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巴菲特投资了这家石油公司,不管油价涨跌都会赚钱

Jen Wieczner 2019年05月22日

西方石油公司的首席执行官维姬·霍鲁布从沃伦·巴菲特手中获得了100亿美元的筹码,这是美国石油领域最大的一手牌。但现在还没到宣布胜利的时候。

加大赌注:西方石油公司首席执行官维姬·霍鲁布刚刚在石油行业占了一大块地盘。图片来源:Tim Pannell—The Forbes Collection/Contour by Getty Images

今年4月底的星期五,沃伦·巴菲特接到美国银行首席执行官布莱恩·莫尼汉的电话,问他会不会支持西方石油公司对竞争对手阿纳达科的收购。两天后,西方石油公司的首席执行官维姬·霍鲁布亲自出马飞往奥马哈,当面请求全世界最著名的投资者出手。巴菲特只考虑了一小时便同意了。

随后的星期天,伯克希尔-哈撒韦公司的首席执行官巴菲特正式承诺,如果霍鲁布能够完成交易,他将向西方石油公司提供100亿美元资金。当然其中也有个复杂因素:阿纳达科已经承诺出售给石油巨头雪佛龙,如果违约要赔偿10亿美元。接下来发生的事对美国本土的产油区来说堪称巨变,这里指的是从得克萨斯州到新墨西哥州面积达8.6万平方英里,著名的二叠纪盆地油田。而且是瞬息万变。

就在巴菲特和霍鲁布会面一周半之后,每天在头条新闻中你来我往的竞标战也宣告结束。雪佛龙(今年《财富》美国500强排名第11位)离场,西方石油公司(《财富》美国500强第167位)宣布将以570亿美元的总价收购阿纳达科石油公司(《财富》美国500强第237位),包括债务。这是20多年来美国石油和天然气领域最大的合并案(上一次是埃克森收购美孚),合并后的新公司将跻身《财富》美国100强。

之后在一次讨论投资的采访中,巴菲特告诉CNBC,“从长远来看,这笔交易是押注未来的石油价格。”但注意,他没有提是不是押注石油价格走高(他拒绝为本文向《财富》杂志发表评论)。“也是赌二叠纪盆地油田如预期一样厉害。” 巴菲特在电视节目中补充说。

没错,二叠纪油田是目前美国已知原油储量最大的地区之一。其发现令美国跻身石油生产大国。此处页岩沉积层很厚,可以通过水力压裂和泵送法开采石油,不仅吸引了雪佛龙、西方石油公司和阿纳达科,也吸引了其他数百家石油公司,占下得克萨斯州西部(以及新墨西哥州一角)大片土地。广泛采用“水力压裂”技术后,2018年美国原油日产量达到创纪录的1100万桶,也是冷战结束以来首次超过沙特阿拉伯和俄罗斯。从最新的月度数据来看,仅二叠纪油田每天的原油产量就超过了阿联酋、加拿大或伊朗。一些人预计,明年还可能超过伊拉克。如果西南地区变成独立国家,将成世界第四大石油生产国。“二叠纪油田在页岩领域绝对是巨无霸级别。”Integrity Viking Funds公司的首席信息官迈克·莫雷表示,他掌管的能源股基金业绩顶尖。

On the last Friday in April, Warren Buffett got a call from Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America, asking if he would back Occidental Petroleum’s underdog bid for rival oil driller Anadarko. Two days later, Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub was making the pitch herself, having flown to Omaha to appeal directly to the world’s most famous investor. It took Buffett only an hour to say yes.

That Sunday, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO promised $10 billion in financing to Occidental if Hollub could get the deal done. There was, of course, one complicating factor: Anadarko had already pledged to sell itself to oil giant Chevron and would owe the latter $1 billion if it broke their engagement. What followed was a remarkable coup d’état in America’s own oil-soaked Emirate—the famous Permian Basin that stretches 86,000 square miles from Texas to New Mexico—and it all happened in hyperspeed.

