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China is Positioned to be the Oil Sector's Next Big Profit Play

Commodities / Oil Companies Aug 18, 2009 - 09:17 AM GMT

By: Money_Morning

Commodities

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleKeith Fitz-Gerald writes: If you’re looking for the next “Big Oil” play, bet on Beijing.

As we’ve been reporting for the past several years, China has been on a global commodities shopping spree, which includes locking up every source of oil that it can. The Red Dragon has cut deals in Africa, South America Russia and the Middle East - and won’t stop there. Even the mainstream news media is finally becoming aware of this crucial trend.


But here’s the thing. It’s not enough just to know that this is happening. In order to profit, an investor really needs to understand why it’s happening - and to invest accordingly. Investors who lack this insight may make the strategic misstep of betting heavily (or exclusively) on the Western heavyweights - Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), BP PLC (NYSE ADR: BP) or Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE ADR: RDS.A, RDS.B) - while ignoring the oil sector’s real growth story, which is China.

Just this year alone:

  • China and Russia have signed a multi-billion-dollar, intergovernmental agreement to construct an oil line from Russia that will supply oil directly to China. Actually seven agreements in one, the terms depict a deal worth trillions of dollars - including a 20-year oil contract to pump Russian oil to the Chinese market. In return, China has agreed to provide a total of $25 billion in loans to Russian oil companies Transneft and OAO Rosneft Oil Co. China even gets a cut of Rosneft’s production, as part of the deal.
  • In Africa, China’s CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CEO) and Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical Co. (NYSE ADR: SHI) are teaming up to buy a $1.3 billion stake in Angolan offshore development rights from U.S.-based Marathon Oil Corp. (NYSE: MRO). A key point of note: Angola - historically one of Exxon’s favorite investment targets - has recently overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer.
  • While noting that it’s hardly a done deal, The Wall Street Journal did report earlier this month that China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) is interested in buying all or a part of Argentina’s YPF SA (NYSE ADR: YPF) for $14.5 billion.
  • In Africa, China’s CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CEO) and Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical Co. (NYSE ADR: SHI) are teaming up to buy a $1.3 billion stake in Angolan offshore development rights from U.S.-based Marathon Oil Corp. (NYSE: MRO). A key point of note: Angola - historically one of Exxon’s favorite investment targets - has recently overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer.
  • Reports continue to circulate that CNPC will be taking the majority stake in Iraq’s Rumaila oilfield from BP. Rumaila is Iraq’s biggest oil field, producing more than a million barrels of crude oil per day.
  • And China has become quite chummy with Brazil’s Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE ADR: PBR). Petrobras is developing a huge new offshore field - one of the biggest new discoveries in decades, in fact - and any deal would include a production-supply agreement.

This flurry of deals hasn’t been a surprise to Money Morning readers. Even so, it’s worth taking a moment to look at some of the key catalysts behind many of these deals. Let’s look at the Top Three:

  • Nervous Reserves: China is sitting on the world’s largest pile of cash - more than $2.3 trillion by some estimates. With an estimated 70% of that, or about $1.61 trillion, in U.S. dollars, there is no question it’s a huge source of financial firepower strength at a time when global markets are uncertain, if not downright weak. But it’s also a liability, too, in that China can’t diminish its high-concentration of greenback holdings without pushing the dollar off a cliff. So buying oil is a great way for China to diversify its reserves without kneecapping poor old Uncle Sam.
  • Those Not-So-Free “Free” Markets: China has less faith in the “free” markets than the West does. Ironically, the United States and other Western powers are partly to blame for Beijing’s free-market skepticism. For instance, not only did the United States slam the door in China’s face when China tried to buy Unocal Corp. [now a part of Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX)]  a few years back, but when former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, the war summarily cut off China’s ability to source oil from that Middle East member of the OPEC 12 (the Organization of the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries). Prior to the invasion, Beijing really didn’t consider the need to diversify China’s foreign-oil sources so our military action prompted their economic reaction. Now the genie’s out of the bottle.
  • Peerless Perspective: China’s leaders know that they must lock up oil supplies at a time when the Western world can’t seemingly be bothered to understand that this is a zero-sum game. In other words, China views the global financial crisis as an opportunity to be exploited for economic gain and the security of its people, not as a problem to be solved. China understands the big picture, and even though we apparently painted it, the West doesn’t.  By scouring the earth for oil at a time when the West is hamstrung by the global financial crisis, not only is China able to strike more favorable deals at more favorable prices, but it’s locking up huge supplies of commodities for its own use for years, even decades, to come. In doing so - and this is the part of the equation so many experts don’t get - these resources are no longer available for our use here in the United States, which has major supply and pricing implications for this market.

Bamboozled by the Western media - which has perpetuated the “global-recession-means-lower-demand” story - it simply hasn’t dawned on most people here in the West that China doesn’t care about the major long-term impact this global buying spree will have on our economy.
Besides, this whole story thesis is flat out wrong. While the recession is definitely dampening our use of oil and gasoline, China’s oil demand is growing by more than 20% a year. And of the 8 million barrels a day that China already uses, half comes from imports. Beijing sees those as troubling statistics, which means that China:

  • Absolutely must lock up as many significant external supplies oil as possible right now.
  • And must accelerate its domestic exploration-and-processing efforts at warp speed.

Nor is this a static situation. China’s auto market is growing by 50% a year. It’s already the world’s largest, having passed the United States earlier this year. In fact, according to some estimates, China will have more cars on its roads in the next 20 years than all those we currently have in this country - even if you include the engine-less “restoration project” your next-door neighbor’s son has sitting under an oak tree in their back yard.

China’s never known high prices and its consumers haven’t either. So they don’t care like we do about what “price” is posted at the pump. Sure, you can argue as many Western analysts do, that China’s fuel is highly subsidized, but so what? That’s a moot point. Consumers who remember what it was like back when gasoline was 99 cents a gallon aren’t going to grouse about how it now costs $6 a gallon - these newly minted motorists will merely see gasoline as just part of the cost of having a car.

Because it understands its need for continual economic progress - as well as the role oil has to play to make that a reality - China is doing whatever it takes to guarantee future supplies, including structuring deals in ways that have caught Western companies by surprise. For instance, China’s companies are looking at how they can get a deal done by giving the other party something it actually needs. Moreover, in a move that’s as frustrating to Western leaders as it is surprising, many of these deals come with no strings attached. I suppose you could call it the “Red Dragon Option” - although Western firms would do well to embrace these as potential Harvard Business Review case studies.

After reading this overview, a U.S investor might want to conclude that China’s already got this one wrapped up and that “any resistance is futile.” But that’s not necessarily true. While China’s grown by leaps and bounds in terms of its financial sophistication when it comes to these deals, the country still lacks the relative exploration-and-production technology to go after the deep-water reserves and complicated fields where most of the still-undiscovered oil remains. Those are also the same kinds of locations where natural gas may be the better bet.

And that suggests that investments in both sectors - including deep-water drillers and companies that specialize in natural-gas liquification -may pay off for investors anxious to dine with the Red Dragon, instead of being listed as an entrée on the menu.

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