On Tuesday the market got yet another reminder of just how painful the “current commodity price environment” has been for producers when Chesapeake eliminated its common dividend in order to conserve cash.
After noting the plunge in Chesapeake’s shares (to a 12-year low) we subsequently outlined why the US shale “revolution” is now running out of lifelines as hedges roll off and as the next round of credit line assessments looms in October.
A persistent theme here – as regular readers are no doubt aware – has been the extent to which an ultra-accommodative Fed has contributed to a deflationary supply glut by ensuring that beleaguered producers retain access to capital markets. In short, cash-strapped companies who would have otherwise gone out of business have been able to stay afloat thanks to the fact that Fed policy has herded investors into risk assets.
In a ZIRP world, there’s plenty of demand for new HY issuance and ill-fated secondaries, which means the digging, drilling, and pumping gets to continue indefinitely in what may end up being one of the most dramatic instances of malinvestment the market has ever seen.
Those who contend that the downturn simply cannot last much longer – that the supply/demand imbalance will soon even out, that the market will clear sooner rather than later, and that even if the weaker hands are shaken out, the pain for the majors will be relatively short-lived – are perhaps ignoring the underlying narrative that helps to explain why the situation looks like it does. At heart, this is a struggle between the Fed’s ZIRP and the Saudis, who appear set to outlast the easy money that’s kept US producers alive.
Against that backdrop, and amid Wednesday’s crude carnage, we turn to Morgan Stanley for more on why the current downturn will be “worse than 1986.”
From Morgan Stanley
Worse than 1986? Really?
We have been expecting the current downturn to be as severe as the one in 1986 – the worst for at least 45 years – but not worse than that. Still, if oil prices follow the path suggested by the forward curve, our thesis may yet prove too optimistic.
Our constructive stance on the majors is based on four factors: 1) supply – we expected production growth to moderate following large capex cuts and the sharp decline in the rig count; 2) demand – we anticipated that the fall in price would boost oil products demand; 3) cost and capex – we foresaw both falling sharply, similar to the industry’s response in 1986; and 4) valuation – relative DY and P/BV indicated 35-year lows.
So far this year, we can put a tick against three of them [but] our expectation on supply has not materialised: US tight oil production growth has started to roll over, but this has been more than offset by OPEC, which has added ~1.5 mb/d since February.
On current trajectory, this downturn could become worse than 1986: An additional +1.5 mb/d is roughly one year of oil demand growth. If sustained, this could delay the rebalancing of oil markets by a year as well. The forward curve has started to price this in: as the chart shows, the forward curve currently points towards a recovery in prices that is far worse than in 1986. This means the industrial downturn could also be worse. In that case, there would be little in analysable history that could be a guide to this cycle.
[There are] strong similarities between the current oil price downturn and the one that occurred in 1985/86. The trajectory of oil prices is similar on both occasions. There were also common reasons for the collapse.
A high and stable oil price in the preceding four years stimulated technological innovation and led to a high level of investment. This resulted in strong production growth outside OPEC, exceeding the rate of global demand growth. When it became clear that OPEC would no longer rein in production to balance the market (as it did during both the Nov 1985 and Nov 2014 OPEC meetings) the price collapsed.
And although MS notes that similar to 1986, costs and capex are likely to come in sharply while demand growth should materialize, the supply side of the equation is not cooperating thanks to increased output from OPEC.
Due to the sharp slowdown in drilling activity and the high decline rate of tight oil wells, we expected production in the US to flatline and start declining in 2H. This seems to be happening: according to the US Department of Energy, tight oil production in June was 94 kb/d below the April level, and it forecasts further falls of 90 kb/d in both July and August.
Now that capex is falling, we anticipated non-US production to be flat at best. Still, this has not yet been the case. At the time of our ‘Looking Beyond the Nadir’ report in February, OPEC production stood at ~30.2 mb/d. This increased substantially to 31.3 mb/d in May and 31.7 mb/d in June, i.e. OPEC has added 1.5 mb/d to global supply in the last four months alone.
Our commodity analyst Adam Longson argues that the oil market is currently ~800,000 b/d oversupplied. This suggests that the current oversupply in the oil market is fully due to OPEC’s production increase since February alone.
We anticipated that OPEC would not cut, but we didn’t foresee such a sharp increase. In our view, this is the main reason why the rebalancing of oil markets had not yet gained momentum.
If oil prices follow the path suggested by the forward curve, and essentially remain rangebound around levels seen in the last 2-3 months, this downturn would be more severe than that in 1986. As there was no sharp downturn in the ~15 years before that, the current downturn could be the worst of the last 45+ years.
If this were to be the case, there would be nothing in our experience that would be a guide to the next phases of this cycle, especially over the relatively near term. In fact, there may be nothing in analysable history.
Needless to say, this does not bode well for everyone who has unwittingly thrown good money after bad on the assumption that the Saudis will cut production and trigger a rebound in crude.
In addition to the immense pressure from persistently low prices, US producers also face a Fed rate hike cycle and thus the beginning of the end for easy money.
Of course, the more expensive it is to fund money-losing producers, the less willing investors will be to perpetuate this delay-and-pray scheme, which brings us right back to what we’ve been saying for months: the expiration date for heavily indebted US drillers is fast approaching, and if Morgan Stanley thinks the oil downturn has no parallel in “analysable history,” wait until they see the carnage that will unfold in HY credit when a few high profile defaults in the oil patch send the retail crowd running for the junk bond ETF exits.