Just a week and a half after Buffett and Hollub’s meeting, a bidding war that had played out in daily headlines was over: Chevron (No. 11 on this year’s Fortune 500) walked, and Occidental (No. 167) announced it would buy Anadarko (No. 237) for a total price tag of $57 billion including debt. It’s the largest U.S. oil and gas merger in more than 20 years (since Exxon bought Mobil) and would catapult the combined company into the Fortune 100 elite.

Buffett, in an interview discussing his investment, told CNBC, “It’s a bet on oil prices over the long term more than anything else.” Yet notably, what he didn’t say was whether he was betting on oil prices to be higher. (He declined to comment to Fortune for this story.) “It’s also a bet on the fact that the Permian Basin is what it’s cracked up to be,” Buffett added during the TV segment, without elaborating.

Of course, what the Permian is—quite literally—cracked up to be is one of the biggest oil reserves America has ever known. And it has made the U.S. the top oil-producing country in the world. Its thick shale deposits, hydraulically fractured and pumped for oil, have attracted not only Chevron, Occidental, and Anadarko, but also hundreds of other drillers, which have claimed a big chunk of West Texas (as well as a corner of New Mexico). The “fracking” boom, as it’s known, is responsible for pushing U.S. crude production to a record of roughly 11 million barrels a day in 2018, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia for the first time since the end of the Cold War. As of the latest monthly data, the Permian alone produces more crude per day than the United Arab Emirates, Canada, or Iran; by next year, some expect it could also outpace Iraq, which would make the southwestern region the fourth-largest oil producer in the world, if it were its own country. “The Permian is the absolute 800-pound gorilla for shale,” says Mike Morey, CIO of Integrity Viking Funds, who runs a top-performing energy stock fund.

堪比独立经济体:仅二叠纪油田,每天原油产量就超过了伊朗或阿联酋。图片来源:Photographed by Benjamin Lowy for Fortune

不仅在美国,在全球范围内二叠纪油田也是开发成本最低的地区之一。跟成本高企的深水和海上钻井不一样,原油价格只要保持在每桶50美元,这里的石油公司就能赚钱。正因如此,对于2014年以来苦苦挣扎的能源公司来说,该地区无异于沙漠中的绿洲。2014年,西得克萨斯州原油价格从107美元的峰值暴跌,此后几年里,石油价格再未接近三位数,还曾经跌至每桶26美元的低位。

今年以来,油价总体上涨,2019年上涨了约35%,至每桶62美元左右。不过,市场上很少有多头认为石油还能够继续上涨。“如果没有真正持续的地缘政治事件,这里说的不是影响市场的周期性波动,那么极少有人相信大宗商品价格有上涨空间。”莱斯大学贝克公共政策研究所能源研究中心的资深能源经济学家米歇尔·米绍·福斯表示。

事实上,尽管5月对伊朗重启制裁导致生产中断,利比亚和委内瑞拉等欧佩克出口国发生动荡,但二叠纪油田产量太高,可以迅速弥补库存。摩根士丹利的股票分析师德文·麦克德莫特表示,从2009年大衰退结束到2014年,石油行业模式已经发生转变。“我们摆脱了十年的资源短缺,重点转移到石油供应高峰。之前总在想‘石油什么时候会耗尽?’后来变成石油太多用不完。”更重要的是,二叠纪油田至少能够确保接下来的20年里供应充足。

如今,经历了数轮颠簸的原油周期后,各个公司都在考虑,会不会价格平稳就是最好的情况。“业界意识到,不能再指望价格走高。”总部位于休斯顿的能源投资银行Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.的总裁丹·皮克林表示。他预计,在可预见的未来,油价将在每桶50至75美元之间波动。他说,毕竟还有一些政治力量存在。一方面,如果价格跌至低点无利可图,石油卡特尔组织欧佩克将削减产量;另一方面,特朗普将坚决让天然气保持低价,以推动美国经济发展。“我认为,原油价格范围已然确定,掉到50美元欧佩克会减产,涨到70美元特朗普就发推文。” 皮克林补充说。特朗普上任以来,关于石油和天然气价格的推文越来越多,2019年以来发了8条,仅4月就提了3次,内容大多是呼吁欧佩克增加供应。

