On Our E&Ps and The Oil Market
I'm going to delay any detailed public discussions of our energy companies for the time being. Frankly, I'm not done buying yet. If you'd like to discuss any of our companies privately, however, please call or email and I'm happy to do so.
Here is what I am prepared to discuss at the moment:
We currently own four energy companies in Tarpon. Our largest new position is now a microcap oil and gas company. Currently, just under a third of Tarpon is invested in oil and gas companies. That is historically quite high for us, and it may also increase. And what each of these companies have in common is the following:
1. Significant valuation support based on asset value;
2. The investments to acquire and build those assets are substantially complete;
3. Cash costs per barrel are significantly less than the highest cost U.S. producers; and
4. Their management teams have survived previous price crashes. It is nobody's first rodeo.
I'd also note that the dominant issue in my mind when evaluating oil and gas companies right now is not barrels of reserves in the ground, but how financially efficient a company has been - or could be - compared to its competitors.
We do not currently own any of the pure-play tight oil companies which, if you believe the latest media narrative, OPEC is trying to put out of business. To be clear, we could buy shares in some under the right circumstances - we just don't own any currently. From an analytical perspective, a tight oil company is a distinctly different model than a conventional oil producer. It's somewhere between a mining company and a fast food restaurant that is trying to open as many stores as it can as quickly as possible. So tight oil firms can take a bit longer to get comfortable with.
What we do own in Tarpon are babies that have been thrown out with the bathwater. Three of our four energy companies are "special situations" which, as defined by Ben Graham in 1946, are stocks "in which a particular development is counted upon to yield a satisfactory profit in the security even though the general market does not advance." Our fourth energy company is a more traditional Tarpon investment. It's well-managed with unique and valuable assets and has become undeservedly and absurdly cheap. I am also looking at others that fit the same criteria.
The companies we own are also U.S.-based. Many of the biggest risks in investing in oil companies can be above the ground - specifically related to foreign governments, currencies, military actions and/or local economies. I'll defer to Retz on that analysis in the Frigate Folio. In Tarpon we are definitely assuming risks in buying right now, from cost- and oil price risk to flow-rate risk, but the point is I know we are being more than well-compensated for it at the moment. In short, it will be worth it.
The Cast of Characters
I am of the opinion that there is no more classically American business than an oil company. Yep, it's even more classically American than Silicon Valley start-ups.
Oil companies are founded by grizzled cowboys with names like Jim Bob Moffett who push all their chips into the middle of the table, betting entirely on their own wits and engineering prowess in a quest to help power the world. And, okay, to make boatloads of money.
But building an oil company is about as pure of a test of capital allocation skill as you can find. Marketing doesn't matter. PR doesn't matter. Engineering matters. Grit matters. Cigars and whiskey matter. Plus, roughnecks wear T-shirts that say things like:
Vegan: a Latin word that means 'can't hunt'
It was American engineering at American companies - predecessors of Chevron and ExxonMobil - that first discovered oil in Saudi Arabia and which were instrumental in the eventual discovery of the massive Ghawar oil field there, which in 1957 the U.S. government called "the greatest commercial prize in history."
Top that, Zuckerberg.
It was oil money that modernized the Florida Keys, too. Henry Flagler, the silent partner of John D. Rockefeller, spent $1.3 billion (in today's dollars) of his own money to build "the eighth wonder of the world" - the Overseas Railroad - which opened up the Keys to the rest of the country. Not only was Flagler the true brains behind Standard Oil, which at one time controlled 90% of the U.S. oil industry, but as a second act, he through sheer force of will turned Florida from subtropical backcountry into tourist mecca and agricultural powerhouse. In the history of capitalism, few entrepreneurs have ever accomplished as much Henry Flagler.
So go on and send that rocket to Mars, Elon Musk. Just know that to truly measure up, you'll have to spend your seventies building a 128-mile long railroad over swamp and ocean, across a string of tiny islands while battling hurricanes, a vicious press, thermonuclear levels of heat and mosquitoes the size of small children.
Flag-ler! Flag-ler! Do you believe in miracles?!?
The Reality of O&G Investing
The reality is that as an investor in oil and gas companies, you can't afford to assess them with anything less than brutal honesty. Capital disappears at an alarming rate. Wildcatting can be indistinguishable from hubris. Some projects are too risky and a lot of holes turn out dry. Banks can be too willing to lend these companies money. Key decisions have to be made with incomplete data. And many management teams are overly optimistic, as you might expect from the kind of people who get excited about drilling holes in the ground.
So there is quite a bit of uncertainty in the exploration and production business. Fortunately, we have tools we can rely on. The first is math, and the second is microeconomics.
