FlyTitle: Schumpeter

In times like these, business needs a bit of hubris

在这样的时代,企业需要一点点狂妄

经济学人双语版-切萨皮克的遗产 The legacy of Chesapeake

DRILLING FOR oil and gas is a contest of man and machine against nature. In America’s shale formations, nature takes the form of rocks, rich in hydrocarbons, buried about a mile (1.6 kilometres) below ground. It is a geologist’s job to find those rocks. It is an engineer’s job to develop the right mix of water, chemicals and drilling technology to “hydraulically fracture” them. One of the core beliefs of America’s shale-fracking revolution, which took off in the late 2000s, is that if you blast enough pressure at the rocks for long enough, they will eventually yield a big bounty.

石油和天然气钻探是一场人与机器对抗自然的竞赛。在美国的页岩地层中,自然这一方是富含碳氢化合物的岩石,埋藏在地下约1英里(1.6公里)的深处。地质学家的工作是找到这些岩石。工程师的任务是合理运用水、化学品和钻探技术对这些岩石做“水力压裂”。始于十几年前的美国页岩革命的核心信念之一,就是只要对岩石施加足够大的压力并持续足够长的时间,终将获得丰厚的回报。

The two “Okies” who founded Chesapeake Energy, a pioneer of this hydrocarbon upheaval, were neither geologists nor engineers. Tom Ward and the late Aubrey McClendon were “landmen”. Their skill was in leasing mineral rights and persuading investors they would produce a bonanza, particularly of natural gas, if enough wells were drilled. Their success was extraordinary. At times in the 2000s Chesapeake was considered the Google of energy. It had leases with 1m Americans. It became America’s biggest producer of unconventional natural gas.

这场页岩革命的先锋是切萨皮克能源公司(Chesapeake Energy),它的两个“俄州佬”创始人既非地质学家也非工程师。汤姆·沃德(Tom Ward)和已故的奥布里·麦克伦登(Aubrey McClendon)是“租地人”。他们的本事是租下矿权,然后说服投资者只要打下足够多的钻井,就能挖到金矿,尤其是天然气。他们的成功非比寻常。在本世纪头十年的某些时候,切萨皮克被誉为能源业的谷歌。这家公司与一百万美国人签有租约,成为了美国最大的非常规天然气生产商。

That was then. On June 28th this once-mighty firm filed for bankruptcy protection, unable to support nearly $9bn of debt. Robert Clarke of Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy, says that ultimately the poor quality of its assets, despite their size, made it unfit for a world of low energy prices. Chesapeake’s tale is a common one of hubris in America Inc, evident in the dotcom bubble, the decline of General Electric and Detroit’s carmakers, or, most recently, the humbling of the tech unicorns. But is hubris really so bad?

俱往矣。6月28日,这家曾经不可一世的公司因无力偿还近90亿美元的债务而申请破产保护。咨询公司伍德麦肯兹(Wood Mackenzie)的罗伯特·克拉克(Robert Clarke)表示,尽管该公司资产的规模庞大,但质量不佳,终究无法在能源价格低迷的世界里生存下去。切萨皮克是美国企业界屡见不鲜的败于狂妄自大的例子之一——想想互联网泡沫、通用电气和底特律汽车公司的衰落,以及近来科技独角兽的挫败。但狂妄真的那么糟糕吗?

In its early years Chesapeake’s self-belief was (literally) ground-breaking. It was a young company, armed with a new technology, offering a compelling growth story at a time when a big market opportunity was opening. That was natural gas, a fuel in such short supply in America in the early 2000s that the country was building liquefied natural-gas (LNG) terminals to import it. Chesapeake was quick to notice rising demand from utilities switching from coal to natural gas. Its land grab put it in a good position to take advantage as the fuel’s price increased. Sure enough, it quintupled to more than $12 per million British thermal units (BTUs) between 2000 and mid-2008, pushing Chesapeake’s market value to $37.5bn.

在早期,切萨皮克的自我信念就如同钻头一般,确实是开天辟地的。这家年轻的公司凭借一项新技术,在一个巨大的市场机遇成形之际,讲述了一个让人难以抗拒的成长故事。这个市场就是天然气,这种燃料在21世纪初的美国极为短缺,该国不得不兴建液化天然气(LNG)接收站来进口。切萨皮克敏锐地注意到公用事业由煤转气的需求与日俱增。随着天然气价格上涨,公司大举圈地的策略使其处于极为有利的位置。果不其然,从2000年到2008年中气价上涨了四倍,超过每百万英热单位(BTU)12美元,切萨皮克的市值也攀升至375亿美元。

Its descent into bankruptcy 12 years later, too, displays familiar features. It became hooked on cheap credit. Its net debt grew thirteen-fold to $12.5bn in the decade to 2010. To finance this it needed natural-gas prices of at least $6 per million BTUs—a level seldom reached since the end of 2008. Then there was the evangelistic boss. With his rock-solid faith in shale, McClendon, who was ousted as chief executive in 2013 and indicted on bid-rigging charges the day before his death in 2016, doubled down on new basins even as America’s production tripled between 2008 and 2012.