价格不太可能出现井喷,石油公司也只好努力适应。过去大概6个月里,美国能源公司削减资本支出,减少钻井平台数量,提高了盈利能力,现金流状况也有所改善。“现在经常有种‘把60美元当100美元’的感觉。”乔纳森·瓦霍恩说,他曾经在壳牌担任钻井工程师,如今在吉尼斯阿特金森资产管理公司当投资组合经理。

讽刺的是,油田之前过好日子时并不像表面一样风光。瓦霍恩说,前些年石油价格每桶100美元时,公司盈利水平也不怎么样。摩根士丹利表示,从过去油价高企时到去年,美国石油天然气勘探生产公司在资本支出和股息方面的支出总是超过现金流。而且页岩油革命开始以来,标准普尔500指数(S&P 500)能源股指数表现一直不佳。“如果我们在美国能源超新星(页岩)诞生之际就观察水晶球,人们都会猜测能源股会走势很好,但事实并非如此。”投行Piper Jaffray石油天然气部门西蒙斯能源的董事总经理兼高级研究分析师比尔·赫伯特表示。

多年来,能源行业令众多投资者折戟,许多人已经放弃。但西方石油公司这笔交易可能重新燃起人们的兴趣。观察巴菲特投入的100亿美元能如何起作用会很有趣。

The Permian is also one of the cheapest places to drill for oil, not only in the U.S., but in the world. Unlike costly deepwater and offshore rigs, drillers can make money on Permian oil as long as it trades for at least $50 a barrel. That’s made the region an oasis for energy companies that have struggled ever since 2014, when West Texas crude prices collapsed from a peak of $107. In the years since, prices have never come close to reaching triple digits and have dipped as low as $26 a barrel.

So far this year, prices have generally been on the upswing, and are up some 35% in 2019—to around $62 per barrel—despite concerns that a continuing trade war with China will slow demand. Still, it’s hard to find a bull who thinks that oil has reason to rise much more. “Short of a real sustained geopolitical event—not the periodic flashes that have been impacting the markets—I don’t know that anybody thinks that there’s an upside for commodity prices themselves,” says longtime energy economist Michelle Michot Foss, a fellow at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Indeed, even with production disruptions resulting from the reactivation of Iran sanctions in May—as well as turmoil in other OPEC exporters like Libya and Venezuela—the Permian has created such an abundance of supply that it can quickly make up for lost inventory. In the years between 2009, when the Great Recession ended, and 2014, there’s been a paradigm shift in the industry, says Devin McDermott, an equity analyst at Morgan Stanley: “We’ve gone from a decade of resource scarcity, and the focus on peak oil supply—‘when do we run out of oil?’—to more oil than we need.” What’s more, there’s enough still in the Permian ground to last at least the next 20 years.

Now, after generations of seesawing crude cycles, companies are wondering whether the best they can hope for, in terms of prices, is flat. “The industry is realizing they can’t count on higher prices,” says Dan Pickering, president of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., an energy investment bank headquartered in Houston. He expects oil to trade between $50 and $75 a barrel for the foreseeable future. After all, he says, there are also political forces at play—with, on the one hand, the OPEC oil cartel ready to slash output if prices fall to unprofitable lows, and on the other, President Trump determined to ensure gas stays cheap to fuel the U.S. economy. “My view is, we’ve determined the price range for crude: OPEC is cutting production at $50, and Trump is tweeting at $70,” adds Pickering. Since taking office, Trump has tweeted increasingly often about oil and gas prices—eight times so far in 2019, and three in April alone—generally calling on OPEC to pump more supply to market.

