Rumours are swirling that the world’s largest IPO ever, might just slip a few months into 2019. Though Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told investors just recently on the 25th of September that the IPO of Saudi state oil giant Aramco will proceed as planned in 2018. Saudi Aramco said in a statement that the IPO remains ‘on track’, underlining that it was committed to ensuring high standards.
However, there are a few big questions that have not been answered. The question of where Aramco will list has still yet to be answered. It will float on the domestic stock exchange in Riyadh, that is certain, but an IPO this size needs a major international exchange. The options for that would be either London or New York. Neither has been selected yet. It appears that Aramco will only formally announce this in late October, when a big investment conference in Riyadh is scheduled.
Once it is confirmed where Aramco will float, then the rest of the preparatory work can continue – having been contingent on this choice. It is a tight timeframe; 12 months is a short span to iron out all details and kinks, which is why the IPO may very well slip into the early months of 2019. But meanwhile, Aramco is taking steps to restructure itself into a contemporary supermajor, instead of the state entity it has always operated as.
In the past few months, Aramco has struck strategic partnerships with several key countries as it moves from simply selling crude, to ensuring its crude has place and space in a competitive world. It is deploying new technology in the Rub al Khalid – the vast Empty Quarter – that could help shore up and increase crude reserves. It has taken full ownership of Motiva in the US, home to the largest refinery in America. Mega-refinery partnerships have been signed in China, India and Malaysia – ensuring captive demand. And just last week, Aramco announced that would be buying and selling non-Saudi crude for the first time even.
That will form the lynchpin of an expanded trading business, which will put crude marketing and refined product trading under the same management. Currently, both are separate. Crude selling is crude selling, done in Singapore and Dahran. And refined products, which already includes non-Saudi fuels, is done out of London. Combining the two under one structure is a shift in policy for Aramco, approximating the arrangement of something like ExxonMobil, PetroChina or Glencore. Trading of Saudi crude will still be a priority, but expanding coverage will help Saudi Trading – set to be based in Singapore – cover its supply chain more efficiently to plug in gaps as they appear, as well as become a strong profit driver in its own right. This would be unthinkable five years ago. But to appeal to international investors, Aramco has to show them that its businesses are on part with the biggest international companies.
At home, Saudi Arabia is also planning to phase out subsidies for gasoline and jet fuel, which would lit them up by almost 80% to international levels. Prices for gasoil and fuel oil – both heavily used in power generation, particularly in summer – will be reformed, at a more gradual pace. Saudi Arabia also plans to introduce value-added tax (VAT), scheduled to be implemented at the start of 2018. Details of the Citizen’s Account, a household allowance scheme intended to reduce the impact of austerity policies on low and middle-income Saudi families would be announced in the coming weeks. While this is mainly focused on balancing the government’s budget, it has a knock-on effect on Aramco. Previously, Aramco only had to answer to the Saudi King when it came to diverting funds from the company to balance out the rest of the economy. As a publicly traded company, this will come under intense scrutiny. By removing subsidies, it removes a drain on the Aramco coffers, which is a necessary change for a publicly-traded company. Too long has the country been dependent on Saudi Aramco as the national bank account. This IPO is a chance to restructure and rejuvenate the entire economy, making it leaner, fitter and more competitive.
All of this makes a delay in the IPO more and more likely. This isn’t just a simple floating of shares. This is an attempt to remake the world’s most valuable company and an entire country to be more dynamic economically and modern. In that context, waiting a few more months to ensure every checkbox is ticked is far, far better in the long run.
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The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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