Drilling for Value, Pt. 4: The Economics of Petroleum Exploration and Production

Note: this post has been heavily redacted since its original data of publication in order to expand on the fundamentals of petroleum geology and the upstream business elsewhere. 

Summary

  • Economic models use assumptions which simplify the effects of accounting, taxes, regulations, and other minutiae in order to glean insights into the drivers of market behavior and value.
  • The effects depletion and commoditization, relatively low cash costs, and often prohibitive resource replacement costs drive the endemically cyclical petroleum investment cycle
  • Petroleum economics are strongly levered to petroleum prices and other extrinsic factors.
  • Maintaining a sufficiently low cost of supply is the primary operational lever capable of creating long-term investment value in the upstream business.
  • Timings of costs are a key consideration for evaluating investment decisions — known discount rates simplify decisions regarding timing preferences.

Figure 1: Pecos, Texas Oilfield
February-22-Hogue-1937-Pecos-AOGHS
Source: Alexander Hogue. Pecos, Texas Oilfield. 1937

The Economics of the Upstream Petroleum Industry
The economics of the petroleum extraction is overwhelmingly colored by the economic factors of depletion and commoditization. Due to the fact that production depletes limited natural resources, the upstream industry must constantly explore for and develop additional resources. Given that the capital investments required to replace depleted resources are usually quite significant in relation to operating costs, resource replacement is a primary driver of costs. Commoditization describes the lack of differentiation in upstream business models and their end products. As a direct result of commoditization, the value propositions of upstream businesses are strongly levered to external market conditions (i.e., namely prices). Taken together, high replacement costs and supplier susceptibility to external market conditions have resulted in endemically cyclical petroleum supplies and prices.

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Drilling for Value, Pt. 1: The Fundamentals of the Petroleum Industry

Summary:

  • This series is geared toward value-oriented investors who have an interest in valuing upstream oil and gas assets.
  • This article touches on the economic fundamentals and valuation concepts for nearly every other line of business within the oil and gas value stream.
  • The economics of different types of oil and gas assets vary significantly: businesses which are more involved with the extraction of oil and gas from reservoirs tend to be more vulnerable to external market forces.
  • Valuation of upstream assets and companies can be very difficult to learn but also very repeatable once the initial learning curve has been overcome.

Figure 1: Drilling For Oil by Mead Schaffer as Appeared on The Saturday Evening Post, 9 November 1946
mead-schaeffer-drilling-for-oil-november-9-1946_a-g-8290694-8880742
Source: Art.com

Large, integrated oil and gas companies have become a cornerstone for investors seeking stable and growing dividends. Supermajors Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) are included in S&P’s Dividend Aristocrats, an index comprised of stocks from the S&P 500 which have been increasing dividends for the last 25 years or more. Yield-oriented investors typically value companies according to their dividends — their yields, abilities to grow, and resiliencies to adverse market conditions. This series of articles is not geared to these people.

Nor is this series intended to appeal to appeal to macro investors. Forecasting macroeconomic conditions is an arcane art of which I am not adept. While it is important to understand the fundamental forces at play which can make or break a business endeavor, I will spend minimal effort discussing petro-politics, the petro-dollar, or forecasting supply and demand. Sorry, OPEC.

This series of articles is meant to appeal to value-oriented investors – those who desire to invest according to perceived discrepancies between value and price and those who desire to locate consistent value creators and/or destroyers within an industry. Valuation of upstream oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) assets will be the primary focus, but I will also cover midstream and downstream assets. Discussions regarding the valuation of other corporate and financial assets and liabilities will chiefly examine decisions regarding how they articulate within the valuation of entire companies.

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Dropping It Like It’s (Not That) Hot: VLO’s MLP strategy in focus

Summary

  • Valero Energy Corporation’s (VLO) conservative valuation reflects a history of and expectations for cyclical margin pressures, secular regulatory pressures, and a management regime which does not create excess long-term shareholder value.
  • Management has singled out asset drop-downs to company sponsored MLP, Valero Energy Partners (VLP), as the most promising avenue for unlocking shareholder value.
  • Although the value gap between VLO and VLP is real, unless management radically accelerates VLP’s financing trajectory, the drop-down strategy will not significantly drive excess returns for VLO shareholders.
  • Disproportionate focus on arbitraging market value dislocations could detract from more enduring drivers of long-term value such as distressed asset acquisitions and continuous rationalization of core refining and logistics assets.
  • VLO’s core refining assets are among the best positioned and most complex in the world. If competently utilized, these assets are worth significantly more than the company’s market capitalization.

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Protected: Shareholders Reject Yongye’s Buyout Offer: boon or boondoggle?

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The Ten Pillars of Quality Investing or: How I Learned to Stop Dumpster Diving for Undervalued Stocks

After recently having completed testing on a general method of discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis for estimating a broad basket of stocks’ intrinsic values, I became more concerned with “quality”. While DCFs remain the foundation of any sound business valuation, I discovered they are highly sensitive to the assumptions and data used. Slightly changing a minute detail can drastically influence the result causing an attractive investment to all of sudden seem not so attractive and vice versa. While relative valuation methods were a natural alternative (Wall Street’s preferred choice, in fact) to circumvent the sensitivity issues, I was inclined to believe that an ability to define robust ‘quality factors’ would complement the ideological purity of the discounted cash flow approach much better. The purpose of this discussion is to demonstrate that a good company can indeed also be a good investment.
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