It's always the ultimate test on trading oil stocks – what to believe and what not to believe. Normally, you take earnings season with a grain of salt – never really sure what realities will come from the fantasies of CEO pronouncements and targets on conference calls. But this season has added other noise to make trading stocks more difficult – this time from the Iranian and Saudi oil ministers.
In light of the missed opportunity at Doha to curb OPEC production, angry statements have emerged from both Iran and Saudi Arabia on oil production – the Iranians saying that they cannot be stopped in increasing their exports another 1m barrels a day in the next 12 months, the Saudi oil minister in turn threatening to increase production another 2m barrels a day. Both of these statements need to be taken with not a grain, but a 5-pound bag of salt.
From the Iranian side, I have no doubts that an increase of another 1m barrels a day is precisely what they hope will happen, but the reality will surely be different. For all oil production, whether it is from an independent oil company or a sovereign nation, capital expenditures will determine the increase or decrease that can be achieved. Iran has a decidedly arthritic oil infrastructure, slowed by the lack of Western technology and the impact of a decade of sanctions. Their own economy is too weak to generate anywhere near the capex required to increase another 1 million barrels in the next year, and their overtures to foreign oil companies for leases inside Iran has been met cooly by prime contenders Total (TOT) and Eni (E). There is a lagged amount of already developed barrels that Iran can push onto the global market – perhaps 300,000 barrels a day; but by my reckoning, already 150,000 of those barrels have been added – making their ultimate targets very unlikely indeed to be reached.
The Saudis do not have any of the capex or technology problems that plague the Iranians. But the question of how much capacity the Saudis actually do have comes into play when they threaten to increase production by another 2 million barrels. For my entire career in oil, there has always been a dark question on Saudi 'spare capacity' – How much could the Saudis ultimately pump, if they were willing to open the spigots up fully? For years, the speculation from most oil analysts was near to 7.5m or 8m barrels a day – a number that was blown out in the last two years as Saudi production rocketed above 10m barrels a day.
But the strategy the Saudis have pursued has been clear – they have been working towards full production and an aggressive fight for market share since the failure of the Vienna OPEC meeting in November of 2014. It is very difficult to believe that the Saudis have had much, if any, remaining capacity to easily put on the market since that time, or if any spare capacity could be developed at all. It wouldn't be consistent to believe that for the last year and a half, the Saudis have been capable of increasing their production by another 20 percent, but have so far kept that potential under wraps. Instead, I am fully of the opinion that the Saudis are near, if not at their full production potential right now.
The oil market seems to agree – in February, if the threat of another 3 million barrels of oil hitting the global market had been unleashed, oil might have reached below $20 a barrel; today, oil is getting very close to rallying towards $50 a barrel instead.
All of this, combined with an accelerating rollover in U.S. production figures, a continued restraint of capex from oil companies being reported in this quarter's earnings, an increasing list of E+P bankruptcies (Ultra Petroleum and Midstates Petroleum being the latest) and continued debt burdens points to a very opportune time to continue accumulating survivor oil stocks for the long haul.
Knowing what to believe and when to believe it has always been a big part of figuring out the oil game – and never more so than today.