Swing Oil Production And The Role Of Credit: A Synthesis Of Best-In-Class Research Views

Hilary Till
Premia Research LLC; Global Commodities Applied Research Digest; J.P. Morgan Center for Commodities, University of Colorado Denver Business School; EDHEC-Risk Institute

June 13, 2016


In order to understand swing production and the role of credit, this working paper will briefly cover the following five topics:

(1) The paper begins with the classic definition of a swing producer and notes that North American shale producers would not normally fit this strict definition.

(2) Next the article argues that advances in well-production estimation techniques naturally led to an explosion of creative financing solutions for investing in shale. As a result, the appetite of credit markets for taking on shale-production risk is now the key driver of the outlook for North American oil production.

(3) The paper then proposes that we might be able to refer to shale producers as swing producers as long as we loosen the definition of swing producer to be one in which there are fairly uniform production decisions that take place over a 6-month to 12-month timeframe. And importantly, the outlook for this year’s U.S. oil production declines is likely key to whether global oil markets rebalance or not.

(4) Next the article notes that while our short-term focus is properly on the credit cycle, at some point it may be that geological constraints will come back into play and the baton would thereby pass back to the Middle East Gulf oil producers as the undisputed swing producers.

(5) Because the timing of the recovery of oil prices is so uncertain, the paper concludes that an investor should only express a bullish view on oil prices within the context of a balanced asset allocation.

Swing Oil Production And The Role Of Credit: A Synthesis Of Best-In-Class Research Views – Introduction

Strict Definition of Swing Producer

Historically, Gulf Producers Fit the Strict Definition of Swing Producer

We usually think of a swing producer as one that “has a large market share, spare capacity, and very low production costs, and … is capable of acting strategically … to raise and lower production to affect the price, as described by Coy (2015). And historically, Gulf producers fit this definition. At least in the past, Saudi Arabia has been able to change production up or down by 1 million barrels per day within a month. This is illustrated in Figure 1 on the next page.

Oil Production

“Spare capacity refers to production capacity less actual production; it quantifies the possible increase in supply in the short-term,” explained Khan (2008). According to the EIA (2014), “Saudi Arabia historically has had the greatest spare capacity. Saudi Arabia has usually kept more than 1.5 – 2 million barrels per day of spare capacity on hand for market management.” OPEC surplus crude oil production capacity is illustrated in Figure 2. Friedman (2016) notes that “Saudi Arabia accounts for about two-thirds of the spare capacity” in OPEC.

Oil Production

But it appears that for the time being OPEC Gulf producers have shaken off their traditional role of balancing the oil market. As described in Till (2015b), the Gulf oil producers had (until 2014) acted as the central banker of the oil market and had essentially provided a free put to the marketplace in preventing a free fall in oil prices, even in the face of new oil production, particularly from the United States. Arguably, one might compare the current price environment to 1986 when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers apparently decided upon prioritizing market share, according to Gately (1986).

Light Tight Oil Producers Do Not Fit the Strict Definition of Swing Producer

One would not normally include Light Tight Oil (LTO) producers in the swing producer category. The reason for this statement is because “U.S. production cannot be controlled by governments. It’s the result of a competitive market with hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of investors making as many decisions,” as explained in Citi Research (2016) and as illustrated in Figure 3.

Oil Production

New Technology: New Financing Solutions

Technological Advances

One noteworthy aspect of LTO producers has been how tightly their success has been bound up in capital-market innovations (or perhaps, more accurately, adaptions.) First of all, “even though hydraulic fracturing has been in use for more than six decades,” quoting EIA (2016a), it took further technological advances in both horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to lead to the significant increase in oil production in the U.S. that we have witnessed over the last 5 years. As further explained in Barclays Equity Research (2016), “hydraulic fracturing … has been around since the late 1940s, early 1950s, and horizontal wells … really came into their prime in the late 1970s, early 1980s. [We have taken these] … two old technologies … and [combined] them … in a novel way, [so] we now have a tool that engineers can use to extract … large volumes of hydrocarbons that exist in these unconventional reservoirs.”

Now, with traditional projects, very “large upfront commitments” are required; in contrast, “the risk profile” is quite different with Light Tight Oil projects, according to Ashraf and Satapathy (2013). In fact, the authors noted: investments can be made at “a few wells at a time.”

Other factors which make LTO projects much more “finance friendly” than traditional projects include (a) the reduction in “country risk” since “shale production has been concentrated in the United States,” and (b) the “production profile” of shale projects, which have “strong initial production levels, but decline very rapidly, so … [one] could say they pay out early,” as explained by Anderson (2016). Continued Anderson (2016): “[F]rom a financing perspective, the great bulk of the positive cash flows occurs early in each project’s life. This is preferred from a general risk and discounting perspective, but also figures very importantly … [in] hedging efforts, as the oil [derivatives] market … offers liquidity only out about 2-3 years or so. So there’s a better match between forward market liquidity and the shale production profile vs. the conventional production profile.”

Customizable Financing Solutions

Thanks to advances in seismic imaging and geophysical modeling, reservoir engineers can now estimate the quantity of oil or gas that is potentially recoverable from a reserve or well, along with the discovery’s initial production and decline rates. As long as one has a set of credible oil price forecasts across time, one can then value a shale company’s oil reserves along with the size and timing of cash flows from production. This means that very customizable financing solutions became available for numerous relatively small producers, investors, and lenders, who specialized in onshore oil projects.

Oil Production

Oil Production

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