Vertical Integration in LNG? Strike That: Reverse It

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The LNG market has taken an even harder fall than the oil market, with prices down from a peak of over $20/mmBTU a couple of years ago to around $4 now. Slower demand growth plus the entry of megaprojects in Australia and the US have done a double whammy. Indeed, some big projects have been canceled of late due to the grim price environment.

Anticipating a growth in supply that was likely outstrip demand growth (but not by as much as has actually happened), in 2014 I predicted that an overhang of cargoes would catalyze the development of the spot market. This is in fact occurring. A larger fraction of the trade is being consummated on a short term basis, and longer term contracts are relying less on oil indexing (which I called a barbarous relic, and analogized to the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlight) and destination clauses (which limit the ability of buyers to resell gas they don’t need), and more on gas-on-gas pricing and destination flexibility.

This is the beginning of a virtuous cycle by which liquidity begets liquidity, making spot trading even cheaper relative to long term supply contracts. As I referred to it in 2014, whereas in the first 50 years of LNG* it was necessary to rely on long term contracts to achieve security of supply and demand, in the next 50 years liquid markets would provide this security, as has been in the case in oil markets for the last nearly 40 years.

The oil market demonstrates that long term contracts are not necessary to support the financing of very capital intensive upstream energy projects. Further, there will be less of a need for megaprojects for some time (given the supply overhang). What’s more, smaller scale liquefaction facilities are becoming commercially viable. For example, the ex-CEO of Cheniere, Charif Souki, has a well-financed startup that is focusing on developing such projects.

Which means that the next decade of LNG will be an evolution towards a market that looks more like the oil market, or other traded commodity markets.

Some don’t see it that way, and seeing the financial struggles of megaprojects are suggesting a move in the opposite direction. For instance, today in Reuters, Clyde Russell pulls the panic alarm and recommends that LNG firms move to vertical integration:

The industry needs to consider going downstream in order to ensure its long-term viability.

Much like oil companies’ move from producing oil into refining it and then retailing fuels, so too will LNG companies have to find ways to establish a sustainable market that will create and maintain demand for their product.

This means investing in re-gasification terminals in developing nations, along with associated pipeline infrastructure and storages.

It may also mean building gas-fired power plants, transmission grids and or even partnering with companies at the retail level to install gas-powered heating systems in buildings and residences.

In the words of Willy Wonka: “Strike that. Reverse it.” (H/T Number One Daughter.)

There are a lot of reasons for vertical integration, none of which apply in the current LNG market. Neoclassical reasons include double marginalization (monopolies at successive levels of the value chain) or circumventing price controls.

Transactions cost reasons include asset specificity that create a bilateral monopoly problem. A classic example is site specificity, as when a power plant is located at the mouth of a coal mine. This reduces transportation costs, but would subject the mine owner to the opportunism of the power plant owner (and vice versa) if they were separate entities. Integration prevents wasteful haggling over quasi-rents.

These conditions don’t hold in LNG. In fact, the reverse is true. Since LNG can be shipped anywhere in the world, since it is an extremely homogenous commodity, and since there are an increasing number of producers, every producer can deal with many buyers, and every buyer can deal with many sellers. This eliminates double marginalization and asset specificity problems.

Moreover, integration can limit the optionality by tying a seller to a small number of consumers. There is  also a multiple equilibrium issue. If a large fraction of buyers and sellers are tied together via integration (or long term contracts), the spot market is less liquid, making it more costly for the remaining firms to rely on spot sales and purchases: this leads them to integrate (or enter into long term contracts), which reduces of the spot market further.

The LNG market is on the cusp of moving in the opposite direction, which would allow it to exploit optionality more effectively. And optionality is becoming more important as gas generation is becoming more common around the world, not just in Asia and Europe, but in Africa as well. This creates more destination options, and these options are valuable due to uncertainties in supply and demand. To take a recent example, drought in Amazonia has led to an increase in demand for gas generation in Brazil: traders like Trafigura have met the demand by sending cargoes there. When the rains return, the cargoes can find another market. As another example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to an increase in the demand for gas in Japan. A Russian supply disruption would lead to a spike in demand in Europe.

Given the inherent variability in gas supply and demand, which vary due to the vagaries of the weather, supply shocks, and myriad other factors, and which are crucially imperfectly correlated geographically, destination options are valuable. Flexibility allows gas to move to places experiencing increases in demand or reductions in supply via pipelines. Vertical integration impedes the ability to exploit these options, and hence destroys value.

Thus, vertical integration is the exact wrong way to go in LNG. The biggest virtue of LNG is that it can be shipped anywhere: why undermine that virtue by constraining shipping options? The deepening of market liquidity, which is proceeding apace, will reduce the transactions costs of exploiting optionality. The silver lining in the current glut of LNG is that is speeding the development of liquidity. Meaning that Clyde Russell’s prescription of vertical integration is the exact wrong response to that glut. The glut increases liquidity. Liquidity enhances optionality. Optionality creates value. Don’t stymie this salutary development. Go with it. It will pay off in both the short term and the long term.

* The first cargo of Algerian LNG was shipped in 1964. The birth of the LNG industry is often dated to that shipment, although LNG had been shipped from the US in the 1950s.

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