Royal Dutch Shell's (RDS) $70 billion bid for U.K.-based BG Group, one of the largest buyouts in the energy space in decades, raises more questions than it provides answers. But the big question is what the other super majors, particularly Exxon Mobil (XOM), are thinking in light of this big deal.
Are they also looking for mega-deals of their own?
The Shell-BG deal points to a consolidation theme -- which I address in my upcoming e-book, Shale Boom, Shale Bust -- as part of the second phase of collapsing oil prices. Crumbling oil and gas prices have left dozens of oil companies in dire straits, with overleveraged debt positions without the revenue to support them.
On the other side of potential deals are cash-rich major oil companies, whose difficulty in the last several years has been growing enough production to match exploration budgets. With share prices coming down, I have been expecting a whirlwind of consolidation to begin as the majors look to buy production that they can't intrinsically grow. Shell buying BG Group is an example of this.
Shell's long-standing corporate bias towards natural gas has put BG Group on its "most wanted" list for years. Former Shell CEO Peter Voser was obsessed with liquid natural gas (LNG). I recall several presentations he'd made at various conferences where you'd wonder if Shell produced oil at all or was a dedicated gas company. It was the focus on gas and LNG that seemed to get Voser fired, and I figured that new CEO Ben van Beurden would shift that focus to liquids and crude. But with this deal, it is clear that Shell is returning to old themes.
Synergies are strong, particularly in Australia, where Shell has tremendous gas assets and BG has an (abandoned) LNG project on Curtis Island. The knock on the deal is that many will say that the "bust" in oil and gas prices is far from over and Shell is premature in making its big move in buying BG. I can't really agree; Shell might have spent less for BG in the future, but if natural gas is the theme for the future of Shell, BG Group shares at seven-year lows seem like a logical opportunity.
That natural gas synergy leaves other majors out of trying to outbid on this deal. Many have speculated that Exxon Mobil (XOM) will attempt to outbid Shell for BG now that it is in play. That's practically impossible; Exxon has far less bias toward natural gas now, particularly in light of its XTO Energy deal for natural gas assets in 2009.
So where will the Exxon monster set its sights?
I've been waiting, along with Exxon, for the full brunt of the shale-oil bust to be reflected in the stocks of the large-cap shale-oil players that would interest cash-rich Exxon. Very few of even the best-capitalized players, like Anadarko (APC), Continental Resources (CLR) or even Hess (HES), are out of reach for the U.S.'s No. 1 oil-and-gas company. I believe that Exxon will concentrate on these very strong crude and liquids producers -- if their stocks ever completely respond to $50 oil. So far, that hasn't happened.
Another tactic for Exxon would be to find several smaller E&P's that have far more difficult debt positions and go on a shopping spree for several companies, instead of one mega-deal. Ideas include Oasis Petroleum (OAS), Halcon Resources (HK) and Whiting Petroleum (WLL), even though it seems that Exxon passed on Whiting only a few weeks ago.
For Exxon, obviously, it's all about price, and there is still too much premium in shale players now to expect an equivalent to the Shell-BG Group deal. Exxon is being patient in a way that it wasn't when it overpaid for XTO in 2009. That's smart, because even though Exxon has the cash to spend and the desire to buy growth, the prices on the really good shale assets still look rather high.
But you can bet that the leaders at Exxon are talking and planning. It may not come in the next few months, but I believe we'll definitely see a move by the second quarter of 2016.