In a previous post I mentioned the end of oil investment as we know it. We are seeing it happen in front of us. Oil companies are not willing tocommit vast amounts of capital (BP consumes its entire market cap in capex in three years) unless there is a secure valid return. Return on Capital Employed is falling to almost utility level, and this is a cause of concern.
However, the big supermajors are comfortable given their low gearing (20-23% net debt to equity), but with oil entrenched at c$50/bbl , which for most assets is below break-even price, the independent E&Ps are set to fall one by one like pieces of a domino. The credit crunch is taking care of the really small ones, as they are finding it impossible to refinance their development and drilling programs. Oilexco and Bowleven have already succumbed. Others will follow.
For the lucky ones, the ones that have been smart enough to increase capital and refinance in the past years, enjoy strong assets and attractive development opportunities (Tullow, Dana) the end will likely come through M&A. The supermajors and utilities need access to reserves to either replace their declining assets (BP, RDS, Total) or get the desired access to equity gas (EDF, GSZ, E.On, RWE). We have already seen Centrica buy 23% of Venture at 725p. This means paying less than $6/boe for 2P reserves, a highly attractive valuation compared to developing their declining North Sea assets. The stock trades at 805p. Still below the average historical transaction price of $12-15/boe.
The problem here, is that, as I have mentioned in the past, some of these independents will be taken over and still be the worst performers of the sector (remember when ENI acquired Burren). Investors will likely stick to the attractive exploration companies with strong balance sheet and the added positive factor of M&A … Tullow, Dana, Venture and Premier are set to deliver strong returns to shareholders as downside is limited at $50/bbl NAV valuations and upside on exploration could deliver between 15 to 35% returns in the short term… and forget about the “boom or bust bets” in really troubled small independent producers. They could be taken over, yes, but at $1 like Oilexco.