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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On Market Efficiency: Market Fair Value Estimates and the True Cost of Capital

In the world of investing and corporate finance, the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) casts a long shadow. EMH states that a sufficiently liquid market reflects the “correct” price at all times. Since efficient markets factor in all known and relevant information at all times, it is therefore practically futile to attempt to predict the future direction of market prices. In other words, a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal has about the same chance as beating the market averages as any professional investor. At one extreme, the founder of Vanguard Investments Jack Bogle revolutionized the mutual fund industry around cheap indexing, which he posited as the solution to efficient markets. At the other, Warren Buffet’s seminal essay, The Super-Investors of Graham and Doddes-ville, defends the notion that right-headed investors can carve out a significant edge [1. The Super-Investors of Graham and Doddes-ville]. In the middle, you have the greater majority of investors who will likely cede that both extremes contain some amount of the truth. Even 2013 Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who is credited with developing EMH, has stated that “[asset prices] are typically right and wrong about half the time” [2. The Super-Brainy Quote]. Being able to determine when they are right and when they are wrong is the holy grail to traders and investors alike. In order to investigate how correctly assets prices reflect all known information, we must develop an intuition and methodology for estimating the fair value of an asset. As we will discuss, just because a methodology is descriptive does not mean it is predictive (i.e., correlation does not imply causation).
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