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Why Can’t Hedge Funds Make Up Their Minds About Oil Prices?

By Taylor Muckerman and Sean O'Reilly - Apr 4, 2017 at 1:09PM

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Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon Oil have all shed huge amounts of oil sands assets recently.

Last week, ConocoPhillips (COP 3.44%) announced a sell-off of $13.3 billion in oil-sands assets to Cenovus Energy (CVE 5.79%). This move comes on the heels of Royal Dutch Shell's (RDS.A) (RDS.B) oil-sands sell off a few months ago, and Marathon Oil (MRO 0.14%) is rumored to be joining the club soon.

On this edition of Industry Focus: Energy, Motley Fool analysts Sean O'Reilly and Taylor Muckerman explain why these big oil companies are selling their sands projects, and what it means for the oil market at large. Also, the hosts look at why hedge funds are betting on a renewed decline below $50 a barrel, what's going on with joint-venture activity between Schlumberger (SLB 0.23%) and Weatherford (NYSE: WFT), and more.

A full transcript follows the video. 

This video was recorded on March 30, 2017.

Sean O'Reilly: Welcome to Industry Focus, the podcast that dives into a different sector of the stock market every day. Today is Thursday, March 30, 2017, so we're talking about energy, materials, and industrials. I'm your host, Sean O'Reilly, and joining me today in studio is Motley Fool Premium analyst Mr. Taylor Muckerman. How are you, sir?

Taylor Muckerman: I am great! Pizza Day today!

O'Reilly: It is Pizza Day today, on a Thursday! It's the first time in Fool history, what's going on here?

Muckerman: I don't know. It's madness.

O'Reilly: It is absolute madness. It might be an April Fool's Day prank. We're going to find out in about 30 minutes.

Muckerman: I'm sure it has something to do with April Fool's. It's our national holiday.

O'Reilly: To all our listeners, as you can imagine, we here at The Motley Fool take April Fool's very seriously. In fact, I'm not even talking to Taylor -- I'm just kidding. Today, Taylor, we're talking about the possibility that hedge funds are now betting on a renewed decline for crude oil below $50 a barrel. Actually, there's a rather large oil-sands asset sale, this time from ConocoPhillips. But first, I want to get some quick thoughts from you on oil's recent pop. Couple percent. We've been harping on it so much lately, I wanted to be positive for a bit.

Muckerman: I think, you know, a couple weeks ago, it hit a three-month low. So it popped a little bit.

O'Reilly: Because inventories kept going up. It was crazy. But I think, basically, you have the double whammy of, I think Libya shut down a pipeline that connected their largest field to some refineries.

Muckerman: So, temporary.

O'Reilly: Temporary, I don't know. To the bulls' credit, no bears talk about the possibility that one of these countries just goes nuts again. Because it used to be good for $10 --

Muckerman: Just production? Or geopolitical?

O'Reilly: Five years ago, the possibility of something crazy happening in Iraq or whatever, that was good for $5-$10 on a barrel of crude. Now, it's like, nobody cares.

Muckerman: I don't know. I think before OPEC shut it down in November of 2014, I think geopolitical risk was pushed aside, and I think, in hindsight for me, that was a warning sign, when you had some uprisings in a few major oil producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and oil didn't really move as much as it did traditionally. In hindsight, that was a red flag for me; we should have seen this coming.

O'Reilly: But nobody cared.

Muckerman: Yeah, nobody cared because everybody had oil, oil was $100 a barrel, it was at its peak price.

O'Reilly: For sure. And then you had the gasoline inventory draw, which means there'll be an oil draw next week? 

Muckerman: Hard to predict.

O'Reilly: The consistent thing is, I feel like everybody is grasping at straws.

Muckerman: Yeah, they're all looking for something as a reason to why it moves 1% or 2%. I don't look too deeply into it.

O'Reilly: Yeah. I don't know if you listened to the episode I did with [Tyler] Crowe, but he's like, everybody fixates on the U.S. because it has the best data, but it's not, it's just guys trading for the heck of it. Anyway. Speaking of guys trading for the heck of it --

Muckerman: Yeah, no kidding. Hedge funds.

