Shell

The package of announcements from Shell will send a shiver through the oil and gas industry. After years of resisting investor pressure for more immediate gratification, the company which more than any other regards itself as a social institution dedicated to the long term, has blinked. Capex is to be radically reduced. Costs are to be cut with a sharp knife. $15bn of assets are to be sold – enough in themselves to form a medium sized company. And the dividend is to be increased. There is a touch of theatricality in combining a profits warning with a dividend increase but the show satisfied the immediate audience. The shares rose. For the rest of the sector, Shell’s ability to deliver in this way poses a dangerous challenge.

Underperformance is endemic across the industry. Investment always needs to be increased, the rewards are always promised for tomorrow. Among investors are innumerable funds whose need for cash returns is urgent. Since the downturn of 2008 the market has clearly become more short term and less tolerant of those who live on promises of a golden future which is always just over the horizon. Under pressure Shell has been able to make the adjustment, demonstrating that it can quickly cut enough to deliver a material and sustainable dividend increase even when oil and gas prices are flat to falling. That is a real measure of strength, as is BP’s ability to absorb a loss of $50bn to pay the bill for Macondo. Very few companies in the world have that capacity. Read more

Later this week the management of Royal Dutch Shell will finally explain why it has issued a profits warning only 12 weeks after its last formal statement to the market. Investors are waiting for a full and detailed presentation on Thursday. Anything less will reinforce the impression that there is a governance problem which has left top management and directors out of touch with the operations of the business.

Profit warnings are serious things, which means this is quite different from the normal public relations tactic of shovelling all the problems on to the back of an outgoing chief executive, and giving his successor a low baseline from which performance can only improve. Surely a company as serious as Shell is not playing that game? Read more

It seems bizarre to say that a company which will generate cash this year of between $40bn and $45bn has a fundamental structural problem. But the latest results from Royal Dutch Shell show just how weak the correlation between size and performance has proved to be. Capital expenditure is so high that even cash at that level may be insufficient to cover spending and dividends. The company looks lost – a lumbering dinosaur in a world where the prizes go to the quick and nimble. Read more

Congratulations to Ben van Beurden, the new chief executive of Shell. We are moving into a period when gas is the dominant fuel and Mr van Beurden has great experience in that area, particularly in liquefied natural gas. He is also Dutch which is a good reminder that despite everything Shell has not lost its nationality, after all. The candidates who lost will all soon find alternative jobs. Shell is now the great training ground and there is a shortage of talent at the top level in the international energy business. Mr van Beurden meantime will have to focus on Shell’s big problems, of which I will focus on three. 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