing nearly 7 million barrels of the crude stuff.

High on alcohol, the oil futures broker, whose job was to trade orders on an execution only basis at a firm which did no proprietary trading, accumulated a long outright position so substantial that the price of Brent spiked significantly over the course of the early session.

Perkins initially lied to his employer in order to try and cover up his unauthorised trading. But alas, no boss is that dumb. What’s more, the UK watchdog – the Financial Services Authority (FSA) – came down hard on him. It noted that Perkins' trading manipulated the market by giving a false and misleading impression as to the supply, demand and price of Brent crude and caused the price to increase to an abnormal and artificial level.

So in addition to losing his job, Perkins also got clobbered with a fine of £72,000 for market abuse. The FSA also banned him from working in the financial services industry.

Alexander Justham, director of markets at the FSA, said, "We view market manipulation extremely seriously. Perkins' trading caused disruption to the market and has been met with both a fine and prohibition. This reinforces the fact that a severe sanction will apply in cases of market manipulation, even where no profit is made. Perkins' drunkenness does not excuse his market abuse. He has been banned because he is not a fit and proper person to be involved in regulated activities and his behaviour posed a risk to the proper functioning of the market."

Oh dear! However, there is a silver lining. Immediately after the incident, Perkins joined a rehabilitation programme for alcoholics and has since stopped drinking. The FSA considers that it is possible that Perkins may be rehabilitated over time and could be fit and proper again in the future.

The ban has therefore been limited to a minimum term of 5 years, and his fine reduced from £150,000 to £72,000 resulting from a combination of not causing Perkins serious financial hardship as well as taking account of his desire to settle his case early under FSA's executive settlement procedures.

He’ll drink to that! Or maybe not!

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Graphic © Gaurav Sharma 2010

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