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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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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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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