Coronavirus May Kill Our Fracking Fever Dream

America’s energy independence was an illusion created by cheap debt. All that’s left to tally is the damage.

Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the idea of energy independence, which in its grandest incarnation meant freedom from the world’s oil-rich trouble spots, has been a dream for Democrats and Republicans alike. It once seemed utterly unattainable — until the advent of fracking, which unleashed a torrent of oil. By early 2019, America was the world’s largest producer of crude oil, surpassing both Saudi Arabia and Russia. And President Trump reveled in the rhetoric: We hadn’t merely achieved independence, his administration said, but rather energy dominance.”

Then came Covid-19, and, on March 8, the sudden and vicious end to the truce between Saudi Arabia and Russia, under which both countries limited production to prop up prices. On March 9, the price of oil plunged by almost a third, its steepest one-day drop in almost 30 years.

As a result, the stocks that make up the S.&P. 500 energy sector fell 20 percent, marking the sector’s largest drop on record. There were rumblings that shale companies would seek a federal lifeline. Whiting Petroleum, whose stock once traded for $150 a share, filed for bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of Texans are being laid off in the Permian Basin and other parts of the state, and the whole industry is bracing for worse.

On the surface, it appears that two unforeseeable and random shocks are threatening our dream.

In reality, the dream was always an illusion, and its collapse was already underway. That’s because oil fracking has never been financially viable. America’s energy independence was built on an industry that is the very definition of dependent — dependent on investors to keeping pouring billions upon billions in capital into money-losing companies to fund their drilling. Investors were willing to do this only as long as oil prices, which are not under America’s control, were high — and when they believed that one day, profits would materialize.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the spigot was drying up. Now, it has been shut off.

The industry’s lack of profits wasn’t exactly a secret. In early 2015, the hedge fund manager David Einhorn announced at an investment conference that he had looked at the financial statements of 16 publicly traded shale producers and found that from 2006 to 2014, they spent $80 billion more than they received from selling oil. The basic reason is that the amount of oil coming out of a fracked well declines steeply after the first yearmore than 50 percent in year two. To keep growing, companies have to keep plowing billions back into the ground.

The industry’s boosters argue that technological gains, such as drilling ever bigger wells, and clustering wells more tightly together to reduce the cost of moving equipment, eventually would lead to a gusher of profits. Fracking, they said, was just manufacturing, in which process and human intelligence could reduce costs and conquer geology.

Actually, no. The key issue is the “parent child problem. When wells are clustered tightly together, with so-called child wells drilled around the parent, the wells interfere with one another, resulting in less oil, not more. (This may not surprise anyone who is attempting to be productive while working in close quarters with their children.)

The promised profits haven’t materialized. In the first half of 2019, when oil was around $55 a barrel, only a few top-tier companies were profitable. “By now, it should be abundantly clear that the current shale oil business model does not work — even for the very best companies in the industry,” the investment firm SailingStone Capital Partners explained in a recent note.

Policymakers who wanted to tout energy independence disregarded all this, even as investors were starting to lose patience. As early as 2018, some investors had begun to tell companies that they wanted to see free cash flow, and that they were tired of compensation models that rewarded executives with rich paydays for increasing production, but failed to take profits into account. As a result, fracking stocks badly underperformed the market.

But with super-low interest rates, investors in search of yield were still willing to buy debt. Over the past 10 years, the entire energy industry has issued over $400 billion in high-yield debt. “They subprimed the American energy ecosystem,” says a longtime energy market observer.

Even as the public equity and debt markets grew cautious, drilling continued. That’s because one big source of funding didn’t dry up: private equity. And why not? Private equity financiers typically get a 2 percent management fee on funds they can raise, so they are incentivized to take all the money that pension funds, desperate for returns to shore up their promises to retirees, have been willing to give them.

In the Haynesville and the Utica Shales, two major natural gas plays, over half of the drilling is being done by private equity-backed companies; in the oil-rich Permian Basin, it’s about a quarter of the drilling. From 2015 through 2019, private equity firms raised almost $80 billion in funds focused mostly on shale production, according to Barclays.

Until the capital markets began to get suspicious, private equity investors could flip companies they had funded to larger, public companies, making a profitable exit regardless of whether or not the underlying business was making money.

That, too, is ending, as investors in such funds have become disillusioned.

You can see how all of this is playing out by looking at Occidental Petroleum. In 2019, Oxy, as it’s known, topped a competing bid from Chevron and paid $38 billion to take over Anadarko Petroleum, which is one of the major shale companies. Since that time, Oxy’s stock has plummeted almost 80 percent in part due to fears that the Anadarko acquisition is going to prove so wildly unprofitable that it sinks the company.

