It has been a painful year for many oil and gas companies, their investors, and the people unfortunate enough to have most of their fortunes tied to the health of oil and gas production. Oil prices have fallen 26% in the last year, and oil companies and their service sector allies have felt an outsized gut punch. The WSJ tracks 73 oil companies (story below) and found that more than 40% of those lost greater than half of their market capitalization this year.
Kids, get ready for a lighter haul this Christmas.
The long-term transformation of the energy industry is increasingly evident and inevitable, which is beginning to take a toll, but it is short-term insecurity in world economies and an overabundance of cheap oil and natural gas that is keeping markets stagnant. With investors looking for reliable returns (or any return), the recent history of poor performance in the oil sector has left many investors on the sidelines and drillers lacking access to the inexpensive working capital they’ve come to expect in decades past.
That’s forcing a maturation of the industry and new “fiscal discipline” as the US oil and gas industry positions for what many observers anticipate will be a “shaking out of the weaker hands at the table.” As always, that’s a threat and opportunity for investors, if they can weather the storm.
For oil industry leaders like Oklahoma’s Harold Hamm, who owns 77% of his company, Continental Resources, stock, the crash has been particularly stinging with CLR stock falling from a high of $62.68 to close today at $28.29. But he’s not selling. He’s buying, and has even been rumored to desire to take the company private again, after questioning the value of his public listing.
Hamm has been an outspoken advocate for American energy, a proponent of shale exploration, and the leader of advocacy efforts to permit US oil exports, with Congress heeding his call and lifting the forty-year ban in December 2015. While his company and personal fortunes have fallen together, Hamm remains an advocate for American energy dominance and seemingly confident in an uncertain future, but he has forcefully called on fellow producers to exercise the “discipline” that market observers believe is essential to preventing drillers from overproducing themselves into bankruptcy.
In a diverse economy like that of the United States, the fortunes of oil and gas producers are important but don’t drive the overall health of the national economy. Inside the world’s less-diversified number two and three oil producing economies – Saudi Arabia and Russia respectively – the fates of those countries is more vulnerable as they are more closely tied to the health and profitability of the oil industry.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are strategizing together on ways to cut oil production, in the hope of boosting oil prices and delivering more cash for each of their economies, essential for regimes in both places attempting to maintain political control. Unfortunately for them, OPEC+, and possibly to the detriment of America’s producers, it is the ability of American production to ramp quickly to that may mute any hope for their scheme to have long-term price impacts.
Is this a market that is broken? For many people who have relied on the boom and bust to make their fortunes, it may appear so, but this may in fact be how a fully-maturing international oil market works most efficiently. Time will tell.
Disclosure: The author owns stock in Continental Resources.