Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On non-OPEC distress & the road ahead

Having spent the entire week gauging the oil market mood in Houston, Texas, several key themes seem to be emerging. US shale oil exploration has come to symbolise non-OPEC production rises over the past three years and how it performs over the coming years would go some way towards providing an indication on when the market rebalances and where the oil price goes from here.

In that respect, the Oilholic’s third outing at the Baker & McKenzie Oil & Gas Institute provided some invaluable insight. Delegates at the Institute and various panels over the course of the event invariably touched on the subject, largely opining that many fringe shale players might well be on life support, but the industry as a whole is not dead in the water (see above left).

The problem is the paucity of high-yield debt for the oil & gas sector, where private equity (PE) firms were supposed to step into the breach vacated by big banks, but it is something which is not (currently) being meaningfully reflected in the data. 

One got a sense, both at the Institute and via other meetings across town, that PE firms are not quite having it their own way as buyers, and at the same time from sellers’ perspective there is also a fair bit of denial in a cash-strapped shale industry when it comes to relinquishing asset, acreage or corporate control.

Sooner, rather than later, some struggling players might have little choice and PE firms might get more aggressive in their pursuit of quality assets over the coming months, according to Mona Dajani, partner at Baker & McKenzie.

“You must remember that the PE market is quite cyclical. The way I view it, now would be as good a time as any for a PE firm to size-up and buy a mid-sized exploration and production (E&P) company as the oil price gradually creeps upwards. Jury is mixed on bid/ask differentials narrowing, but from what I see, it is happening already,” she added. 

William Snyder, Principal at Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics, said, “To an extent hedge positions have protected cashflow. Going forward, PE is the answer right now, for it will be a while before high-yield comes back into the oil & gas market.”

The Deloitte expert has a point; most studies point to massive capital starvation in the lower 48 US states. So those looking to refinance or simply seeking working capital to survive currently have limited options. 

Problem is the PE community is cagey too as it is embarking on a learning curve of its own, according to John Howie, Managing Director of Parallel Resource Partners. “Energy specific funds are spending time working on their own balance sheets, while the generalists are seeking quality assets of the sort that have (so far) not materialised.”

Infrastructure funds could be another option, Dajani noted. “These (infrastructure) funds coming in at the mezzanine level are offering a very attractive cost of debt, and from a legal perspective they are very covenant light.”

Nonetheless, given the level of distress in the sector, the Oilholic got a sense having spoken to selected PE firms that they are eyeing huge opportunities but are not willing to pay barmy valuations some sellers are coming up with. The thinking is just as valid for behemoths like BlackRock PE and KKR, as it is for boutique energy PE specialists from around the US whom Houston is playing host to on a near daily basis these days. 

There are zombie E&P companies walking around that should not really be there, and it is highly unlikely that PE firms will conduct some sort of a false rescue act for them at Chapter 11 stage. Better to wait for the E&P company to go under and then swoop when there is fire-sale of assets and acreage. 

Nonetheless, while we are obsessing over the level of industry distress, one mute point is getting somewhat lost in the ruckus – process efficiencies brought about by E&P players in a era of ‘lower for longer’ oil prices, according to John England, US Oil & Gas Leader at Deloitte (see right, click to enlarge). 

Addressing the Mergermarket Energy Forum 2016, England said, “Of course, capital expenditure cuts have triggered sharp declines in rig counts globally except for the Middle East. However, production decline has not been as steep as some in the industry feared. 

“This has been a tribute to the innovations and efficiencies of scale across North America, and several other non-OPEC oil production centres. A sub-$30 per barrel oil price – which we recently saw in January – drives innovation too; for a lower oil price environment motivates producers to think differently.”

Over nearly twenty meetings spread across legal, accounting, financial and debt advisory circles as well as industry players in Texas, and attendance at three industry events gives one the vibe that many seem to think the worst is over.

Yet, the Oilholic believes things are likely worsen further before they get better. Meanwhile, Houston is trying to keep its chin up as always. That’s all from the oil & gas capital of the world on this trip, as its time for the plane home to London. Keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma, 2016. Photo I: Panel at the Baker & McKenzie Oil & Gas Institute 2016 © Lizzy Lozano, Baker & McKenzie. Photo II: John England of Deloitte addresses the Mergermarket Energy Forum 2016 © Gaurav Sharma.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

ExxonMobil's Ghost Building in Houston

On the way to business meetings on Louisiana and Bagby Street in downtown Houston, Texas, earlier this week, the Oilholic cut across Bell Street passing by number 800, which of course was once ExxonMobil’s downtown office, with the top two floors being the dining space for the Petroleum Club of Houston (PCOH).

Alas no more, as all former occupants of the building have moved to the oil giant's sprawling campus in Spring, TX close to The Woodlands north of George Bush Intercontinental Airport. That’s excluding the PCOH which is now at the nearby Total Plaza.

According to the Houston Chronicle’s archives, Shorenstein Properties closed on the property for anundisclosed amount in the first quarter of 2013 with plans for making changes and improvements following ExxonMobil’s departure.

However, the oil giant has since leased back the entire building and not much has happened. Plans to move local government agencies into the building or other private tenants for that matter haven’t quite worked out either.

Shame the city and the building’s owners can’t work out what to do with the historic offices built in 1963 which ExxonMobil occupied until recently (see right). Downtown area of the oil and gas capital of the world could well do without another ghost building, having had one nearby left behind by Enron's collapse until Chevron moved in years later. That’s all for the moment from Houston folks; keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo 1: 800 Bell Street, Houston, Texas, USA in 2016. Photo 2: The building's exterior in 2010. © Gaurav Sharma.

