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Huge oil companies, among the largest businesses in the world, don't excite hedge fund manager Jim Chanos because today they have to work harder and more inefficiently than ever to bring their products to market.
"[W]e're just seeing that ... these guys like Exxon (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) (NYSE:RDS-B) are simply replacing $20 [per barrel] oil with $80 oil," Chanos said May 24 on the PBS television program "Wall Street Week." "So high return-on-capital businesses are becoming more mundane return-on-capital businesses."
This isn't surprising, as the average global price of oil plummeted from its high of more than $110 a barrel 11 months ago to less than half that value by the end of 2014. Now it's recovered a bit to prices in the mid-$60 range.
Chanos, the president and founder of the New York investment advisor Kynikos Associates, said the reason that operating expenses are racking up is because oil majors have to "deal with Mr. Putin" -- that is, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and "having to do things like drill in the Arctic."
Further, he said, energy companies are now forced to "construct these enormously expensive LNG -- liquefied natural gas -- plants and increasingly add ... risk to the portfolio where it just used to be much simpler. You know, drill somewhere and pull the oil out."
All told, he said, he and other hedge fund managers have come to feel "really negative" about integrated oil companies. As a result, he said, Kynikos is short-selling some of the most prominent energy giants because of a potential surplus of oil and gas that is a "disaster waiting to happen" to the industry.
Chanos said he's "leery of the very leveraged guys in any company that's running negative cash flow after capital spending. So they're not covering their dividends or their buybacks." As for specifics, he said, "So names like Chevron, names like British Gas-slash-Royal Dutch, and then of course some of the big national companies, the Petrobrases of the world."
Such comments from Chanos are nothing new. Earlier this month, at the May 5-8 Skybridge Alternatives Conference in Las Vegas, he said Kynikos is betting against shares of Chevron as well as both Shell and British Gas, now known as BG Group, which Shell has decided to buy for $70 billion, making it probably the world's biggest LNG producer.
Chanos said that making such a large bet on LNG could be a liability because in addition to the expense of producing, storing and shipping the fuel, there's been languid demand for it during the past several years. BG's CEO, Helge Lund, has since responded, saying demand for the fuel is growing and that LNG will gradually take over an increasingly larger share of global energy.
Closing the program, one of the interviewers, Anthony Scaramucci, the founder of Sky Bridge Capital, asked Chanos if he could offer an "actionable idea" for investors. In a nutshell, Chanos replied, he would "short the North American frackers," whose oil and gas extraction process is so expensive.
"It's a flawed business model," Chanos said.