On March 10, the company announced that it would slash its dividend for the first time since the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait sent oil prices plummeting.

Occidental is just one piece of the puzzle. In April, the Energy Information Administration cut its forecast for U.S. oil production, estimating that it will fall both this year and next — suggesting that the days of huge growth in production from shale are over.

On March 10, Scott Sheffield, the chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major driller in the Permian Basin, told Bloomberg that U.S. oil output could fall by more than two million barrels per day by next year if prices remain where they are today.

“This is late ’80s bad,” a close observer of the industry says.

After the United States engaged in a high-stakes negotiation with Russia and Saudi Arabia to curtail production, a tentative deal was struck on Thursday. Certainly, President Trump, who has staked so much on the American shale industry, wants to save it. “We really need Trump to do something or he’s going to lose all the energy states in this election,” Mr. Sheffield told CNBC in late March.

A deal, and higher oil prices, might help the industry. But they won’t fix its fundamental problem with profitability. Energy independence was a fever dream, fed by cheap debt and frothy capital markets.

All that’s left to tally is the environmental and financial damage. In the five years ending in April, there were 215 bankruptcies for oil and gas companies, involving $130 billion in debt, according to the law firm Haynes and Boone. Moody’s, the rating agency, said that in the third quarter of 2019, 91 percent of defaulted U.S. corporate debt was due to oil and gas companies. And North American oil and gas drillers have almost $100 billion of debt that is set to mature in the next four years.

It’s still unclear where most of this debt is held. Some of it has been packaged into so-called collateralized loan obligations, pieces of which are held by hedge funds. Some of it may be on bank balance sheets. Investors in the equity of these companies have already seen the value of their holdings decimated. Pension funds that have poured money into private equity firms may take a hit soon, too. All we know for sure is that fracking company executives and private equity financiers have made a fortune by touting the myth of energy independence — and they won’t be the ones who have to pick up the pieces.

Amazon Changed Search Algorithm in Ways That Boost Its Own Products

The e-commerce giant overcame internal dissent from engineers and lawyers, people familiar with the move say

Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -1.87% has adjusted its product-search system to more prominently feature listings that are more profitable for the company, said people who worked on the project—a move, contested internally, that could favor Amazon’s own brands.

Late last year, these people said, Amazon optimized the secret algorithm that ranks listings so that instead of showing customers mainly the most-relevant and best-selling listings when they search—as it had for more than a decade—the site also gives a boost to items that are more profitable for the company.

The adjustment, which the world’s biggest online retailer hasn’t publicized, followed a yearslong battle between executives who run Amazon’s retail businesses in Seattle and the company’s search team, dubbed A9, in Palo Alto, Calif., which opposed the move, the people said.

Any tweak to Amazon’s search system has broad implications because the giant’s rankings can make or break a product. The site’s search bar is the most common way for U.S. shoppers to find items online, and most purchases stem from the first page of search results, according to marketing analytics firm Jumpshot.

When people search for products on Amazon*, nearly two-thirds of all product clicks come from the first page of results…

Row 1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

First page

Other pages

0

20

40

60%

…so the proliferation of Amazon’s private-label products on the first page makes it more likely people choose those items.

Search for ‘men’s button down shirts’

Search for ‘paper towels’

Amazon private- label products

Sponsored content

*Based on a study in 2018 of anonymous consumer actions on mobile and desktop devices

Note: Product searches conducted Aug. 28

Source: Jumpshot

Angela Calderon/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The issue is particularly sensitive because the U.S. and the European Union are examining Amazon’s dual role—as marketplace operator and seller of its own branded products. An algorithm skewed toward profitability could steer customers toward thousands of Amazon’s in-house products that deliver higher profit margins than competing listings on the site.

Amazon’s lawyers rejected an initial proposal for how to add profit directly into the algorithm, saying it represented a change that could create trouble with antitrust regulators, one of the people familiar with the project said.

The Amazon search team’s view was that the profitability push violated the company’s principle of doing what is best for the customer, the people familiar with the project said. “This was definitely not a popular project,” said one. “The search engine should look for relevant items, not for more profitable items.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has propounded a ‘customer obsession’ mantra. PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Amazon said it has for many years considered long-term profitability and does look at the impact of it when deploying an algorithm. “We have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability,” said Amazon spokeswoman Angie Newman in an emailed statement.

