The third quarter of 2018 was a moment in the sun for U.S. exploration and production companies. The 44 major companies we track reported a 35% increase in pre-tax operating income over the previous quarter and seven-fold increase from the year-ago period on rising commodity prices and narrowing differentials in some key regions. Oil-Weighted producers outside the infrastructure-constricted Permian posted generally higher realizations, and a number of Permian-focused E&Ps minimized the impact of takeaway constraints by employing basis hedges, utilizing firm transportation contracts and reducing their operating costs. Diversified producers saw higher quarterly per-unit profits thanks to the tilt of their portfolios toward oil. And as lower Appalachian differentials lifted the realizations of Gas-Weighted producers, portfolio readjustments and the liquids content of production also positively impacted their profitability and cash flow. Today, we analyze third-quarter results by peer group, and discuss the potential impacts of the sudden plunge in oil prices this fall.
Posts from Nick Cacchione
The sun was shining and wind filled the sails of the 44 major U.S. exploration and production (E&P) companies we track in the third quarter of 2018 as they collectively reported a 35% increase in pre-tax operating income over the previous quarter. It’s been an up-and-down year. Increased efficiency and rising output from the transformation to large-scale, manufacturing-style exploitation of premier resource plays moved the E&P sector solidly into the black in early 2018 after three years of losses. But profits stagnated in the second quarter on a decline in revenues as widening differentials, primarily in the Permian Basin, negated the impact of higher NYMEX prices. Today, we explain how producers overcame the headwinds to resume profit growth in the third quarter, but warn that future returns for certain E&Ps could be jeopardized by the sudden plunge in oil prices.
Anyone who’s shopped for a home is well-aware of the relationship between location and valuation. The same holds true for oil and gas producers accumulating a portfolio of real estate underlain by the most promising oil and gas formations. Recently, the most desirable neighborhood has been the Permian Basin, which has seen more than $70 billion in M&A transactions since mid-2016. While the entire U.S. E&P sector has returned to profitability, Permian players have generated the highest production growth, the best margins, and the most substantial profits and cash flows. There’s a catch, though: production growth in the Permian has led to serious takeaway constraints. Today, we discuss how the impact of these constraints is reflected in a company-by-company analysis of quarterly results.
The U.S. exploration and production sector has reaped many benefits from its transformation to large-scale, manufacturing-style exploitation of premier resource plays, generating record oil and gas production while slashing production and reserve replacement costs by 50%. While increased efficiency and rising output have moved the industry solidly into the black after three years of losses, profit growth stalled in the second quarter 2018 despite a $5/bbl increase in oil prices to about $68/bbl. The cause is largely beyond the control of the producers: constraints on getting the increased output to markets. In certain producing regions, most notably the Permian Basin, production growth has far outpaced expansions to the infrastructure required to process and transport it. Today, we explain why these constraints are critical to assessing the outlook for industry profitability and cash flow over at least the next two to four quarters.
U.S. exploration and production companies (E&Ps) are generating such substantial output growth that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates their increase in 2018 liquids production could equal the entire growth in global demand. Remarkably, they’re accomplishing this with half the capital investment of 2014. The driver has been a shift to a manufacturing mode that has transformed the E&P industry as dramatically as Henry Ford’s moving assembly line changed the automobile industry in 1913. Geophysical and technological innovations, such as multi-well pad drilling, have allowed the industry to double output per well bore at half the previous cost. With oil prices and margins rising, you’d think the E&P industry, which historically has invested like “there’s never too much of a good thing,” would be pouring every available dollar into drilling more and more wells. But that isn’t the case. Instead, mid-year 2018 guidance shows that producers have adopted the long-term investment strategies usually associated with integrated oil majors, plotting incremental increases in investment to methodically accelerate production growth to 2020 and beyond.