With regards to the math, here is a dead-simple way to determine the proper theoretical price of a barrel of oil:
Price of Barrel of Oil = Marginal Cost of Production + Risk Premium
And here is one of the three useful things I learned in economics class:
"A non-perishable commodity will not stay priced below the marginal production cost of the highest-cost unit of production which satisfies total demand."
18 years of school for that. And now my six-year-old can find it on Wikipedia in 0.122 seconds.
In any case, let's get into why that's relevant.
By the end of 2014, the annual worldwide daily demand for oil had increased by about 1.0 million barrels. We also know that global supply for the year was up 1.6 million more barrels per day than last year. And because global oil production for the year - exclusive of the U.S. - was flat compared to last year, we know that oversupply came from U.S. tight oil.
The first thing that may have jumped out at you there is that it is only about 600,000 "extra" barrels of oil per day that are hitting the market right now. That's it. It represents less than 0.7% of total global daily oil production. By way of contrast, Dow Chemical, the largest U.S. chemical company, consumes the energy equivalent of 1 million barrels of oil every day.
Now if you're surprised that such a trivial amount of oversupply triggered a more than 50% drop in the price over the last six months, well, welcome to today's oil market. But what should also be clear is that there is no global oil glut. The market is just trying to clear a little excess supply.
Back to the math. Global demand for oil grows slowly but consistently every year, due to just population and productivity growth around the world. And a year from now, the world will need about another 1.5 million barrels per day of oil. So the question becomes - where will that oil come from?
The Supply To Meet Demand
As it turns out, conventional sources of oil alone won't get us there. Production from typical oil fields declines at about 5% a year on average, meaning a significant amount of new oil that hits the market every year just replaces current flows. For production increases in 2015 to be incrementally meaningful in the global market, supply has to increase beyond that level that will replenish current flows, too. So the world needs oil from places that already have the ability, knowledge and infrastructure to be able to produce high volumes quickly. And that list is pretty short.
Analysts estimate that offshore Brazil might be able to pump another 200k barrels per day this year. We could see similar growth from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, too. Iraq could in theory reach similar levels, too - providing civil war doesn't break out. Production from Libya unexpectedly spiked last fall, contributing to the drop in global prices, but that quickly fell back to earth by December, so it's hardly dependable supply.
Nigeria seems too busy containing Boko Haram and harassing me about claiming prizes from the prince to meaningfully boost output in 2015. I won't pretend to know what Putin is thinking, but Russia seems more likely to shut-in their wells to goose the price of oil than pump more right now. And while it's possible Iran could return to the production market this year, the odds seem slim - and regardless, that wouldn't happen until after negotiations over its nuclear program conclude in June in any case.
So there is only about 600k of incremental supply that will be brought online from conventional sources this year - and, mind you, that numbers assumes stability in Iraq. Otherwise, as you look around the globe, there aren't any other meaningful sources of conventional production supply can meet expected demand by the end of 2015.
That means of the approximately 1.5 million barrels per day the world will need a year from now, we can get less than halfway there using conventional sources. Where will the other barrels come from? It's gotta be unconventional sources - and the only place in the world with the ability to bridge that gap is U.S. tight oil.
Back-of-the-envelope math, then, tells us that if all growth in U.S. shale oil production ceased this year, then the global economy will face a material shortage of oil. However, it's much more likely that growth in unconventionals will slow down instead of disappear. Because growth in U.S. shale oil supply last year was turbocharged, throttling back on daily production will mean that well-managed tight oil companies will still earn acceptable internal returns even at considerable discounts from last year's price. So rumors of the death of U.S. tight oil production seem greatly exaggerated.
North Dakota: Your Face May Freeze, But You'll Get Rich
Here's the other thing to realize about U.S. shale oil:
Production decreases naturally, because shale oil wells have a surprisingly brief window of productivity. The industry calls this "asymptotic decline," an old Navajo term that means "falls off a cliff." The amount of oil produced by a shale well declines precipitously every year. For instance, after two years of production, the average U.S. shale well in North Dakota will have pumped out half of its reserves.
Those decline rates are important because unconventional wells in Texas and North Dakota accounted for nearly half of all U.S. crude oil production last year - about 4 million barrels per day. The Bakken play in North Dakota alone produced 1 million barrels of oil per day in 2014, which was a tripling of production over the previous three years. So to put that in context - that 600,000 barrel per day global surplus mentioned earlier would disappear tomorrow if production from the Bakken was reduced by 40%.
What is also particularly relevant about the Bakken is that in 2014, the number of wells greater than two years old overtook the number of younger wells. And what that means is that due to those decline rates, a slowdown in production growth in the Bakken was already in motion before the price of oil collapsed. This recent price crash will only amplify that reduction even more, as Bakken drillers reduce spending on new wells (and the old ones begin to peter out).