The price may not exactly be a gusher, but the drillers are figuring out how to live with it. In the past six months or so, U.S. energy companies have trimmed capital spending, and cut down on the number of rigs, boosting their profitability and allowing them to retain more of their cash flow. “We kind of use the phrase ‘$60 is the new $100,’ ” says Jonathan Waghorn, a onetime Shell drilling engineer who is now a portfolio manager for Guinness Atkinson.

The irony is, the good ole days for the oil patch weren’t exactly that. Even when oil was $100 a barrel a few years ago, companies weren’t as profitable as they should have been, says Waghorn. In those heady days, and until last year, U.S. oil and gas exploration and production companies paid out more on capital expenditures and dividends than they had in cash flow, according to Morgan Stanley—and S&P 500 energy stocks have been consistent underperformers since the start of the shale oil revolution. “If we were looking into your crystal ball at this supernova birth [of shale] in the U.S., I think you would have surmised that these stocks would have done exceedingly well, but they haven’t,” says Bill Herbert, managing director and senior research analyst at Simmons Energy, the oil and gas investment banking arm of Piper Jaffray.

For years, the sector burned so many investors that many abandoned it. But the Occidental deal may have reignited interest. It’s funny what $10 billion from Warren Buffett will do.

****

回过头来看看西方石油公司为何赌上全部身家,用尽所有筹码也要收购阿纳达科,以及为何大规模踏足二叠纪油田。过去几个月里,西方石油超过了规模大得多的雪佛龙,成为二叠纪油田最大的石油公司,但优势很难保持。因为雪佛龙对二叠纪油田的雄心也不断增加,最近承诺到2020年增加53%的产量。

这是雪佛龙也想收购阿纳达科的原因。一旦两家石油公司联姻,会形成一些独特的优势。两家公司在二叠纪油田控制的地盘沿着旧的得州太平洋铁路线延伸,意味着合并之后会像巨大的棋盘一样连起来,进一步降低成本。竞争对手西方石油将被淘汰出局。

西方石油自己可能也已经发现,想要继续保持该地区领先地位不太可能。所以西方石油一直垂涎阿纳达科,而且两家就潜在交易已经谈判近两年。当4月中旬雪佛龙宣布同意以500亿美元收购阿纳达科连同债务时,西方石油立刻发现身处困境,想要收购阿纳达科,就得以某种方式拆散雪佛龙的交易,还要处理10亿美元赔偿的问题。

在二叠纪油田,往“干油井”投钱几乎没有风险,因为大家都知道“坚硬岩石”里有石油,也就是广为人知的页岩层。靠近墨西哥湾海岸的地理位置也能够确保将原油方便地运至市场,尤其现在新管道已经开通。“从很多方面来看,这对石油公司来说非常理想。”福斯说。“石油公司从油田到市场搭起了完整价值链,在美国沿海有出口权。近30年到40年里都没有过这么好的条件。”

吞下阿纳达科之后,西方石油在黄金地带的地位将进一步巩固。话虽如此,代价也十分巨大,收购价比雪佛龙的出价每股多了11美元。巴菲特援助100亿美元换得了西方石油10万股优先股,年息8%。并非所有人都认为价格合理。西方石油宣布收购阿纳达科之后的三周里,股价暴跌了13%,股东纷纷批评收购成本高,而且让巴菲特占了大便宜。持有西方石油2.8%股份的普信集团在5月的股东大会上威胁要罢免公司董事会(未成功),还抱怨称管理层应该让股东就收购投票表决。

“我们认为二叠纪油田是西方石油的核心资产。” 普信集团的首席投资官约翰·林汉说。他补充称,西方石油在二叠纪油田的资产是他当初投资的“核心原因”。奇怪的是,阿纳达科的交易反而冲淡了该优势。他表示,尽管合并后的新公司在二叠纪油田占的地盘更大,但生产不再那么集中,因为阿纳达科在其他地区的产量占比更高。“这不是比谁规模最大。”林汉说。“比的是谁总回报更高。”

