Next Few Weeks Reveal Extent of Calamity in Oil & Gas Industry

Get ready for some bad news and red ink.

By Nick Cunningham,

With the bulk of quarterly earnings reports in the energy industry yet to be announced, there are already $6.5 billion worth of asset write-downs, according to Bloomberg. And that could be just the tip of the iceberg. A Barclays’ assessment last week predicted $20 billion in impairment charges from just six companies.

Write-downs occur when the expected future cash flow from an asset falls sufficiently that a company has to report that the asset has lost some of its value. With oil prices half of what they were from mid-2014, oil and gas fields around the world are no longer worth what they used to be. Some oil fields that were previously expected to produce in the future may no longer even make sense to develop given current oil prices. As a result, investors should expect billions of dollars in further write-downs in the coming weeks.

Persistently low oil prices are putting a lot of pressure on the dividend policies of oil and gas producers. The Wall Street Journal reported that four oil majors – BP, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron – have a combined cash flow deficit of $20 billion for the first half of 2015. In other words, these big players are not earning enough revenues to cover expenditures, share buybacks, and dividends. With such a large cash flow deficit, something has to give. All four are focusing on slashing spending in order to preserve their promises to shareholders, with dividends especially seen as untouchable.

However, it could take several years to bring spending into alignment so that cash flows breakeven. The problem for these companies is that they were also cash flow negative even when oil prices were above $100 per barrel in the years preceding the bust in 2014.

Over the past decade, costs at all of these companies have all been heading in the wrong direction – higher spending on new projects, dividend payouts, and share buybacks have all driven costs dramatically higher. The WSJ notes that Chevron’s dividend bill doubled since 2004, for example, and its capital spending increased by six fold. Higher oil prices over that timeframe allowed for this cost inflation, but the oil majors were still cash flow negative. Now that oil prices have crashed, the deficit has ballooned, forcing painful cuts to payroll and spending for new oil projects.

While erasing the cash flow deficit will make sense in the short-run, the oil majors have a tricky balancing act on where to cut. Cutting spending on finding and developing new sources of oil will lead to lower production in the years ahead. Preserving dividends only to sacrifice oil production could keep share prices aloft for now, but will raise red flags for the companies over the long run.

Meanwhile, smaller companies don’t have the luxury of time that the oil majors have, particularly those in the oilfield service sector where demand for rigs has all but disappeared.

The latest casualty of low oil prices was the dividend for Noble Corp., an offshore driller, which cut its dividend by more than half from 37.5 cents per share to just 15 cents per share. “We believe the revised dividend appropriately addresses the prevailing industry uncertainty,” said Noble’s CEO David Williams. “The decision to adjust the dividend and preserve liquidity in an uncertain market is not reflective of our current financial performance,” he added.

Offshore rig suppliers have been hit even harder than E&P companies. The lack of drilling activity has gutted earnings across the entire sector. Some of Noble’s competitors, such as Transocean and Seadrill, have also moved to cut their dividends over the past year. Even if oil prices rebound – and there are few signs that an increase is imminent – there will be a lag between a price rise and an actual uptick in drilling. That suggests that the offshore oilfield service sector will continue to remain in the doldrums. The current oil price slump “is shaping up to be the most severe downturn in the industry for decades,” Schlumberger CEO Paal Kibsgaard said last week.

A few companies may not survive today’s depressed market, but a lot more details will be revealed in the coming weeks as earnings season unfolds.

For US oil, 2016 is going to be brutal, according to Kibsgaard. But then, there are dreams of “a potential spike in oil prices.” Read… The Dismal Thing Schlumberger Just Said about US Oil

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  6 comments for “Next Few Weeks Reveal Extent of Calamity in Oil & Gas Industry

  1. …and it only going to get worse.

  2. Kreditanstalt says:

    Let’s make it perfectly clear: THE MINUTE some major entity somewhere – be it a leveraged fund, a company, a bank or financial entity, a government, or whatever – goes openly, incontrovertibly and undeniably bankrupt for all to see, the game of extend-and-pretend is OVER.

    Dividend cuts or suspensions will have the same effect, for they are tacit admissions that the payor is insolvent. [See Nixon, 1971!]

    Governments dare not – will not – permit this to happen. Asset “values” must be propped up and increased constantly.

    Thus the zombie misallocations of capital, brought on by previous iterations of money-printing, grow and grow and grow.

    I doubt we will be permitted to witness any distress in the energy sector whatsoever. Confidence MUST be maintained and vegetative players in this sector must, like all other cash flow-less entities, be kept in a sitting position with their eyes propped open so they look alive.

    The governments are desperately, desperately praying for recovery, organic price inflation and a return to real GROWTH. But it won’t be coming. Sooner or later, extend-and-pretend will collapse…

    • night-train says:

      Kredit: I don’t think it will be possible to hide the belly-ups that are going to happen in the O&G industry. Rigs not standing on the horizon are conspicuous by their absence. Rigs stacked are obvious to passersby. Busted boom towns are also hard to hide. Empty commercial real estate in energy centers like Houston and Calgary are hard to hide. On the production side in the US, checks and balances are in place that make it difficult to significantly under- or over-report. Many eyeballs watching since severance taxes and royalties must be paid on production.

      While the “Weekend at Bernie’s” scenario may be possible in some industries, and no doubt desirable as you say, it is much more difficult to pull off long term in O&G and related industries. History and personal experience lead me to believe it is going to get downright ugly in the energy sector.

  3. “The Wall Street Journal reported that four oil majors – BP, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron – have a combined cash flow deficit of $20 billion for the first half of 2015. In other words, these big players are not earning enough revenues to cover expenditures, share buybacks, and divi … “

    These big players’ CUSTOMERS are not earning enough revenues BY WAY OF USING THE BIG PLAYERS’ PRODUCTS … to cover the big players’ expenditures including servicing- and retiring the big players” billion$ in loans.

    Don’t forget the customers’ loans, they also have to be repaid and serviced as well. Maybe the guy behind the tree can service all the loans … then again, maybe not.

    The entire petroleum fuel industry is insolvent. Period. Low prices are a symptom, not a cause. When they become a cause, WATCH OUT.

  4. hoop says:

    time for the big four to lobby congress to kill ethanol subsidies or kill coal industry etc. stop subsidizing solar etc.

  5. ERG says:

    Via the same logic described above, a slowdown in any industrial sector is impossible to hide. It’s banking and finance that can play Hide-The-Ball. Up to a point…

    The size of the crash is usually proportional to the degree to which The Boom was mal-invested. That means this one will be huge!

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