Given the expected worldwide demand for oil in 2015, then, and recent production trends in North Dakota, a slowing in the rate at which new wells are brought online in just the Bakken - never mind the rigs being idled in Texas and other shale plays - could have an disproportionate impact on the global price of oil - in the other direction, this time.
The oil market is currently schizophrenic on this point. It's gotta be one or the other. Either low prices will quash U.S. unconventionals, the world will be short of oil by the end of the year, and prices will rise again...or growth in U.S. unconventionals will slow, in which case oil prices will still have to be high enough to make that production economically worthwhile. But it cannot be both. And Tarpon wins because oil prices are going back up either way.
So small increases or decreases in production from unconventional U.S. oil can have an outsized impact on global prices. Even though decline rates in tight oil wells can make the sustaining of production growth more challenging, U.S. unconventionals will still play a very important role in meeting global oil demand.
And contrary to breathless media reports, the market is not out to kill off all U.S. shale oil producers. It can't afford to. It just needs growth in U.S. tight oil to slow down from recent sky-high levels, and that is already happening.
I also find it intriguing that in all the panic of late, the market seems to have completely forgotten that as recently as the first quarter of 2014, the consensus among the super major producers was that $100 oil wasn't going to be high enough to incentivize new supply projects in many regions. Hunh.
Tying It All Together
Finally, if the only place in the world that can meet the last barrel's worth of demand this year are unconventional suppliers in the U.S., then the marginal cost of production in the industry will effectively remain unchanged. And when it comes to triangulating on that marginal cost, first, take all estimates published by people who completely failed to see the current price collapse coming, or who are trying to sell us something, with a big old grain of salt. Looking at you, Wall Street.
Instead, let's look to the group that will be penalized the most severely if they are wrong about marginal costs - the operators. And what you'll find after surveying a number of the most experienced companies (and agencies) is that the consensus estimate of the marginal production cost for oil is between $80 and $90 per barrel. I leave it to you to add whatever premium you see fit to reflect geopolitical risk in the Middle East. The market is currently pricing in nothing.
It's all a bit nutty, no?
The most intriguing question to me about the oil market right now is not, "What's going to happen to the price of oil next week?"
It is, "Will the recent crash in oil prices make U.S. tight oil producers hit the brakes on production a little too hard?"
And the second most intriguing question is, "If production outside the U.S. was flat for the past two years - when oil was at $100 - given this crash in prices, how many other producers around the world just hit the brakes on their production, too?"
Oh, boy. Keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times, people.
The Long Long-Term
Lastly, let's not forget that we are still early in the globalization of energy demand. The world's appetite for energy will be staggering in the coming years. Oil use in the developed world averages about 14 barrels per person per year. In the developing world, use is approximately 3 barrels per person per year. What do you suppose will happen when billions of people currently consuming 3 barrels per day start consuming oil at even just 6 barrels per day?
Also, for the record, I am not at all opposed to investing in renewable energy companies in Tarpon, as opposed to focusing on just oil and gas. But, in short, I haven't found any yet that meet my criteria as an investment.
Other interesting data points to consider about the long-term price of oil:
1. In early 2014, historically reasonable industry analysts had rationally forecasted that oil prices would reach $150 per barrel by 2020 based on nothing more than improving global growth.
2. Of ExxonMobil's potential future project portfolio, 44% assumes a market price of at least $75 per barrel of oil, and 29% assumes at least $95 per barrel.
3. Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world, with proven reserves of 260 billion barrels of oil, is nonetheless in the process of investing $100 billion to further increase their oil and gas reserves. Don't think for a second they're investing that kind of money because they think they're selling it at $50 a barrel.
4. On average, OPEC countries need oil at $90 per barrel to balance their budgets.
5. GM now sells more cars every year in China than the U.S. Total sales of automobiles in China could reach 30 million a year by 2020. In the interim, 20 million people a year will continue to move from rural towns to cities, looking for work. And if China consumed oil at the same rate as the U.S., by 2030 China will be using more oil per year than current total annual global production.
Oil prices are unsustainably low. The market will fix this, but those same market forces include a disproportionately large number of speculators, so it will take a little time. U.S. oil output will also continue to rise incrementally in 2015, as it will take time for management decisions driven by the recent decline in price to affect supply. But cuts are on the way, and without unconventional production from the U.S., the world will soon be unable to meet global demand. So oil prices are going higher again. It's just a question of how soon.
I intend to take full advantage of the current panic. It may be choppy in Tarpon for a little while longer, but hang in there. It will be worth it.