Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: September 9, 2020
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Business Trends
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It does not seem that long ago when Saudi Arabia’s crown jewel, Saudi Aramco was about to make a huge splash by listing (a tiny portion of itself) publicly for the first time. Although that was less than a year ago, many of the details then have now been glazed over. Over the final quarter of 2019, the IPO timeline was in considerable flux, reportedly because the Saudi Crown Prince was determined to engineer a US$2 trillion debut valuation. It did not. At least not immediately, starting at US$1.88 trillion before briefly hitting target after. Several months later, a global pandemic has significantly reduced that valuation. Not only that, Saudi Aramco no longer has claim to the title of the world’s most valued company. That belongs to Apple.

But that’s besides the point now. What matters is Aramco’s commitments in the lead-up to its valuation. In order to generate the maximum amount of interest, mainly from the ruling and connected Saudi families, Aramco promised to hand out over US$75 billion in annual dividends through 2025. Even in better times, that’s a huge promise. But now that the oil price situation has upended, it seems unsustainable.

For another company, public-listed or private, the solution would be simple. Scale back announced dividend payouts, or stop them completely. That’s what companies like Shell, BP and Total have done. In an economic crisis, most investors would understand. But what if the major shareholder is a government? Aramco is still 98% owned by the Saudi government, and the federal coffers, which run everything from the national airline to plans to open up for official tourism are dependent on the dividends that Aramco pays. Adjusting the dividend payouts is not an option, particularly since the government is already far from balancing its budget even with the current fiscal structure. The blurred line between Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco is a double-edged sword; and it is now a liability for a company that finds its hands shackled and its flexibility to manoeuvre cemented down due to its commitments.

This need to prioritise dividends means that Saudi Aramco has a reckoning to face. Its valuation and, indeed, business plan was driven by a diversification strategy that was meant to move Aramco from an upstream-focused titan to an integrated behemoth. Aramco had invested in key refining nodes throughout Asia and the world that ensure captive demand for its crude in key markets. It bought SABIC in a pricey deal that was part of a petrochemicals-heavy downstream dive. It set up an LNG trading desk in Singapore before it even produced a single drop of liquefied natural gas. With dry season in the oil and gas world setting in, some of these projects must now wither so that the rest of Saudi Aramco can survive.

A spate of cancellations and deferments have been announced. The planned US$20 billion crude-to-chemicals plan in Yanbu is likely to be cancelled outright. The decision to purchase 25% of Sempra Energy’s Port Arthur LNG project in Texas is being reviewed. A US$6.6 billion plan to add new petrochemicals capacity at the Motiva refinery on the US Gulf Coast is on pause. Downstream plans linked to greenfield refinery investments in Pakistan, India and China have been delayed. CEO Amin Nasser has slashed CAPEX for 2020 from US$40 billion to US$25 billion, and the March 2020 plans to boost crude output capacity within the Kingdom (to 13 mmb/d from a current 12 mmb/d) have been deferred by a year.

But, as dire as this sounds, this is more of a refocusing rather than a reckoning. There is a certain trend here, where outright cancellations are linked to eliminating risk of excess capacity, while delays are linked to new projects and expansions. In petrochemicals, for example, Aramco’s SABIC purchase means it already has a large surplus of production capacity. Adding to that right now, with the global economy expected to be weak for years, is not good business. But Aramco is also committed to expanding its natural gas/LNG offerings and securing long-term demand nodes through refining for its crude. It is just admitting that now is not the best time to focus on those.

It is then instructive to look at what projects have not been affected by the slash in funding. It remains in talks to acquire a stake in India’s Reliance and an integrated downstream site in China’s Zhoushan. The Yanbu plans are expected to be repackaged as incremental upgrades to existing sites, a move to focus on upgraded brownfield sites over building greenfield ones. And drilling still continues, with Aramco announcing the discovery of two new oil and gas assets near the Kingdom’s border with Iraq, with the Hadabat Al-Hajara and Abraq at-Tulul fields offering a mixture of light crude, condensates and natural gas to the market.

Saudi Aramco is not retreating because it wants to. It is retreating because it has to. All indications now appear to show that Aramco is committed to following the strategy roadmap it has outlined previously. At least in the future, Aramco will become more diversified and in line with industry expectations. The current dividend situation has made Aramco less nimble. Admitting its challenges maybe out of character for Saudi Aramco. But the one thing that all can admit right now is that a pause is necessary in order to figure out the best way forward.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$41-43/b, WTI – US$38-40/b
  • Weak economic data – especially with major economies announcing the worst-ever GDP figures on record for Q2 2020 – have depressed crude prices, with fears that overall recovery will be a long and harsh road
  • The rampage of Hurricanes Laura and Marco took 82% of US Gulf oil production offline, but the temporary price boost from that has now tapered out as the weather patterns recede
  • However, there are indications that growth is outstripping expectations, especially in Asia, with IHS Markit reporting that global oil demand is now at 89% of pre-Covid in July levels, compared to 78% in April 2020
  • Baghdad is looking to mollify its fiercest critics within OPEC+, promising to implement extra cuts to meet its commitments but requesting an additional two months through November 2020 to resolve the matter

End of Article 

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