Share Watch: Can 'big oil' rediscover its energy with Greta leading the resistance?
Things are changing so fast, it's often hard to keep pace. It seems such a short time since the world economy was beholden to the so-called 'Seven Sisters', the seven firm monopoly that, for 30 years and more, controlled a staggering 85pc of the world's oil reserves.
To say it called the shots around the globe is an understatement, and when eventually it was challenged in the 1970s, it led to worldwide recessions and unparalleled economic changes which we are still living with. Who would have thought that jumping ahead to 2019, we would see a 16-year-old Swedish girl with a pigtail telling the United Nations that the search for 'oil riches' should be abandoned and existing production should be managed down? Stranger still is the fact that the United Nations is actually listening, and scores of millions around the world are marching in solidarity with her.
Not surprisingly everything about the oil industry has to cope with shifting investors' attitudes and regulations. The capital intensive oil services business that surrounds the process of recovering oil and gas is also changing. An example is our company this week, the Franco/US TechnipFMC.
The French arm of the group, Technip SA, was formed in 1958 and involved primarily in the subsea, offshore/onshore energy business and listed on the Paris stock exchange. Its merged partner FMC Technologies, a US company, designs and manufactures products for subsea production, including high-pressure pumps and fluid control equipment. It has been listed on the NYSE since 2001.
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Today the merged group is a global energy services company with a portfolio of solutions for the production of oil. The company has a complete package for oil producers, helping them to take oil from the seabed to the refinery. It is a leader in the design and construction of oil refineries and offers a range of services for natural gas treatment. It is well diversified geographically with large oil customers like Shell, BP, Exxon and Chevron, and oil states. However the company even after the merger now feels it is time to move on.
Recently the group approved a plan to spin-off part of its business. A 'new' company with its focus on the fast-growing liquefied natural gas business in addition to biofuels and other new energy alternatives is planned. It will employ 15,000 people and be headquartered in Paris, incorporated in the Netherlands and listed on the Paris stock exchange. The spin-off leaves the remaining part of the group with 20,000 employees providing its existing integrated technology and oil services. It will have its HQ in Houston, Texas and listed on the NYSE.
Last year was not a good one for the group. Revenue fell by €2bn to €12.5bn and showed a net loss of €1.7bn with a market value of €8bn. The group's shares trade in the high €18s, close to its yearly low. There is however a chink of light for the group as forecasts for this year anticipate up to 25 new large oil and gas projects. That's double the number of the previous year, but a long way below the average 40 projects at the beginning of the decade.
This increase in activity is shown in the company's backlog of orders which exceed €12bn, a 40pc increase on the previous year. While a sudden rise in oil prices could herald a boom, overall one can only be pessimistic about the oil services sector given big oil's growing preference for shareholder returns over investment. There is also concern investors might become less tolerant of fossil fuels and oil service profits could fall away. The proposed split of TechnipFMC is interesting but only time will show if the decision was worthwhile. It is best to avoid the shares until some clarity emerges. I'm sure with all the uncertainty board members are working overtime. But I wouldn't be sure there will be portraits of Greta Thunberg being planned for any boardroom soon.
Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.