The first official glimpse of Saudi Aramco’s financial performance confirms the state-run oil giant can generate profit like no other company on Earth: net income last year was $111.1 billion, easily outstripping U.S. behemoths including Apple Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp.
But accounts published before the firm’s debut in the international bond market also show Aramco -- an organization that produces about 10 percent of the world’s crude -- doesn’t generate as much cash per barrel as other leading oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell Plc because of a heavy tax burden.
The bond sale, being pitched to investors this week in a global roadshow, has forced Aramco to reveal secrets held close since the company’s nationalization in the late 1970s, casting a light on the relationship between the kingdom and its most important asset. Both Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service assigned Aramco the fifth-highest investment grade, the same as Saudi sovereign debt, but lower than oil majors Exxon, Shell and Chevron Corp.
The company is preparing to raise debt in part to pay for the acquisition of a majority stake in domestic petrochemical group Sabic, worth about $69 billion. The deal is a Plan B to generate money for Saudi Arabia’s economic agenda after an IPO of Aramco was postponed. In effect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is using the firm’s pristine balance sheet to finance his ambitions.
Aramco will pay 50 percent of the Sabic acquisition cost when the deal closes and the rest over the subsequent two years, according to a person who saw a presentation made to potential investors on Monday. Aramco declined to comment.
The 470-page bond prospectus, filed with the London Stock Exchange, detailed a litany of risks for prospective investors, including missiles falling on Aramco’s installations, the impact of proposed U.S. antitrust laws on OPEC, the fight against climate change, and even the risk that Saudi Arabia will break the peg between its currency, the riyal, and the U.S dollar. It also revealed the Saudi oil giant was the victim of a "successful" cyber attack in 2012 that forced the company to move some operations into "manual" mode.
While the prospectus revealed the richest company on the planet, it also showed how reliant Aramco is on high oil and natural gas prices. In 2016, when the price of Brent crude plunged to average $45 a barrel and OPEC cut production, the company struggled to break even. Net income for the full year was just $13 billion and free cash flow a tiny $2 billion.
The kingdom’s dependence on the company to finance social and military spending, as well as the lavish lifestyles of hundreds of princes, places a heavy burden on Aramco’scash flow. Aramco pays 50 percent of its profit on income tax, plus a sliding royalty scale that starts at 20 percent of the company’s revenue and rises to as much as 50 percent with the price of oil.
Aramco reported cash flow from operations of $121 billion and $35.1 billion in capital spending, and paid $58.2 billion in dividends to the Saudi government in 2018, according to Moody’s. In a presentation to potential bondholders, the company said its "ordinary dividend" last year was $52 billion. There wasn’t an immediate explanation about the gap between the two figures.
Fitch said its A+ rating reflects the “strong links” between the company and the kingdom, and the influence the state has on Aramco through regulating the level of production, taxation and dividends.
“Over time, a low oil price environment could cause a sustained fiscal deficit for Saudi Arabia that could result in changes down the line for Aramco’s fiscal regime,” said Neil Beveridge, an energy analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in Hong Kong. “You can’t disassociate the sovereign government from Aramco given the very close relationship and the contribution Aramco makes to the overall funding for Saudi Arabia.”
Aramco reported funds flow from operations -- a measure closely watched by investors and similar to cash flow from operations -- of $26 abarrel equivalent of oil last year, according to Fitch. That’s below what Big Oil companies such as Shell and Total SA enjoy, at $38 and $31 per barrel, respectively.
“Funds from operations, which is operation cash flows before working capital changes, is the best measure to compare oil companies’ profitability, since Ebitda does not take into account taxation,” Dmitry Marinchenko, senior director at Fitch in London, said in an interview.
Aramco told potential bondholders it generated operating cash flow of $121 billion in 2018. Although that’s significantly higher than oil majors produce, the difference isn’t a large as the Ebitda or the net income. Shell, for example, reported cash flow of $53 billion, despite a significantly lower oil and gas production than Aramco. Exxon reported cash flow last year of $36 billion.
Fitch’s A+ rating for Aramco is one level below the AA- for both Shell and Total. The Moody’s rating is well behind Exxon’s top Aaa level.
The oil giant has mandated banks to hold a roadshow for dollar-denominated notes from April 1, potentially including tranches from three to 30 years, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fitch said that Aramco planned to pay for the 70 percent stake in Sabic “in installments over 2019-21.”
The company will hold meetings with investors in coming days in cities including London, New York, Boston, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Chicago. Aramco picked banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley to manage the debt offering.
The bond plan, credit rating and the publication of the first extracts of Aramco’s accounts are all part of the ambitions of Prince Mohammed, who controls most of the levers of power in the kingdom and wants to pursue an IPO as part of his plans to ready the country for the post-oil age. Yet his ambition to secure a $2 trillion valuation has faced pushback from global investors, prompting a delay in the IPO.
For all the shock and awe in Aramco’s big reveal, the published numbers appear to leave that valuation a long way off, implying a dividend yield about half of what Shell pays.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).
The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.
Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.
Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.
After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.
Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.
So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.
The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.
It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.
It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.