Friday, May 20, 2016

It’s about the ‘crude’ bid/ask differential stupid!

That there are distressed oil and gas assets stateside is pretty obvious. The damage was done, or rather the distress was caused, long before the crude oil price started lurking in its current $40-50 per barrel range, with no guarantees and only calculated guesses on where it is going next.

Actually, nowhere but the current range, as some, including the Oilholic, say. We’d agree that the high yield debt market is in the doldrums, and pretty much since the oil price slump began in 2014 we are told private equity players are sizing up the level of distress and waiting for a timely swoop for assets armed with billions of dollars. 

There is only one problem – the bid/ask differential. Some, not all, sellers of distressed assets are still in denial and holding out for a better price. Buyers themselves, to be read as private equity buyers, are no mugs either and won’t buy any old asset at any old price. It then bottles down to the buying the right asset at the right price in a high stakes game, to quote not one but several of this blogger’s friends who addressed the Baker & McKenzie Oil & Gas Institute.

Then again other industry contacts, whom yours truly interacted with at the Mergermarket Energy Forum, say there is evidence of the bid/ask differential narrowing considerably relative to last May because some sellers literally have no choice and are desperate.

But now the PE guys want ‘quality’ distressed assets and some, as has become apparent in the Oilholic’s discussions with no less than 20 industry contacts and having participated in three oil and gas events (and counting) since Monday.

Anecdotes go something like this – some PE firms no longer want to buy an asset from a distressed oil and gas firm in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, but rather wait for it to actually go bust and then go for the target asset on much better terms, despite the obvious risk of losing out on the deal should another suitor emerge during the game of brinkmanship.

The debate will rumble on for much of 2016 with close to 70 US oil and gas firms having filed for bankruptcy this year alone! You get a sense in Houston that PE firms have the upper hand, but aren’t having it quite their own way, just as plenty of zombie small to mid-sized oil and gas companies that do not deserve to survive continue to muddle along. That’s all for the moment from Houston folks; keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: Oil pump jacks in Texas, USA © National Geographic Society.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gauging crude sentiments in Houston Town

The Oilholic is back in Houston, Texas for a plethora of events and another round of crude meetings. The weather in the oil and gas capital of the world at the moment seems to be mirroring what’s afoot in the wider industry, for there's rain, clouds, thunderstorms and the occasional ray of sunshine.

The industry’s mood hasn’t progressively darkened though; in fact it’s a bit better compared to when yours truly was last here exactly 12 months ago. Dire forecasts of $20 per barrel have not materialised, and forecasts of shale players in mature viable plays surviving at $35+ per barrel are appearing to be true. Additionally, the oil price is sticking in the $40-50 range.

That’s not to say another round of hedging will save everyone; bankruptcies within the sector continue to rise stateside. On the plus side US oil exports are now permitted and the speed with which President Barack Obama did away with a decades old embargo came as a pleasant surprise to much of the industry both within and beyond Houston. 

Finally, the US Energy Information Administration's recently released International Energy Outlook 2016 (IEO2016) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 48% between 2012 and 2040.

Most of this growth will come from countries that are not in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including countries where demand is driven by strong economic growth, particularly in Asia, says the Department of Energy’s statistics arm. Non-OECD Asia, including China and India, account for more than half of the world's total increase in energy consumption over the projection period. 

Plenty of exporting potential for US oil then! That’s all for the moment from Houston folks; keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: Downtown Houston, Texas, US © Gaurav Sharma.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Adios Ali: Saudi oil minister retires

Alas all 'crude' things in life come to an end, with King Salman replacing Ali Al-Naimi – Saudi Arabia’s oil minister who has been a regular feature at OPEC for over 20 years – with Khalid Al-Falih, chairman of state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco.

It seems Al-Naimi’s outing to OPEC in December 2015 was the eighty-year old industry veteran’s last. For over two decades as oil minister, and a professional career extending well beyond that, Al-Naimi witnessed the oil price soar to $147 per barrel and plummet as low as $2, and by his own admission everything that needed to be seen in the oil markets in his service to Riyadh.

Every single OPEC minister’s summit the Oilholic has attended since 2006 has almost exclusively revolved around what Al-Naimi had to say, and with good reason. For the mere utterance of a quip or two from the man, given the Saudi spare capacity, was enough to move global oil markets. 

Since 2014, he doggedly defended the Saudi policy of maintaining oil production for the sake of holding on to the Kingdom’s market share in face of crude oversupply. Both under, King Fahd and King Abdullah, Al-Naimi near single-handedly conjured up the Saudi oil policy stance. But King Salman has gone down a different route.

The new oil minister Al-Falih will undoubtedly draw the biggest crowd of journalists yet again at OPEC given the Saudi clout in this crude world. However, Al-Naimi leaves behind some big running shoes to fill, and perhaps his predecessor’s signature pre-OPEC power walk (or was it a jog) on Vienna’s ring road with half of the world’s energy journalists in tow chasing him around the Austrian capital!

For the Oilholic it has been an absolute joy interacting with Al-Naimi at OPEC. Somehow things will never be the same again at future oil ministers' meetings, and that’s just for the scribes to begin with. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. File photo: Ali Al-Naimi, former oil minister of Saudi Arabia © Gaurav Sharma.

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