O'Reilly: Hedge funds betting, I guess ... I thought it was just them selling their longs, but, anyway. Hedge funds betting on a renewed decline below $50 a barrel. What's up?

Muckerman: That's what the Financial Times headlines said a week ago. This was after all the headlines are saying hedge funds have never bet this much on rising oil prices, in the history of oil trading. And now they have a historical decline in their long bets. I think it was 153 million barrels reduction in net long position across WTI --

O'Reilly: Just, for the layman, these are futures contracts.

Muckerman: Yeah, so, they're betting on the future price of oil.

O'Reilly: Right, and these are contracts to theoretically buy 153 million -- that was the decrease? Or was that the total?

Muckerman: That was the combined decrease across WTI and Brent --

O'Reilly: So the net longs are way more than that?

Muckerman: Yeah, they are. It was the third straight week of selling after they hit a net long peak of 951 million barrels at the end of February.

O'Reilly: That's the number I needed, OK.

Muckerman: So that's your relative number. It was a peak of 951 million. And last week, they sold off a combined 153 --

O'Reilly: And it dropped off to 800.

Muckerman: Well, that was the third week of declines, but that was the biggest decline in history. Because, I mean, you're starting from the biggest --

O'Reilly: Percentage-wise, you're starting from 16%-17%. So, for the layman, these guys and their ties on the New York Mercantile Exchange, they have all these futures contracts to essentially take delivery of crude oil at a future date, at a set price, for 953 million barrels, which is actually a lot of oil.

Muckerman: That's a considerable amount.

O'Reilly: Then it decreased to 800. And just so everybody knows, most of these never actually -- nobody ever actually takes delivery of the oil; it's just a financial asset. But theoretically, you could take delivery if you wanted to. But most people don't. Isn't there $1-$2 per barrel that you pay in addition if you actually take delivery?

Muckerman: I'm not 100% sure how these future contracts work. I know how they can impact prices, but I've never personally bought a futures contract.

O'Reilly: We should pool our money and buy one future.

Muckerman: One barrel of oil? Yeah.

O'Reilly: "We want to buy a future for three months from now."

Muckerman: We'll look into it. We'll advertise it. If listeners want to chip in, we'll start our own hedge fund.

O'Reilly: We both live in Arlington. Which of our places could we keep this barrel when we take delivery? 

Muckerman: I have a garage.

O'Reilly: How would your wife feel about that? Oh, you have a garage! We'll put the barrel of the oil in your garage!

Muckerman: It's a communal garage. People might siphon it.

O'Reilly: They couldn't refine that.

Muckerman: It's like the episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia several years back, when they were filling their Land Rover on barrels of gasoline because gasoline prices were rising through the roof.

O'Reilly: Oh, man. You know Dylan from the Tech show loves Always Sunny, right?

Muckerman: I hope more than just Dylan loves it.

O'Reilly: No, so do I, and I'm so glad you brought that up. Anyway. It seems to me like they're not necessarily betting on oil being below $50. They're just being a little less bullish.

Muckerman: Being a little less bullish, but also, because they still have such high long bets if oil starts to fall a little bit more and they get a little nervous and they sell, that could just be added pressure to the downside for oil prices.

O'Reilly: You could get a cascade.

Muckerman: A cascade, yeah, that's a good word.

O'Reilly: Well, you know, I'm a bit of a poet. Do you care about any of this? For our listeners who are, obviously, long-term Foolish investors?

Muckerman: It's just funny to see how whimsical these hedge funds really are, to go from record longs one day to, the very next week, record selling.

O'Reilly: I think it's algorithms.

Muckerman: It very well could be.

O'Reilly: There was one hedge fund that was an algorithmic trading firm; the name escapes me.

Muckerman: There's more than one.

O'Reilly: Bottom line, 90% of the trades on the New York Stock Exchange, it's just algorithms going nuts.

