Oil giants merge to match power of Opec sheikhs
December 13, 1998
by Irwin Stelzer
THE consolidation wave sweeping through the oil industry is a response to depressed oil prices and the high probability that prices will remain at or even below their 25-year low (in inflation-adjusted terms). So we are told. But low prices are perhaps the least important of the forces driving small companies into the arms of bigger ones and big ones into the arms of each other.
As this column has consistently pointed out, oil prices, which temporarily fell below $10 for Brent crude last week and are at their lowest level (in real terms) in a quarter of a century, will probably sink even lower. America's Energy Information Administration said last week crude prices next year will average 43 cents a barrel less than in 1998, as huge stocks of unsold oil depress the market.
Prices have been partly dragged down by falling demand, owing to recession in Asia and the impending European slowdown. More enduring will be the effect of technological advances that have already driven costs well below $10 a barrel and are, if anything, accelerating, not abating. That much the oil companies with an urge to merge have got right.
And they no doubt can garner some efficiencies by consolidating their headquarters, purchasing and information systems, and by eliminating overlapping operations in some countries. What does not survive close scrutiny is the notion that even the most efficiently executed merger - and few end up with net savings anything like those trumpeted in the press releases - can somehow spare shareholders the pain that low prices are inflicting and will continue to inflict.
As prices drop, assets that are productive and can earn a return for shareholders at higher oil prices become uneconomic. No merger can change that. True, Exxon, which is buying Mobil, and British Petroleum, which has swallowed Amoco, are justly famous for their ability to cut costs. But nothing they do can change the fact that persistently low oil prices mean that a big number of once-profitable facilities must be written off, or written down.
That is the bad news for the merger enthusiasts. The good news is that mergers such as Exxon-Mobil are getting out in front of one of the biggest developments in the oil industry since the Middle East producing nations evicted the big oil companies from their territories. Cautiously and quietly, these countries are inviting the once-hated, imperialist exploiters to come back to the deserts that oil seekers find so congenial.
Iran is sounding out companies in an effort to lure their capital and expertise back to a country whose turbulent history of multinationals vs incumbent regime is the stuff of novels. Saudi Arabia, so strapped for cash that it is borrowing £6 billion from Abu Dhabi to finance a deficit running at a staggering and unsustainable 10% of gross domestic product, is working out terms that will allow the oil giants to invest without seeming to revert to the old, discredited concession system.
But whether the form of reinvolvement of the multinationals in the Middle Eastern countries that once shunned them is a contract to explore and produce, or a revenue-sharing arrangement, or some other face-saving device, the fact remains: the nations that have the oil under their sands need the capital and technology the oil giants uniquely possess to help them find it and get it to market.
This is a tasty dish to set before oilmen. Because they have not been able to search for oil in the Middle East countries in which it can be found and produced at less than $5 a barrel, they have been prospecting in more costly areas, such as the deep waters of the North Sea. Re-admitted to the Middle East, the companies can shift resources to one of the few areas - if not the only area - in which oil can profitably be found and sold at the low prices likely to prevail in the foreseeable future.
This is where giantism comes in. Playing the great oil game in the Middle East is not for pygmies. The rulers of these countries want to deal with big companies that have ready access to huge amounts of capital, will fulfil their contracts in bad times as well as good, and can fund the research that will continually lower costs.
Equally important, says Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani, chairman of Mondoil, Middle East governments know the big companies have political clout in America and other countries, and can be counted on to back the political objectives of their host countries. It is not for nothing that the British Foreign Office and America's State Department are traditionally anti-Israel: they are responding to the pressures put on them by oil companies that can be counted on to take a pro-Arab line in foreign-policy controversies.
When oil-company negotiations with Middle East governments resume in earnest, size will matter, as the shrewd crafters of the Exxon-Mobil merger know. Only a big company with huge supplies of crude available to it from many regions, and able to undertake giant projects anywhere in the world, is in a position to look a sheikh in the eye and say "no" when he demands unreasonable terms for access to his nation's resources.
So do not count on oil mergers to make many high-cost facilities profitable again: prices are going to stay too low for too long for that to happen. But do count on the resulting giants to return to their roots by accepting the invitations that will soon be forthcoming to hunt once again for low-cost Middle East reserves.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.