Weak Oily Chains and Weak Probability Implications

Fundoo Professor writes: How Weak is this Oily Chain?

Today’s Finanical Express carries an interesting column by Vikram Mehta, Chairman of the Shell Group in India.

The following passage caught my eye:

“Success in the exploration and production of oil & gas requires a company to overcome three interlocking sets of probabilities. The probability that a given geologic structure contains hydrocarbons [let's call this Event A]; the probability that hydrocarbons will be located [lets call this Event B], and the probability that once located, the find can be commercially exploited [let's call this Event C].”

Vikram’s statement has vast practical implications for security analysts.

The market value of an asset is the present value of its expected future cash flows. Cash flows from an oil exploration company can be derived only out of hydrocarbons which can be commercially exploited. And for that to happen ALL of the above three events must happen.

Suppose that the probability of Event A happening is 40%, that of Event B happening is 20%, and that of Event C happening is 25%.

Then the probability of seeing cash flow which is valuable is 0.40 x 0.20 x 0.25 or 0.02. That comes to just 2%!

I wonder if the market participants think in those terms before valuing oil exploration stocks.

My comment to it was:

Sir, what matter is returns. If they can make 100x their investment on an oil find that meets all three parameters, and they have enough blocks to explore, then the 2% probability is ultimately a reasonably large return. For every $100 they invest they will eventually make $200.

Costs (E&P, Drilling, gas/oil removal) versus returns today seem to show more than 100x in a longer term scenario, in some cases substantially more. Even to the BP that will pay out for the US oil spill, the return is enormously positive. But for this they have to make enough bets.

Another point: Every event is impacted by externalities. A low reservoir of oil, once explored, may find that the Oil and Gas gets replenished through some deep underwater fissures from some other geological block, which is obviously not factored into any probabilities. The price of oil, as it changes, makes commercial viability difficult to predict – at $140 there are blocks that are commercially viable versus at $80.

We see the increasing ability to harness oil from shale rock; should that become cheap enough, oil becomes much more accessible so there may be a (temporary) ceiling on prices.

A good portion of oil E&P business is timing and if you look far back enough, luck.


Life is difficult to deal with when you work with probabilities alone. You have to focus on an edge, which can override probability issues. 

The probability of an entrepreneur being successful is probably less than 1%, but that doesn't mean you stop. A survey would have revealed the chances of Sony's walkman (or indeed Apple's ipod) with a marginal probability of success. You are more likely to die of a road accident than one in a plane.

These probabilities hide the fact that you have an edge being who you are. You can beat the odds because of that edge.

Plus, there's the incestuous impact of collective action. Not all of us will be ultra successful, just by probability alone. Let us assume that "If I try, I will succeed" has a probability of 1%. Let us also assume that based on this information we all stop trying.

With that outcome, suddenly, anyone who continues to try has a greater chance of success, because of lesser competition. If we all act on probabilities, we change the probability itself. It's a dynamic, living thing, so you can't make decisions in a vacuum, or make statements you don't expect to change.



Amongst all the above

Amongst all the above probabilities and possibilities Reliance Industries is making stupendous profits quarter after quarter year after year. Good for them and their shareholders. After all Mukesh Ambani is taking huge risks (is it ofset by his close crony capitalism association?:)) and of course working hard too.

Isn't there an element of cosmic programming in these probabilities and possibilities?

Harsh, I agree - it's what

Harsh, I agree - it's what you lose when you lose, and what you make when you win that makes the difference.


My point is - if you invest x in every such block, and you have a 2% chance of success, it doesn't mean that's unviable. The 100x return on winners makes it suitable. If you have a 100 blocks and you invested Rs. 1 in every block, you make Rs. 200 in the 2 blocks that win, and lose Rs. 98 in the rest. That's still a positive expectancy.

Ah, ok, makes sense. I agree

Ah, ok, makes sense. I agree with you that viability is a different matter altogether from probability. One way to look at it was (taught in our managerial economics), if the returns based on your probability weights are positive, then the project is viable. An example to visualize this-

You have two outcomes, A and B, each with a probability of 50%. Let Pa and Pb be the payouts from both outcomes. Then your returns are expected to be = 0.5*Pa + 0.5*Pb.

Based on this also, the Oil E&P is a viable alternative. Though, I would say that the assumption behind such a model would require people to make rational decisions, not throw good money after bad :-)

A question- the costs that

A question- the costs that you mentioned are they only for the sites that one drills for oil, or the overall cost for exploration, independently from the fact that you find oil or not. Because if its the latter, there are costs associated with the 98% of endeavors will lose substantial money, and the returns will not be 100x