Muckerman: I would imagine it's very high, I don't want to call out a number, but it's very high. It's higher than 50%.

O'Reilly: I think of an algorithm that could flip instantly and it would be hilarious.

Muckerman: Maybe we just need to start making a lot of tweets about bullish oil, because apparently some algorithms read Twitter.

O'Reilly: They do read Twitter, you're right. So, Mr. Muckerman!

Muckerman: Yes?

O'Reilly: Shell Oil a couple months ago.

Muckerman: Yeah, Royal Dutch Shell.

O'Reilly: They sold off their oil-sands assets up there in the Canadian North.

Muckerman: Not every last barrel of exposure, but yeah, they sold off $7.25 billion worth.

O'Reilly: So, naturally, you're like, that's a lot of money.

Muckerman: Yeah, they sold it to Canadian Natural Resources.

O'Reilly: All of a sudden, ConocoPhillips announces this week --

Muckerman: A deal nearly double that at $13.3 billion, and that's also on the tales of Marathon Oil selling $2.5 billion --

O'Reilly: What did they pay for these assets?

Muckerman: That I haven't really taken a dive into.

O'Reilly: For an oil company, $1 billion is like ... but this is a chunk of change for even these guys.

Muckerman: Sure, $13 billion is definitely a chunk of change. They had to cut their dividend recently, so they're trimming some debt, they're buying back shares, doubling their share buyback from $3 billion to $6 billion using some of this money. But they're not losing all of their exposure to the oil sands, because what equates to $2.7 billion of that $13.3 billion total is being paid to them in Cenovus Energy shares, which is who's buying these assets from them. So another Canadian oil-sands specialist buying these assets, but they're getting share, so they still have exposure to the success or failure of these assets. They also have a five-year contingency in this deal where for every dollar that Western Canadian Select oil --

O'Reilly: This is way more complicated than I thought.

Muckerman: -- is above $52, which is a little ways away, to be fair. They're going to get $6 million every quarter for the next five years if, for every dollar Western Canadian Select is over $52 a barrel.

O'Reilly: So if it's at $62, they get $60 million?

Muckerman: They get $60 million that quarter.

O'Reilly: Oh, boy.

Muckerman: So they have a lot of upside.

O'Reilly: Kudos to ConocoPhillips; that actually feels a little bit better. I thought that was just, they bought these assets when oil was at $100 and now they're cutting their losses. But this is actually ...

Muckerman: They're basically trimming their exposure from the $13.3 billion that this price suggests the assets were worth down to $10.6 billion with upside.

O'Reilly: It's been a while since we talked about this, but throughout even the downturn, oil frackers, domestic onshore in the United States, they've gotten even better at what they do. I think I saw a headline the other day, there was something in the Permian Basin, they're talking about profitable, that $20-$25, it's like, oh my gosh. Do you hear any kind of efficiency rumblings coming out of the oil sands?

Muckerman: Not to that degree. But they are slightly more efficient just because they have to be, because they're on the higher end of the cost curve. But if you listen to the IEA [International Energy Agency], they still expect Canada to be a significant contributor to global oil supply. That's not going to come without the oil sands. So what you're seeing here is global oil companies selling these assets, the buyers, who happened to be oil-sands specialists. So, Cenovus Energy, Canadian oil producer--

O'Reilly: So, this is the efficiency thing I'm talking about.

Muckerman: Yeah. So, these companies think, "We're probably better at this than ConocoPhillips or Shell or Marathon Oil." So, you have Canadian Natural Resources and Cenovus being buyers of this oil sands project, some of which they've already had stakes in with these companies, they're just buying the remainder of the stake. But also they're getting into some newer projects that they were previously a part of.

O'Reilly: I wonder if [Suncor Energy] up there, I know it was a Buffett holding for a while, I think he sold --

Muckerman: It was, they're the vertically integrated, they're the [ExxonMobil] of Canada.

O'Reilly: I wonder if they'll start, because they're good at getting oil out of the oil sands.

