I read this book because its author proved to be correct on oil. This is a non-exhaustive book summary I made last year. In the meantime, other events prove another call in the book: the book predicts convergence of global energy prices: oil has come down and the cheapest natural gas in the world (American) is rising.
The Energy World is Flat offers a refreshing view on the oil market. I found it through one of the better Real Vision interviews with Diego Parilla two years ago. The title is a variation to Tom Friedman’s best-selling book on globalization The World is Flat. Lastly, Diego Parilla and I are alumni from the same oil & gas business school.
I only read the book now as I realized that the author’s first call on the flattening of oil call has already proven profitable. These are the main calls the book makes:
- the term curve of oil will flatten
- geographic spreads will flatten
- spreads between energy equivalent prices of fossil fuels will flatten
- oil price volatility will lessen
If we compare the oil term curve between the publishing date (1/1/15) and now, we find that it has flattened considerably.
Chapter 1: the Flattening and Globalization of the Energy World
In the oil shock of the ’70s, oil was displaced for power generation and industrial uses in favour of coal, natural gas, nuclear and others because the primary consideration is price in these industries.
Today, oil still reigns over other fossil fuels for transport purposes despite its higher price (e.g. oil was 10X more expensive per energy equivalent than natural gas in the US in 2012). The main is reason is that oil is exceptionally compact both in terms of volume and weight per energy equivalent. Over the short-term, transport is very price inelastic.
Geopolitical events that created volatility sowed the seeds for more buffers ‘flatteners’: storage, demand destruction, new technologies and discoveries. A result can be found in 2014 when the exceptional combination of the below supply disruptions failed to make the oil price spike (the move was limited to 10$/barrel from bottom to peak).
- the arab spring (e.g. disruptions in Libya)
- oil sanctions in Iran,
- conflicts and disruptions in Sudan, Syria and Iraq
Chapter 2: Lessons from the Dotcom bubble
The tech revolution (and bust) created huge capital inflows that led to miserable investor returns over the cycle. The big winners were consumers that benefited from stranded assets such as fiber-optic broadband.
The revolution of fracking and horizontal drilling is similar. Although there is still a lot of skepticism towards shale for environmental reasons, Parilla draws a parallel with ultra-deep-water drilling that faced critics in the early ’90s but developed into a very safe technology. Peak oil sentiment similarities to the tech revolution includes huge capital investment into:
- LNG terminals (requires huge upfront capex)
- pipelines (see European and Asian projects)
- demand efficiency
One trap for energy investors is to follow consensus according to Parilla. The sector is driven by extremely optimistic assumptions of demand growth. Every year, demand growth estimates are revised down an average of 15-20% from the January estimates (IEA, OPEC). Since 1998, only one year, 2012, has seen meaningful upward revisions. Main reasons are
- optimistic GDP growth estimates
- using the rear-view mirror correlation between GDP and energy demand that has been breaking down since 1998
Another parallel with the dotcom boom is the diversified ‘venture capital’ approach. In the energy world a lot of capex is being made in new technologies, with a lot of losers. The mentality for
- big integrated O&G company boards is to ‘be’ invested in new areas as it looks better on paper
- investors to be invested in all new areas as “you only need one winner”
Examples in the transportation world are:
- compressed natural gas (CNG)
- LNG for trucks, trains and ships
- electric and hybrid vehicles (EV’s and HV’s)
Note: according to Parilla, governments have delayed EV’s by subsidizing combustion-engine car sales (and bailing out the companies) post-recession by a 6-to-1 investment factor to EV subsidies.
Last parallel: the bubble accelerates the impact of the revolution. The runaway oil price in 2007 set in motion a huge supply response by oil producing and oil consuming countries alike.
Diego warns that a sum-of-the-parts valuation for companies that invest in many fashionable new technologies can be very dangerous with bad capital allocators, as the good parts might subsidize loss-making ones, and that focused companies should be welcomed.
Chapter 3: The 10 Flatteners of the Energy World
During the super-cyclical run up in corn prices in the 2000s, most commodities were making historical highs, from crude oil, to coal and natural gas, to copper and corn. Correlations had notably increased, which was often used as an argument to justify that speculators were driving prices. And of course, high fuel and food prices were generating inflation and increasing the risk of financial stability. One again, politicians and regulators were quick to blame the speculators. “Food inflation, how dare they?” Corn was considered too expensive and would impact the poor the most and increase inequality. How cynical.
The main reason why corn prices were going up was the surge in demand for corn-based ethanol in response to both high energy prices and the regulated mandates. Corn, which had traditionally been “food and feed”, had become “food,feed, and fuel”. [..] In 2012, following an acute drought in North America, the prices of corn reached historical highs, 400% of 2005 prices. “The speculators are taking advantage of the situation.” Yet, that year over 40% of the physical harvest went to ethanol to “feed” the car. The quantities were mandated by the government as “fuel” forced the demand destruction of “food and feed” via high prices. It was the cattle and hogs who had to change their diet, not the car. By mandate.
Do spot prices converge to futures prices, or is it the other way around? A causality study by Merill Lynch, and Parilla, say futures converge toward the physical fundamentals of the spot market. Speculators will discount future fundamentals in the price. If they improperly discount future risk factors into prices, they will lose money as the future prices converge toward the in-the-future-prevailing spot fundamentals.
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