“我们了解二叠纪油田。这是我们公司的基础。”西方石油公司的首席执行官维姬·霍鲁布在《财富》杂志上发表声明说。“但面积大小对我们来说并不重要。最重要的不是规模达到最大,而是实力最强。我认为这点已经证明。”关于绕过股东投票环节,霍鲁布在最近的财报电话会议中表示,此举是为了“增加实现的可能性”,因为雪佛龙的收购协议不需要投票。“这场比赛并不公平。”她说。

Which brings us back to Occidental’s all-in, table-clearing bid for Anadarko, and the hunt for scale in the Permian. In the past few months, Occidental nudged past the much-larger Chevron to become the top Permian oil producer, but it was going to be hard to stay there: Chevron was rapidly upping its Permian ambitions, and had recently promised to grow its production there 53% by 2020.

That’s why Chevron wanted Anadarko, too. The notion of marriage between the two oil producers promised some unique advantages: The parcels each company controls in the Permian run along the old Texas & Pacific rail line, meaning a merger would have united the land like a massive checkerboard, lowering costs further. Rival Occidental would be boxed out.

On its own, Occidental would likely find it nearly impossible to hang on as the region’s top producer. That’s why it, too, had been coveting Anadarko—and indeed had been in talks with the company over a potential deal for almost two years. When Chevron announced its agreement to purchase Anadarko in mid-April for $50 billion including debt, Occidental found itself between tight rock and a hard place: If it wanted Anadarko, it would have to somehow break up the Chevron deal and cover its billion-dollar dowry.

In the Permian Basin, there’s virtually no risk of wasting money on “dry” wells because everyone knows that oil is in that “tight rock,” as the shale formations are known. The proximity to the Gulf Coast also makes it convenient for companies to get the crude to market—especially now with new pipelines opening up. “This is really just an ideal situation for companies in a great number of respects,” Foss says. “They’ve got a complete value chain from field to market, and with coastal access for exports right in the United States. They haven’t had that for 30 to 40 years.”

By gobbling up Anadarko, Occidental would get to solidify its position in this golden region even more. That said, it’s paying a mighty big premium—$11 more per share than what Chevron offered. And in exchange for his $10 billion, Buffett has received 100,000 preferred shares in Occidental , with an 8% annual dividend. Not everyone thinks the price is justified. Occidental’s stock plummeted 13% in the three weeks after it went public with the Ana¬darko bid, with its own shareholders criticizing the high cost of the purchase and the fact that Buffett got the sweeter end of the deal. T. Rowe Price, which holds 2.8% of Occidental shares, had (unsuccessfully) threatened to oust the company’s board of directors at its May shareholder meeting, complaining that management should have let shareholders vote on the merger.

“We view the Permian as Occidental’s crown jewel,” says John Linehan, chief investment officer of equity at T. Rowe Price, adding that Occidental’s assets here were the “core reason” he invested in the company in the first place. But the Anadarko deal, oddly enough, dilutes that rationale. While the combined company will have more acreage in the Permian Basin, he says, its overall production will be less concentrated there, because Anadarko has a larger share of its output outside the region. “This isn’t the race to be the biggest,” says Linehan. “It’s the race to have the best total returns.”

“We know the Permian. It’s the foundation of our company,” says Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub in a statement to Fortune. “But it’s not size that matters to us. What really matters to us is not to be the biggest but to be the best. And I think we’ve proven that.” With regard to bypassing a shareholder vote on the deal, Hollub said on a recent earnings call that the company did so to ensure that it “had a reasonable chance to make this happen,” as the Chevron agreement did not require a vote. “We weren’t playing on a level playing field,” she said.

