Strengthening finances to remain top priority for 2017, analyst predicts

Offshore staff

LONDON, HOUSTON, and SINGAPORE Wood Mackenzie’s global corporate outlook for 2017 forecasts the oil and gas industry will turn cash flow positive for the first time since the downturn if OPEC production cuts drive oil prices above $55/bbl.

Tom Ellacott, senior vice president of corporate analysis research at Wood Mackenzie, said: “Most oil and gas companies will start 2017 on a firmer footing, having halved cash flow breakevens to survive the past two years. Further evidence of a cautious, U-shaped recovery in investment should emerge.”

Wood Mackenzie’s corporate outlook, Corporate themes: 5 things to look for in 2017, assesses the prospects for the majors, independents, and national oil companies (NOCs), focusing on five themes:

  • Strengthening finances will be a top priority
  • US independents to lead the sector into a new investment cycle
  • Portfolios will adapt, down the cost curve and into new energy
  • Modest growth in production despite past capex cuts
  • An improved value proposition for exploration and mergers and acquisitions.

“Overall 2017 will be a year of stability and opportunity for oil and gas companies in positions of financial strength. More players will look at opportunities to adapt and grow their portfolios,” said Ellacott.

Strengthening finances will still be a top priority. Capital discipline, cost reduction, and deleveraging will frame corporate strategies in 2017. But 2016 will prove to be the low point in the investment cycle, with confidence boosted by OPEC’s decision to cut production. 

The US independents will respond first to rising prices. Emboldened by a Trump administration committed to exploiting domestic oil and gas resources, US L48 operators have three core competitive advantages: access to capital; cost-advantaged portfolios; and flexibility to scale back spend sharply if prices stay low.

According to Wood Mackenzie’s analysis, the US independents could increase investment by more than 25% if oil prices average above $50/bbl. But spend for the bigger companies will continue to trend down – total investment by the majors will fall by around 8% as recent capital-intensive projects wind down.

“More companies will strive to adapt by positioning portfolios lower down the cost curve. The hot oil plays are US tight oil, with the Permian basin to the fore, and Brazil presalt. Both have materiality and development breakevens which are among the lowest globally. Renewables exposure will continue to build, though scarce capital and improving returns from upstream suggest small steps in 2017 rather than transformational moves.”

The analyst firm forecasts production from the 60 companies covered in its corporate service to grow by an average of 2%, which is impressive given development spend was slashed by more than 40% between 2014 and 2016.

A selection of international independents and leading US unconventional companies will deliver top-ranking performance on production growth metrics. However, the analyst says savage investment cuts, asset sales, and low prices will take their toll with 23 companies experiencing declining volumes in 2017.

The analyst expects the trend of improving exploration success rates and full-cycle returns to continue in 2017, with more majors and NOCs stepping up new ventures activity.

“Mergers and acquisitions will also offer an attractive value proposition for the financially strong prepared to take a bullish view on long-term prices,” said Ellacott. “Low-cost, low-risk discovered resource opportunities will look attractive again. And the larger players will need these to ensure long-term portfolio renewal as part of a more balanced growth strategy.”


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