US Shale Is Already in Big Trouble. Now Imagine What Happens If China Restores Iranian Oil Purchases
If China starts taking in all the discounted crude Iran can drill the price could tumble by as much as $30
It was a rough week for the U.S. shale industry.
A series of earnings reports came out in recent days, and while some drillers beat expectations, there were some huge misses as well.
Concho Resources, for instance, saw its share price tumble 22 percent when it disclosed several problems at once. Profits fell by 25 percent despite production increases. Concho conceded that it would slash spending and slow the pace of drilling in the second half of the year.
It also said that one of its projects where it tried to densely pack wells together, which it called “Dominator,” the results were not as good as they had hoped. The project had 23 wells, but production disappointed. The “30 and 60 day production rates were consistent with our other projects in that area, but the performance has declined,” Leach said. So, the company will abandon the densely packed well strategy and move forward with wider spacing.
In the second quarter the company had 26 rigs in operation, but that has since fallen to 18. At the start of the year, the company had 33 active rigs.
“We made the decision to adjust our drilling and completion schedule in the second half of the year to slow down and not chase incremental production at the expense of capital discipline,” Concho’s CEO Tim Leach told analysts on an earnings call. He said the company’s aiming for “a free cash flow inflection in 2020.”
The company reported a net loss of $792 million for the first six months of 2019. As Liam Denning put it in Bloomberg Opinion: “It’s sobering to think that Concho, valued at more than $23 billion in the spring of 2018 and having since absorbed the $7.6 billion purchase of RSP Permian Inc., now sports a market cap of less than $16 billion.”
The reason these results are important is because they may not be one-off problems for individual companies, but are more likely indicative of the problems plaguing the whole sector. “There is little doubt this is a big event for the sector and a brake of this nature will create lasting impact,” Evercore analyst Stephen Richardson wrote in a note, referring to Concho’s poor results.
“How companies still, after all these years we have wailed and gnashed our teeth, manage to over-promise and under-deliver, remains an infuriating mystery,” Paul Sankey wrote in a note for Mizuho Securities USA LLC.
Whiting Petroleum had an even worse week. Its stock melted down on Thursday, falling by 38 percent after reporting a surprise quarterly loss that badly missed estimates. The company announced that it would cut its workforce by a third.
According to the Wall Street Journal and Wood Mackenzie, a basket of 7 shale drillers posted a combined $1.58 billion in negative cash flow in the first quarter, four times worse than the same period a year earlier.
While the results, in many cases, were bad, the declines in share prices were hugely amplified by the announcement of new tariffs on China, which caused a broad selloff not just in the energy sector, but for equities of all types. Here is a sampling of how the share prices of some oil companies fared on Thursday:
- Whiting Petroleum -38 percent
- Concho Resources -22 percent
- Pioneer Natural Resources -7.5 percent
- EOG Resources -5.5 percent
- Devon Energy -6.8 percent
- Continental Resources -7.8 percent
- Royal Dutch Shell -6.1 percent
- Chevron -2 percent
- SM Energy -9.0 percent
But the poor quarterly performances were true before President Trump took to twitter. Even with oil down and stocks perhaps looking cheap, “it’s hard to call it a contrarian opportunity right now,” Matt Maley, chief market strategist at Miller Tabak, told CNBC. “This group has really been dead money most of this year.”
Investors are clearly souring on the sector. As Bloomberg notes, speculative positioning from traders fell to the lowest level since March 2013, a sign of “investor apathy” towards crude oil and energy stocks.
While shale E&Ps languish, the oil majors are not slowing down. Exxon said that its oil production rose by 7 percent, driven by the Permian. In fact, its production from the Permian rose 90 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier. Earnings dropped by 21 percent, however, and the company cited lower prices and poor downstream margins.
But the majors aggressive bet on U.S. shale is a sign of the times. Small and medium drillers are getting hammered and seeing their access to capital close off, which is forcing budget cutbacks and otherwise leading to steep selloffs in their share prices. The majors, on the other hand, are only in the early stages of a multi-year bet on shale. They can stomach losses on individual shale projects for years, scaling up while they earn profits elsewhere.
So, despite the widespread financial losses for the shale sector, it’s not clear that production is set to grind to a halt.
Crude oil prices could sink by as much as $30 a barrel if China decides to buy Iranian crude oil in retaliation to the latest U.S. tariff measures, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“While we retain our $60 a barrel Brent forecast for next year, we admit that a Chinese decision to reinitiate Iran crude purchases could send oil prices into a tailspin,” a BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research report said Friday, warning that prices could sink by as much as $20-30 a barrel in that scenario.
The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has threatened countermeasures after President Donald Trump threatened to slap a 10% tariff on $300 billion dollars of Chinese goods. The decision Thursday floored oil markets and sent crude plunging 8% — the most in four years.
Analysts warn that “oil volatility is set to rise again” as markets wait for a Chinese response to the latest US tariff threat, which could include purchasing Iranian oil.
“This decision would both undermine US foreign policy and cushion the negative terms-of-trade effects on the Chinese economy of rising US tariffs,” the report added.
Iranian oil exports slide
Shipments of Iranian oil fell below 550,000 b/d (barrels per day) in June from about 875,000 b/d in May and about 2.5 million b/d in June 2018, according to data from S&P Global Platts. Roughly half of Iran’s exports were shipped to China in June and July, according to the firm.
But a Chinese decision to purchase Iranian oil in a further defiance of U.S. sanctions could act as a double edged sword, according to other analysts.
“Iran would welcome any opportunity to increase its production whether or not it breaches the terms of the U.S. sanctions, but the strategy there would introduce China to a partner over which it doesn’t have an enormous amount of control,” Edward Bell, Director of Commodities Research at Emirates NBD told CNBC’s “Capital Connection.”
“Don’t forget there are other producers that would also be targeting that trade with China, so for instance you could see Iraq or Saudi Arabia step in and try and discount the volumes that they would be exporting to China as a way to circumvent Iran getting that extra market share,” he added.
Traders fret on crude demand
Crude oil prices slumped further on Monday, as traders focused on a deteriorating demand outlook.
Analysts at BofA Merrill Lynch said the latest round of US tariffs could reduce global oil demand by 250,000-500,000 barrels per day, adding to worries about a demand slowdown that is challenging the fundamentals for crude.
“The kind of deterioration in global trade volumes that we’ve seen this year does mathematically lead into lower demand for crude oil,” Bell added.
“If that carries on through the end of 2019 or perhaps even 2020 as we enter the firm end of the US election cycle when Trump is likely to want to maintain that hard stance on China, then it could be a very difficult barrier for crude to try and break through some of those demand concerns.”