面积堪比得克萨斯州的油田:在得克萨斯州米德兰,二叠纪油田中心,几乎人人都是石油工人,许多美国石油公司都在加倍投入。图片来源:Photographed by Benjamin Lowy for Fortune

另一方面,即便雪佛龙收购阿纳达科失败也影响不大。“海里的鱼还有很多。”投资组合经理瓦霍恩表示。“阿纳达科没有什么特别之处。”事实上,随着大石油集团在收购意愿方面有所显露,二叠纪油田有不少石油公司都可成为潜在的收购目标。分析师们正关注先锋自然资源、诺贝尔能源、阿帕奇公司、康休资源、欧芹能源和响尾蛇能源等收购候选目标。“有可能只要再出现一笔收购,就会开启大规模整合浪潮。”皮克林表示。“如果埃克森、壳牌、英国石油公司或道达尔再做笔大交易,市场上就会有不少公司匆忙寻找目标,还会有很多人担心错过机会。”

新兴的水力压裂行业也出现并购浪潮的迹象,让投资银行家皮克林想起了20世纪90年代末的互联网繁荣。当时,投资者拼命追逐高增长,就算公司没有利润也敢投资,最后市场崩盘,互联网创业公司只能整合。“现在的油田也一样。” 皮克林说。

总的来说,随着各个公司收缩钻探业务,美国石油产量增长总体上将放缓。关键技巧在于,即便到最后石油价格恢复上涨,也不要太积极提高产量,以免价格再次暴跌。“希望这一次业界能吸取教训。”Integrity Viking基金的迈克·莫雷说。

毕竟,二叠纪油田的石油公司自身也可能有动力控制供应和价格。因为比起美国以外的石油公司,本土石油公司靠价格更低的石油赚钱更容易。油价低的时候,面临的竞争也更小。Cushing Asset Management公司的投资组合经理兼联席首席信息官约翰·穆斯格雷夫表示,如果油价涨至每桶80美元,国外很多竞争对手也会开动钻井。“从理论上讲,几乎不会希望原油价格飞涨。”

至于巴菲特,他手上持有优先股,所以不管油价如何他都能赚钱。这可能才是多年来油田里最赚钱的一招。(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年6月刊,标题为《得克萨斯州女王持有的筹码》。

译者:Feb

Chevron, on the other hand, is no worse for wear without Anadarko. “There are plenty more fish in the sea,” says portfolio manager Waghorn. “There’s no particular reason that Anadarko should stand out.” In fact, now that the major oil conglomerate has tipped its hand in terms of its acquisition appetite, a slew of Permian producers look like potential targets. Analysts are eyeing Pioneer Natural Resources, Noble Energy, Apache Corp., Concho Resources, Parsley Energy, and Diamondback Energy, among others, as takeout candidates. “I think we’re probably one deal away from a big consolidation wave,” says Pickering. “If we see Exxon, Shell, BP, or Total do another big transaction, I think there will be a huge rush to find your dance partner, and there will be a significant amount of fear of missing out.”

The signs of an imminent M&A wave in the still-nascent fracking industry remind Pickering, the investment banker, of the dotcom boom of the late ’90s. Back then, investors chased high growth, throwing money at com¬panies despite their lack of profits—before the market crash ultimately forced a consolidation of Internet ¬startups. “That’s happening in the oil patch now,” Pickering says.

Inevitably, U.S. oil production growth, on the whole, will slow, as companies pull back on drilling. The trick for them, if oil prices do ultimately rise, will be not ramping production back up too aggressively, such that prices collapse again. “Hopefully this time the industry learns its lesson,” says Integrity Viking’s Mike Morey.

After all, Permian producers themselves may have an incentive to keep supply—and prices—in check. Because they can make money on cheaper oil than many drillers outside the U.S. can, they face less competition when prices are low. If the price of oil were to rise to $80 a barrel, more foreign competitors would start pumping too, says John Musgrave, ¬portfolio manager and co-CIO of Cushing Asset Management. “Theoretically, you almost wouldn’t want crude oil prices to skyrocket higher.”

As for Buffett, he’s going to make money no matter where oil prices go, thanks to his preferred shares. That may be the most profitable move in the oil patch in years.

This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Queen of Texas Hold ‘Em.”

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