Amazon declined to say why A9 engineers considered the profitability emphasis to be a significant change to the algorithm, and it declined to discuss the inner workings of its algorithm or the internal discussions involving the algorithm, including the qualms of the company’s lawyers.

The change could also boost brand-name products or third-party listings on the site that might be more profitable than Amazon’s products. And the algorithm still also stresses longstanding metrics such as unit sales. The people who worked on the project said they didn’t know how much the change has helped Amazon’s own brands.

Amazon’s Ms. Newman said: “Amazon designs its shopping and discovery experience to feature the products customers will want, regardless of whether they are our own brands or products offered by our selling partners.”

Antitrust regulators for decades have focused on whether companies use market power to squeeze out competition. Amazon avoided scrutiny partly because its competitive marketplace of merchants drives down prices.

A majority of Amazon’s sales come from retail, but a majority of its operating profits come from its cloud-computing unit.

Retail, subscriptions,

advertising and services

Amazon Web

Services

Percentage of total sales

86.9%

13.1%

Retail sales and

commissions: 75%

Percentage of operating income

42.1%

57.9%

Note: First half of 2019; Amazon doesn’t break out operating income for retail.

Source: the company

Now, some lawmakers are calling for Washington to rethink antitrust law to account for big technology companies’ clout. In Amazon’s case, they say it can bend its dominant platform to favor its own products. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has argued Amazon stifles small businesses by unfairly promoting its private-label products and underpricing competitors. Amazon has disputed this claim.

During a House antitrust hearing in July, lawmakers pressed Amazon on whether it used data gleaned from other sellers to favor its own products. “The best purchase to you is an Amazon product,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.). “No that’s not true,” replied Nate Sutton, an Amazon associate general counsel, saying Amazon’s “algorithms are optimized to predict what customers want to buy regardless of the seller.” House Judiciary Committee leaders recently asked Amazon to provide executive communications related to product searches on the site as part of a probe on anticompetitive behavior at technology companies.

Amazon says it operates in fiercely competitive markets, it represents less than 1% of global retail and its private-label business represents about 1% of its retail sales.

Amazon executives have sought to boost profitability in its retail business after years of focusing on growth. A majority of its $12.4 billion in operating income last year came from its growing cloud business.

Pressure on engineers

An account of Amazon’s search-system adjustment emerges from interviews with people familiar with the internal discussions, including some who worked on the project, as well as former executives familiar with Amazon’s private-label business.

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The A9 team—named for the “A” in “Algorithms” plus its nine other letters—controls the all-important search and ranking functions on Amazon’s site. Like other technology giants, Amazon keeps its algorithm a closely guarded secret, even internally, for competitive reasons and to prevent sellers from gaming the system.

Customers often believe that search algorithms are neutral and objective, and that results from their queries are the most relevant listings.

Executives from Amazon’s retail divisions have frequently pressured the engineers at A9 to surface their products higher in search results, people familiar with the discussions said. Amazon’s retail teams not only oversee its own branded products but also its wholesale vendors and vast marketplace of third-party sellers.

Amazon’s private-label team in particular had for several years asked A9 to juice sales of Amazon’s in-house products, some of these people said. The company sells over 10,000 products under its own brands, according to research firm Marketplace Pulse, ranging from everyday goods such as AmazonBasics batteries and Presto paper towels, to clothing such as Lark & Ro dresses.

Inside an Amazon fulfillment center. PHOTO: KRISZTIAN BOCSI/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Amazon’s private-label business, at about 1% of retail sales, would represent less than $2 billion in 2018. Investment firm SunTrust Robinson Humphrey estimates the private-label business will post $31 billion in sales by 2022, more than Macy’s Inc. ’s annual revenue last year.

The private-label executives argued Amazon should promote its own items in search results, these people said. They pointed to grocery-store chains and drugstores that showcase their private-label products alongside national brands and promote them in-store.

A9 executives pushed back and said such a change would conflict with Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’ “customer obsession” mantra, these people said. The first of Amazon’s longstanding list of 14 leadership principles requires managers to focus on earning and keeping customer trust above all. Amazon often repeats a line from that principle: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards.”

One former Amazon search executive said: “We fought tooth and nail with those guys, because of course they wanted preferential treatment in search.”

For years, A9 had operated independently from the retail operations, reporting to its own CEO. But the search team, in Silicon Valley about a two-hour flight from Seattle, now reports to retail chief Doug Herrington and his boss Jeff Wilke —effectively leaving search to answer to retail.

