The rapid and aggressive response by oil and gas companies to low oil prices has stabilised the sector; the price required for companies to be cash flow neutral in 2015 has dropped by over US$20 per barrel (US$/bbl) to US$72/bbl. Wood Mackenzie believes further cuts would be required to achieve cash flow neutrality if oil prices remain around current levels. For some companies, this will mean selling assets, others may suspend or limit dividend and buyback programmes.
Majors vs smaller North American onshore players
Tom Ellacott, Head of Corporate Upstream analysis for Wood Mackenzie explains; "Capital cost cutting has been both rapid and in some cases dramatic. Individual companies have had one, two and sometimes three bites at the cherry, and industry has for the time being settled on a 24% or US$126 billion fall year-on-year. Dividends and share buyback programmes have also been targeted, while companies have turned to both the debt and equity markets to boost liquidity.
"Two peer groups are particularly interesting: for the Majors, cutting or suspending buybacks have been the key levers which have contributed to a 25% reduction in cash flow breakevens. For the smaller North American onshore players, the ability to rapidly dial-back spend has been a key competitive advantage. Some players have cut costs by up to 80%, and these companies join a select group with cash flow breakevens below US$60/bbl," notes Ellacott.
While stock market performance indicates that investors believe there will be an oil price recovery, Wood Mackenzie says that a period of sustained prices at US$60/bbl will need further measures to conserve cash. Ellacott expands; "The Q1 results will underline how much still needs to be done if oil prices do not continue to recover. More cuts to dividends and buybacks are likely if US$50-60/bbl prices persist." But Ellacott believes there are opportunities for the financially strong, as evidenced by Shell's US$82 billion offer for BG.
Mergers and acquisitions
Wood Mackenzie's analysis shows there is a huge inventory of assets on the market, with 340 potential deals worth over US$300 billion. But activity has collapsed. Ellacott explains; "Buyer and seller expectations remain far apart, and buyers of material size are limited to the most financially secure. But a buyer's market in M&A might emerge as companies are forced to sell assets to balance the books. The US$300 billion question is: with Shell having made the first move, who will follow?"
In closing, Ellacott offers: "Investors will be watching the upcoming first-quarter results season for indications of how effective the reaction to oil prices at below US$60/bbl has been. Companies are facing a choice of paring-back investment or maintaining momentum throughout the cycle, depending on their financial position. There is a high degree of optionality regarding planned spend in 2016 and 2017, much of which is discretionary. How companies react to this strategic challenge will affect their production growth and positioning in the future."
Adapted from press release by Cecilia Rehn