In the first half of 2018, the U.S. E&P sector continued to reap the benefits of its dramatic evolution from decades of “boom or bust” exploration to large-scale, manufacturing-style exploitation of premier resource plays. Upstream companies halved their break-evens and reserve replacement costs through technological innovation, financial discipline, and ruthless portfolio paring, which allowed them to generate record domestic oil production in 2018 on half the capital outlays expended in 2014. As a result, the 44 E&Ps we track reported $21 billion in pre-tax operating profits in the first half of 2018, up from $6.2 billion in the first six months of 2017, and over $50 billion in operating cash flow, up from $39 billion a year ago. Most notably, these companies are on pace to garner an astonishing $30 billion in free cash flow. Today, we discuss the ongoing effort by leading E&Ps to maintain financial discipline in a period of strong oil and gas prices.
Permian producers led the U.S. exploration and production (E&P) sector’s remarkable recovery from the financial crisis that was spurred by the oil price crash in late 2014. Dramatically lower costs and higher well productivity led to strong margins even at $50/bbl oil and promised bountiful returns should oil prices move higher. It’s no surprise that investors flocked to the stocks of Permian-focused producers, driving equity valuations, as measured by enterprise value per barrel of oil equivalent (boe) of proved reserves, to multiples three or four times the industry average. Recently, however, there have been growing investor concerns that logistical constraints on shipping crude oil and gas out of the region could restrict cash flows, investment budgets and output growth, and on Friday, Baker Hughes reported that the Permian’s rig count was down (albeit by only four, to 476). Since May 15, stock prices of smaller pure-play Permian producers Concho Resources, Diamondback Energy, Parsley Energy, RSP Permian, and Laredo Petroleum have fallen 10-15%. One of the larger Permian producers has bucked the trend, though: Pioneer Natural Resources. Today, we explore the drivers of Pioneer’s current valuation and analyze the factors that could propel future growth.
Until the fall in crude oil prices over the past few days, U.S. oil and gas producers had been basking in the glow of the highest oil prices in years. Not surprisingly, in the first quarter of 2018 the 44 major U.S. exploration and production companies we track reported the highest quarterly profit and cash flow since the 2014-15 oil market crash brought many to the edge of a financial abyss. These producers put themselves into a position to benefit from the commodity price recovery by implementing dramatic strategic shifts and an operational transformation that emphasized operating efficiency, portfolio high-grading and financial discipline. Now, with oil prices softening somewhat, the prospects for continued profitability growth for the E&P sector as a whole are mixed. Today, we do a deep dive into the results and outlook for the companies in the Oil-Weighted, Diversified, and Gas-Weighted peer groups.
With oil prices higher than they’ve been in some time, it’s no surprise that the 44 major U.S. exploration and production companies we track reported — as a group — the highest quarterly profit and cash flow since 2014. Regaining a solid financial footing has been a long, painful struggle for crude oil and natural gas producers, who slipped into a river of red ink after the crude oil price collapse in late 2014 and 2015. After implementing a dramatic strategic and operational transformation, the industry returned to the black in 2017 despite a mid-year oil price dip, generally weak gas prices, and lingering write-downs from massive portfolio shifts. Now, strengthening oil prices and continued operational and financial discipline have lifted our E&Ps well above breakeven and suggest a higher trajectory for the remainder of the year. Today, we dive into first-quarter 2018 financial reporting by leading E&Ps to identify the drivers of a remarkable recovery.
It’s no surprise that the plunge in crude oil prices between mid-2014 and early 2016 was a five-alarm wake-up call for the 44 exploration and production companies we follow. To deal with the trauma of the crude price collapse — and generally soft natural gas prices to boot — the industry undertook a dramatic strategic and operational transformation that enabled it to climb out of a huge hole and return to profitability in 2017. Key factors driving this impressive turnaround included the high-grading of portfolios, intense capital discipline and a heightened focus on operational efficiencies. However, the trajectory of recovery has varied from company to company because of the pace of their portfolio transformations, their geographic focus and, most significantly, the commodity mix of their production. Today, we look at how specific E&Ps within our three peer groups — Oil-Weighted, Diversified, and Gas-Weighted — have been working their way back to black.