After the Journal’s inquiries, Amazon took down its A9 website, which had stood for about a decade and a half. The site included the statement: “One of A9’s tenets is that relevance is in the eye of the customer and we strive to get the best results for our users.”

Mr. Herrington’s retail team lobbied for the adjustment to Amazon’s search algorithm that led to emphasizing profitability, some of the people familiar with the discussions said.

When a customer enters a search query for a product on Amazon, the system scours all listings for such an item and considers more than 100 variables—some Amazon engineers call them “features.” These variables might include shipping speed, how highly buyers have ranked product listings and recent sales volumes of specific listings. The algorithm weighs those variables while calculating which listings to present the customer and in which order.

Nate Sutton, an Amazon associate general counsel, at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on antitrust in July.PHOTO: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The algorithm had long placed a priority on variables such as unit sales—a proxy for popularity—and search-term relevance, because they tend to predict customer satisfaction. A listing’s profitability to Amazon has never been one of these variables.

Profit metric

Amazon retail executives, especially those in its private-label business, wanted to add a new variable for what the company calls “contribution profit,” considered a better measure of a product’s profitability because it factors in non-fixed expenses such as shipping and advertising, leaving the amount left over to cover Amazon’s fixed costs, said people familiar with the discussion.

Amazon’s private-label products are designed to be more profitable than competing items, said people familiar with the business, because the company controls the manufacturing and distribution and cuts out intermediaries and marketing costs.

Amazon’s lawyers rejected the overt addition of contribution profit into the algorithm, pointing to a €2.42 billion fine ($2.7 billion at the time) that Alphabet Inc.’s Google received in 2017 from European regulators who found it used its search engine to stack the deck in favor of its comparison-shopping service, said one of the people familiar with the discussions. Google has appealed the fine and has made changes to Google Shopping in response to the European Commission’s order.

To assuage the lawyers’ concerns, Amazon executives looked at ways to account for profitability without adding it directly to the algorithm. They turned to the metrics Amazon uses to test the algorithm’s success in reaching certain business objectives, said the people who worked on the project.

When engineers test new variables in the algorithm, Amazon gauges the results against a handful of metrics. Among these metrics: unit sales of listings and the dollar value of orders for listings. Positive results for the metrics correlated with high customer satisfaction and helped determine the ranking of listings a search presented to the customer.

Now, engineers would need to consider another metric—improving profitability—said the people who worked on the project. Variables added to the algorithm would essentially become what one of these people called “proxies” for profit: The variables would correlate with improved profitability for Amazon, but an outside observer might not be able to tell that. The variables could also inherently be good for the customer.

Amazon commands more than one-third of U.S. retail dollars spent online.

Share of 2018 online retail sales

Amazon

36.5%

eBay

6.9%

Walmart

4.0%

Apple

3.9%

The Home Depot

1.6%

Source: eMarketer

For the algorithm to understand what was most profitable for Amazon, the engineers had to import data on contribution profit for all items sold, these people said. The laborious process meant extracting shipping information from Amazon warehouses to calculate contribution profit.

In an internal system called Weblab, A9 engineers tested proposed variables for the algorithm for weeks on a subset of Amazon shoppers and compared the impact on contribution profit, unit sales and a few other metrics against a control group, these people said. When comparing the results of the groups, profitability now appeared alongside other metrics on a display called the “dashboard.”

Amazon’s A9 team has since added new variables that have resulted in search results that scored higher on the profitability metric during testing, said a person involved in the effort, who declined to say what those new variables were. New variables would also have to improve Amazon’s other metrics, such as unit sales.

A review committee that approves all additions to the algorithm has sent engineers back if their proposed variable produces search results with a lower score on the profitability metric, this person said. “You are making an incentive system for engineers to build features that directly or indirectly improve profitability,” the person said. “And that’s not a good thing.”

An Amazon warehouse in Mexico in July. PHOTO: CARLOS JASSO/REUTERS

Amazon said it doesn’t automatically shelve improvements that aren’t profitable. It said, as an example, that it recently improved the discoverability of items that could be delivered the same day even though it hurt profitability.

Amazon’s Ms. Newman said: “When we test any new features, including search features, we look at a number of metrics, including long term profitability, to see how these new features impact the customer experience and our business as any rational store would, but we do not make decisions based on that one metric.”

In some ways, Amazon’s broader shift from showing relevant search results is noticeable on the site. Last summer, it changed the default sorting option—without publicizing the move—to “featured” after ranking the search results for years by “relevance,” according to a Journal analysis for this article of screenshots and postings by users online. Relevance is no longer an option in the small “sort by” drop-down button on the top right of the page.