Muckerman: Yeah, that's also a part of their bread and butter.

O'Reilly: I wonder if they'll do anything. I always liked that company.

Muckerman: I don't know, because they're right along the lines with Canadian Natural Resources and Cenovus Energies of the world, where they understand oil sands. So it's not like they bought into it thinking, "This will be part of our portfolio." That's what they do.

O'Reilly: They have those giant trucks that you put the tar in.

Muckerman: Yeah. So I don't know if they'll be sellers. Maybe they had some bids out there for these last -- I don't know, I didn't see that. But if somebody else sells, maybe it's their turn.

O'Reilly: That'd be fun. So, this sounds like a good deal for everybody, because ConocoPhillips is getting some incentive if this works out --

Muckerman: And they're paying down debt.

O'Reilly: -- and people who are good at this are working the assets. There you go.

Muckerman: We'll follow it for a little while, because where oil prices are at today, it's probably not as lucrative to continue to develop these assets, but if oil demand continues to rise, Canada, like the IEA said, should play an important role.

O'Reilly: Cool. Before we head out, you get the last word. Anything else on your mind?

Muckerman: Just, there's --

O'Reilly: How's your bracket doing?

Muckerman: I think I still have UNC in there. I got that going for me. 

O'Reilly: David Gardner loves you right now.

Muckerman: I was raised there my whole life, so I have to at least support the home team. But, just, some joint ventures going on out there if you want to pay attention to the North American drilling market. Schlumberger and Weatherford, they have a target on Halliburton's back on the North American fracking market. Halliburton is the leader in the industry, and North America.

O'Reilly: Service companies throwing down.

Muckerman: If you don't have a target on your back, maybe your competition isn't doing something right. Weatherford getting thrown a bone here by Schlumberger; they were the fourth player in the market; Schlumberger was No. 2 in North America, right around there. Now they have about 3 million hydraulic horsepower of competitive fracking capabilities here in North America. Weatherford recently poached Halliburton's CFO to run Weatherford.

O'Reilly: That's how you get a promotion, folks.

Muckerman: Yeah. That was earlier this month. I mean, I'm interested to see how this works out. Halliburton was planning on hiring by the end of this quarter, by the end of this month.

O'Reilly: This isn't the first time you've talked about those drillers, because now it's time for them to reap the harvest, because they're like, "We were giving you guys a break for two years, now it's time for us to get some day rates up here."

Muckerman: Yeah, if you look at Dave Lesar, Halliburton CEO, in their last call, he "loves the outlook for North American unconventional oil." They plan on doubling the equipment that they're going to bring back online this year than what they originally thought. Like I mentioned, they're basically hiring 2,000 more --

O'Reilly: This is why oil is staying below $50, people. 

Muckerman: I know! They're focusing on North America, which is where you can produce it for cheaper than $50.

O'Reilly: Unbelievable. Thank you for your thoughts, sir.

Muckerman: Yeah, cheers.

O'Reilly: Have a good one. Let's go get some pizza!

Muckerman: I'm right on board.

O'Reilly: That is it for us, folks. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for the Technology show with Always Sunny in Philadelphia enthusiastic and technology host Dylan Lewis. If you're a loyal listener and have questions or comments, we would love to hear from you. Just email us at As always, people on this program may have interests in the stocks that they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against those stocks, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear on this program. For Taylor Muckerman, I am Sean O'Reilly. Thanks for listening, and Fool on!

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Stocks Mentioned

Royal Dutch Shell plc Stock Quote
Royal Dutch Shell plc
Schlumberger Limited Stock Quote
Schlumberger Limited
$35.06 (0.23%) $0.08
ConocoPhillips Stock Quote
$90.91 (3.44%) $3.02
Royal Dutch Shell plc Stock Quote
Royal Dutch Shell plc
Marathon Oil Corporation Stock Quote
Marathon Oil Corporation
$22.05 (0.14%) $0.03
Cenovus Energy Inc. Stock Quote
Cenovus Energy Inc.
$18.83 (5.79%) $1.03

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