The plunge in crude oil prices that started in mid-2014 had a major and lasting impact on the 44 exploration and production companies (E&Ps) we’ve been tracking, triggering a $188 billion swing in net results — from $57 billion in pre-tax operating profits in 2014 to $131 billion in losses in 2015. Defying predictions of widespread bankruptcies, the industry undertook a dramatic strategic and operational transformation that enabled it to emerge from the abyss and return to profitability — albeit just barely — in 2017. Key factors in the industry’s impressive turnaround include the high-grading of portfolios, intense capital discipline and a laser-like focus on operational efficiencies. Today, we dive into the 2017 financial reporting of these companies to identify how these changes have affected income statements and set up the industry for future profitability growth.
Four years ago this month, crude oil was selling for north of $100/bbl and natural gas prices were more than 50% higher than they are now. But while hydrocarbon prices sagged later in 2014 — and through 2015 and early 2016 — the declines didn’t deal a crippling blow to U.S. exploration and production companies. Instead, most of the upstream industry weathered the crisis remarkably well. Amidst that striking recovery, the 10 gas-focused E&Ps we’ve been tracking have engineered the strongest return to profitability. After $40 billion in pre-tax losses in 2015-16, they reported a collective $5.2 billion in pre-tax operating income in 2017, with all 10 producers in the black, as well as a 150% increase in cash flow over 2016, to $11.7 billion. However, gas prices have languished below $3.00/MMBtu since early February 2018 — their lowest level since mid-2016 — which means that the gas producers don’t have the tailwind that higher oil prices have been providing to their oil-focused and diversified competitors. Today, we conclude our blog series on E&Ps’ 2018 profitability outlook and cash flow allocation with a look at companies that focus on natural gas production.
Defying predictions of widespread bankruptcies and credit defaults, the U.S. exploration and production companies (E&Ps) we track returned to profitability in 2017 through a strategic transformation that featured the “high-grading” of portfolios, impressive capital discipline and an intense focus on operational efficiencies. However, the road to recovery has been longer and more challenging for some companies, particularly a few of the E&Ps in our Diversified Peer Group, whose output and reserves are more balanced between oil and gas. Their portfolio realignments have been the biggest among our three peer groups — collectively they have shed $36 billion in assets and 3.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) in proved reserves over the last three years. Today, we continue our review of how rebounding oil prices are affecting E&P cash flow, this time focusing on producers with a rough balance of oil and natural gas assets.
Despite widespread predictions that the oil and gas exploration and production sector would drown in an ocean of red ink after the crude oil price crash that started a little over three years ago, E&P companies finally returned to profitability in 2017. Better yet, with oil prices exceeding $60/bbl, margins are expected to increase in 2018, giving the 44 major E&Ps we track $24.5 billion in incremental cash flow. It’s no surprise that the 17 companies in our Oil-Weighted Peer Group are the prime beneficiaries of the higher crude price, garnering $13.6 billion, or 55%, of the incremental cash flow. Today, we continue our review of how rebounding oil prices are affecting E&P cash flow, this time zeroing in on oil-focused producers.
How a company or industry handles adversity is a valuable test of its mettle. But assessing long-term sustainability requires a second test: handling prosperity. Recently released 2017 results of U.S. exploration and production (E&P) companies confirm that the industry not only defied predictions of widespread bankruptcies and credit defaults after the oil price plunge in late 2014, but learned to generate profits in a $50/bbl crude oil price world. And the E&Ps’ 2018 guidance, issued as oil prices appear to have stabilized above $60/bbl, indicate that the industry is sticking with the new financial discipline that drove its recovery, a remarkable departure from the financial profligacy in the emergence from down cycles over the previous three decades. Today, we examine how 44 large U.S. E&Ps are responding to a rebounding oil sector.