QuickHit: Oil companies will either shut-in or cut back, layoffs not done yet
We continue discussing oil companies this week with Tracy Shuchart, who is a portfolio manager and considered as one of the leading experts on crude trading. Tony Nash asked who is trading oil these days, why the oil went negative, and when can we see a bit of recovery for the industry? Most importantly, will layoffs continue, and at what pace?
TN: Hi everyone. This is Tony with Complete Intelligence. We’re here doing a QuickHit, which is one of our quick discussions. Today, we are talking with Tracy Shuchart, who is a portfolio manager with a private equity fund and she is one of the foremost experts on crude trading. We’ve had a number of conversations with her already, and we’re really lucky to get a little bit of her time today.
Tracy, just a few days ago, I was talking with Vandana Hari, who was formerly a Research Scholar at Platts and knows everything about energy. She was telling me that there are three to four months of crude oil supply, and that’s the imbalance that we have in markets right now. That’s why we see WTI at less than 20 and these really difficult price hurdles for people to get over. Can you tell us who’s trading crude oil right now? Is it mom and pops? Is it professionals? What does that look like? And also, what will have to happen for those prices to rise, generally?
TS: Right. Right now, the USO had to get on the prep-month contracts.
TN: Sorry, just to clarify for people who aren’t trading ETF’s. USO is a broadly traded energy ETF, and they’ve had a lot of problems with the structure of the futures that they trade. So they’ve had to push back the futures that they trade from the front month, which is the nearest month that’s traded to further back in a channel in hopes that the value of crude oil in the further of months trades higher than the current one. So they’ve done a lot of reconfiguration over the last few weeks. So sorry. I just wanted to explain that.
TS: That’s okay. They’re out of the front month. Bank of China just had a big problem when oil prices went negative. They had a lot of money in the front months. They’re out.
Most retail brokers are not allowing regular retail to be traded in the front couple months actually. All that you have trading front months are the big funds, anybody who’s been hedging and then maybe a bank or two. But it’s definitely not retail that’s in there, and there are a lot of big players now that are not in there.
When we get towards expiration, the problem is that most of the funds are pretty short and most of the hedgers are pretty short, and the banks are on the opposite side of that trade. But when we come to expiration, what I’m worried
about again is we’re going to have a no-bid scenario. We’re going to have that vacuum once again. You’re not going to have any natural buyers there.
TN: Okay. So the WTI traded in the US goes negative, but the WTI traded in London on the ICE doesn’t go negative.
TS: They just decided not to let that contract go negative. The difference between the contracts is the CME Group contract is physically deliverable, right? And ICE contract is a cash-settled contract. So they’re not going negative, but CME allowed this contract to go negative.
And they actually put out a notice about five days before that they were going to start letting some contracts go negative. This wasn’t a total surprise, as soon as I saw that, I thought it was going to go negative.
TN: Both you and I have told stories about how we had friends who wanted to trade. Like I had a couple of friends who wanted to triple long Crude ETF a week and a half before it went negative, and I said, “please, please don’t do that.” So grateful that neither of them did that because it could have been terrible.
So how do we clear this? We’ve got three-four months of oil just sitting around?
TS: If you talk to most of the big trading houses in Switzerland like Vitol, Trafigura, etc., basically their base case scenario, and they’re physical traders, their BEST scenario is it’ll be September before we get some sort of hints of a balance left.
So what is going to happen? There are either two things. We’re going to fill up storage, and then producers literally won’t have to shut it. There’s nowhere to put it, so they literally have to do what I call forced shut-ins. If you don’t want to shut-in, the market is going to force you to do that. That scenario is going to happen. Or we’re going to get a scenario where people decide to voluntarily cut back. Just look at the backend like CLR, Continental Resources just did that. They shut in about 30 percent of their production on the back end, and I think there’s about thirty-five to forty percent now that’s shut-in. And there are some other basins where that’s happening as well, in the Permian, etc.
TN: So that’s mostly people in the field they’ll probably let go. Will we see people at headquarters? Those CEOs or only those workers in the field?
TS: I think you’re going to see a broad range of layoffs. It’s already happening. You’ve already seen companies lay off a bunch of people… Halliburton’s laid off. Everybody’s laying off people. And they’re not just laying off field workers as they’re shutting rigs down, they’re cutting back on their office help, too.
And with the shutdown, it’s even more worrisome because maybe they figure out that, “we definitely don’t need this many people,” and all these people working remotely.
I don’t think that the layoffs are done yet. We’ve only had a couple of months of low oil prices. If this continues for another 3-4 months, we’re definitely in trouble.
TN: So is this time different? I mean if we were to stop today, and let’s say things come back to 30 bucks tomorrow, which they won’t. But if it stopped today, would the oil and gas industry look at this go, “Thank God we dodged that bullet, again?” Do they just go back to normal like nothing happened? Or if it were to stop today, would they say “Gosh, we really need to kind of reform who we are. Focus on productivity and become a modern business?” How long does it take for them to really make those realizations?
TS: I think what’s going to have to happen, which may not happen, is the money runs out, right?
So first, you had to ride the shale boom. All these banks throwing money on it. After 2016, things were easing up. So private equity guys got in there, and they threw a bunch of money at it. Basically, these guys are going to keep doing what they’re doing as long as they have a source of equity and a source of capital thrown at them all the time. As soon as that dries up, then they’ll be forced to delete and go out of business. We’re already seeing that happen. We’ve had over 200 bankruptcies just in the last four years alone, and this year we’re starting high. So they’re either going to go out of business — Chapter 7s, not 11s. And the thing is that with the big guys, like Chevron and Exxon that just entered into the Permian, they’re just waiting to chomp on some stranded assets.
So again, what it’s going to take is the money’s got to dry up or they go out of business. That’s the only way I really see them changing.
TN: Yeah and we’re just at the beginning, which is really hard to take because it’s tough. So Tracy I’d love to talk for a long, long time, you know that. But we’ve got to keep these short, so thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate your insights. We’ll come back to you again in another couple of weeks just to see where things are. I’m hoping things change. But I’m not certain that they will. So, we’ll be back in a couple of weeks and just see how things are.
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