Last week’s Opec meeting in Vienna confirmed that power has drifted away from the cartel that shaped the oil market for so long. The organisation was unable, as some wanted, to cut production which across Opec is running at about 1.4m barrels a day in excess of the official target. Equally, it was unable to increase production, as others favoured, in order to drive US producers of so-called “tight oil” – that is oil from shale rocks extracted through fracking – out of the market. The conclusion of the meeting was to do nothing. This means that prices will continue to be set by supply and demand. Over the last few weeks prices which had sunk in the spring appeared to be stabilising at around $ 65 a barrel for Brent with WTI five or 6 dollars lower. But such prices were not secure and now, short of a very dramatic development such as an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Saudi Arabia, all the odds are that prices will now fall back again.
News has diminished value if it comes from far away. Just as terrorism gets more coverage if it occurs in Paris, much of the analysis of the consequences of falling oil prices has focused on the US shale industry and the North Sea. But spare a thought for some of the other losers, starting with Nigeria where the fall will not only further damage a fragile state but will pose risks which could affect all of us before too long.
It would be good to be able to be optimistic about Nigeria — a country which in the past has been listed as one of the possible economic powerhouses of the 21st century. Remember MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the successor grouping to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? Great acronyms invented by the always imaginative Jim O’Neill, but in both cases the groupings look a little shaky and performance is well short of promise. Nowhere more so than in Nigeria, which provides a sharp reminder that even if Opec is broken, oil is still vulnerable to political upheaval. Read more
The departure of Peter Voser from Shell may be entirely voluntary and personal but the consequential change of leadership raises some very big issues for Shell’s board and the company’s investors.
Those who don’t know the big energy companies from the inside can all too easily imagine that life at the top is soft and easy. Corporate jets, lavish offices, great salaries and even greater bonuses. All true. But corporate life at that level is still a 24:7 existence made up of endless travel, hard negotiations with unpleasant people and unrelenting pressure from investors who are never satisfied. Within the company there are barons to be managed.
Externally there are always, even in the best of companies, running sores, often dating back decades and inherently insoluble. In Shell’s case the running sore is Nigeria. Then there are the mistakes, also inevitable in any company which takes risks. Shell’s mistake in recent years has been its ill fated adventure in Canada and the Arctic. Some put the total cost at $10bn and the ability to write off that amount without blinking is further evidence of just how strong the majors still are. The reality was that Shell was not Arctic-ready. Local managers were allowed too much freedom. The mistakes will make it difficult for the Shell board to appoint Marvin Odum – the man directly responsible for the US operations – as the next chief executive.
None of these problems was caused by Peter Voser. But as CEO you are responsible for everything. I can understand why even at the early age of 54 he is ready for a change of lifestyle, and I wish him well. The issue for Shell is whether it should now change its strategy as well as its leader. There is a very good case for doing so. Read more