Last week I covered a research report from the folks at Oppenheimer, who have calculated that during 2015 the top 30 publicly traded US-based exploration and production companies collectively booked $101 billion in asset impairments compared with only $23 billion of impairments during 2014 and $9.3 billion of impairments in 2013.
These numbers highlight how badly the oil industry is suffering from the recent oil price slump. But writedowns aren’t the only factor weighing on Big Oil.
According to research by the Wall Street Journal, the world’s four largest integrated oil companies now owe a record $184 billion in debt. This mountain of debt is a result of Big Oil’s inability to cut costs deep enough and fast enough to keep cash flows positive in the current hostile operating environment.
The total debt of Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP is now double the level recorded at the end of 2014 when the oil sell off first started, which shows to what degree these majors were caught by surprise and how they have struggled since to control spending.
Big Oil’s debt hits a record $184 billion
Of the big four, Shell is the most guilty. After spending $53 billion to acquire smaller UK rival BG Group last year, the company’s net debt has spiked from a little over $20 billion to more than $70 billion in just two quarters. Chevron is the next worst offender. Its net debt position has more than doubled from around $14.5 billion at the end of 2014 to $36 billion at the end of Q2 2016. Exxon’s debt has increased by $16 billion, from $24 billion at the end of 2014 to $40 billion at the end of the second quarter. BP has been by far the most fiscally prudent of the four. Its net debt has only risen by around 20% since the end of 2014. That said, the company still has those huge Macondo liabilities hanging over it.
Big Oil’s financial position is deteriorating rapidly, and it doesn’t look as if the situation is going to get any better any time soon for the industry. The WSJ’s figures show that last year BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon burnt through $78 billion in cash as they sought to maintain returns to shareholders and capex levels as oil prices languished. Dividends cost the companies a combined $30 billion and capex cost $83 billion. Cash flows from operations amounted to $78 billion.
The spending binge has continued into this year. During the first two months of 2016 Chevron’s free cash flow was -$6.3 billion, Shell’s free cash flow after dividends was just under -$13bn while BP spent around $5 billion more than it generated from operations on capex and dividends. Exxon seems to be the only oil major of the group that is showing and kind of fiscal restraint. The company’s free cash flow in the first half was +$460 million.