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The second quarter was not kind to some of the oil majors.
Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A)(NYSE:RDS-B) revealed that its quarterly profits dropped by 33 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago. Its upstream unit fared worse, with revenues down almost 80 percent year-on-year. Its output also declined by 11 percent as its multiyear divestment program took its toll. Shell's CEO said that the company was preparing for a prolonged downturn, and that it would slash another 6,500 jobs to trim down the company's costs. The company will also slash capital expenditures by 20 percent.
Its peers also had posted some grim numbers. BP (NYSE:BP) reported a large quarterly loss of $6.3 billion, which took into account huge costs stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Even disregarding those charges, BP had a horrendous quarter, writing off $600 million worth of assets in Libya.
The situation will only improve when oil prices rise from their current low points. Much of that depends on how quickly or deep U.S. shale production adjusts lower in the second half of 2015, having already shown resilience since oil prices started falling last year.
The markets are trying to figure out where and when oil production in the U.S. has (or will) peak, which would usher in a period of contraction, a necessary development for oil prices to substantially rebound. But using data from the EIA has been challenging, to say the least. Some EIA data indicates that oil production posted weekly declines several times over the course of the spring, while subsequent data from a different survey suggested that output continued to rise. The different surveys have different data collection methods, some being forecasts while others having a sharper retrospective look using harder data.
The conflicting data has clouded the oil market picture. To be sure, the U.S. publishes some of the best energy statistics out there, and the EIA should be given some slack as it is extremely difficult to get an accurate picture on such a dynamic market. But the confusion is contributing to volatile price movements, with no clear outlook on what to expect in the coming weeks or months. With so much money on the line, small discrepancies in EIA data can swing investments to a large degree.
With that said, maybe commodity traders are expecting too much from the agency. "If you're using the weekly production numbers to do trades on Wall Street, you're dumb," Gary Long, a petroleum engineer who collects data for EIA, told the Houston Chronicle in mid-July. "This is not going to work out for you. Don't do that. We've actually had people call us and be very angry with us because they've lost a lot of money."
A glimmer of hope on the horizon came from a Wall Street Journal report on July 29 that suggested that Saudi Arabia may pull back on production after the summer. Saudi Arabia tends to throttle back on production in the fall after domestic demand peaks in the summer, when oil is needed for higher electricity generation. The WSJ says that Saudi Arabia could reduce production by 200,000 or 300,000 barrels per day in the coming months, after ramping up to 10.56 million barrels per day in June, an all-time high.
Lower output from Saudi Arabia would be welcome, as any reduction in supply will ease the glut. And since it is Saudi Arabia, the markets will put outsized importance on any adjustment in output.
But such a move wouldn't substantially change the supply picture. Even if Saudi Arabia does reduce production by a few hundred thousand barrels per day that would merely retrace some of its production gains over the past few months. More importantly, the WSJ says it probably wouldn't change the level of exports, which would ultimately matter more for prices than absolute production figures.
And a small reduction doesn't necessarily alter Saudi Arabia's – or OPEC's – ongoing strategy of pursuing market share. In fact, OPEC's Secretary-General Abdullah El-Badri reiterated on July 30 that the group has no intention of revising its targeted output level.