十二年后这家公司陷入破产边缘,过程同样大起大落。它沉迷于低息贷款。本世纪头十年它的净债务增长了13倍,达到125亿美元。天然气价格至少要达到每百万英热单位6美元,公司才有能力偿还债务——而自2008年底以来气价极少触及这个价位。此外它还有个如布道般热情推动这项事业的老板。麦克伦登对页岩气的信念坚如磐石,就在2008至2012年间美国天然气产量增加了两倍之时,还在不断加大对新天然气盆地的押注。(麦克伦登在2013年被迫辞去首席执行官一职,在2016年去世前一天被起诉操纵投标。)

Finally, Chesapeake was slow to adapt when market forces turned against it. Some of its biggest rivals, such as EOG Resources, switched their focus from shale gas to shale oil as early as 2009, earning bumper profits when prices of crude soared. By the time Chesapeake did so, the best oil assets had already gone. Its Chapter 11 deal, in which creditors have agreed to eliminate $7bn of debt, will do nothing to lower the break-even costs of its oil and gas production. Unless prices soar, which is unlikely given the pandemic-induced slump in demand, these costs remain too high to assume the firm can thrive after emerging from bankruptcy.

最后,当市场风向逆转时,切萨皮克却反应迟缓。它最大的一些竞争对手,例如EOG能源(EOG Resources),早在2009年就将业务重心从页岩气转向了页岩油,在原油价格飙升时大赚特赚。等到切萨皮克开始效仿的时候,最好的石油资产早已被抢光。在它的破产保护协议中,债权人同意免除70亿美元的债务,但这丝毫无助于该公司降低达到油气生产盈亏平衡所需的成本水平。除非价格暴涨(鉴于目前疫情下需求不振,这也不太可能实现),否则生产成本仍然过高,即使公司能摆脱破产也未必能够东山再起。

Like Chesapeake, the shale industry has become a shadow of its former self. The more investors poured money into shale oil after the financial crisis of 2007-09, the worse life got for gas producers. Oil drillers in basins like the Permian in Texas also extract “associated gas” as a by-product. Although some of it is flared (at great environmental cost), most is dumped on the natural-gas market, exacerbating the glut. The shale-oil euphoria turned against the oilmen, too. Their prodigious output has depressed crude prices since the mid-2010s but, like Chesapeake before them, they have struggled to cut costs fast enough; they were slow to do so even before prices collapsed as a result of covid-19. The pain spreads beyond the wildcatters. On June 30th Royal Dutch Shell became the latest supermajor to slash the value of its global energy holdings because of falling prices. ExxonMobil, its bigger rival, remains one of the few holdouts. But, in a sign of the times, it is now worth less than Tesla, a maker of electric cars.

与切萨皮克一样,页岩行业也大不如前。2007至2009年金融危机后,投资者对页岩油的投资增多,天然气生产商的日子变得更不好过。得克萨斯州二叠纪盆地等地的石油钻探商也会产出“伴生气”这样的副产品。尽管一部分被烧掉(付出了极大的环境代价),但大部分都被倾销到天然气市场,使供应进一步过剩。页岩油热潮也令石油生产商陷入了逆境。自2015年前后以来,巨大的页岩油产量让原油价格陷入低迷,但正如之前的切萨皮克一样,它们也未能迅速削减成本;即使在新冠疫情导致油价暴跌之前,它们在这方面也行动迟缓。遭受打击的不仅仅是投机性的油井开采商。6月30日,荷兰皇家壳牌成了最新一个因油价下跌而大幅减记全球能源资产价值的石油巨头。其更大的竞争对手埃克森美孚是少数几个仍未减记资产的公司之一。然而,鲜明地反映出这个时代特征的是,它的市值现在还不及电动汽车制造商特斯拉。

Nonetheless, Chesapeake’s legacy leaves plenty to marvel at. It played a role in changing America’s energy narrative from concern about overdependence on foreign suppliers for its energy, to one of exuberance about domestic energy abundance and industrial competitiveness. This boosted American business confidence after the financial crisis. It left a diplomatic and geopolitical windfall, too—though one that has faded in recent years. The switch from coal to gas lowered America’s carbon emissions, enabling Barack Obama to broker the Paris agreement on climate change in 2015 while he was president. It unlocked the possibility of LNG exports to weaken Russia’s natural-gas stranglehold on Europe and to improve trade with China.

尽管如此,切萨皮克仍然留下了大量令人赞叹的遗产。它改变了美国的能源业现状,让美国从担心对外国能源供给过度依赖,转变为国内供给充裕和行业竞争力强劲的繁荣局面。这在金融危机后提振了美国企业的信心,也带来了外交和地缘政治上的意外收获——尽管这些收获近年来已逐渐消失。从煤炭到天然气的转变降低了美国的碳排放,使时任总统奥巴马在2015年得以促成应对气候变化的《巴黎协议》。通过解锁出口液化天然气的可能性,美国削弱了俄罗斯通过天然气对欧洲的钳制,也提升了与中国的贸易。

Twilight of the revolution

革命的黄昏

Ironically, the recent collapse in American oil production will curb associated-gas supply, potentially supporting natural-gas prices. Moreover, the coronavirus crisis may well lead to further bankruptcies and more consolidation in the shale industry, which could put assets into the hands of big firms with stronger balance-sheets, boosting profitability.

讽刺的是,最近美国石油产量暴跌将抑制伴生气的供应,而这又可能支撑天然气的价格。此外,新冠病毒危机很可能导致页岩气行业出现更多破产与整合,实力雄厚的大公司可能会借机吸纳资产,提高盈利能力。

The romance of the early wildcatters and landmen will be gone. The revolutionaries will be replaced by bureaucrats. The over-exuberant and undercapitalised industry’s financial discipline will improve. But especially in these troubled times, spare a thought for Chesapeake. Until it got the better of the company, its hubris helped change the world. ■

早期的投机勘探者和租地人的浪漫将随风而逝。革命派将被官僚所取代。在这个过度繁荣而资本不足的行业,财务纪律也将得到加强。但是,尤其在当前艰难的年代,请充满同情地记得切萨皮克吧。在这家公司被自己的狂妄击倒之前,它的狂妄确实改变了世界。