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Comment: Bullwhip effect in the oil & gas industry

by Guest on Apr 9, 2017


Vinod Kumar Raghothamarao is a strategic consultant, with over 13 years  of experience in the oil and gas industry.
Vinod Kumar Raghothamarao is a strategic consultant, with over 13 years of experience in the oil and gas industry.

Between the 1940s to the 1970s, the average annual price of oil fluctuated within a 6.5% band, but from the 1980s until the last few years the variation leapt to almost 11 times that amount. A range of factors has contributed to the most recent volatility, including political crises, financial speculation, and a sharp increase/decrease in demand.

Regardless of the reason behind the initial shocks, the historical variations in state demand induced the ‘bullwhip effect’, in which small changes in demand cause oscillating and increasing reverberations in production, capacity, and inventory throughout the supply chain in markets for oil and gas field machinery and equipment such as generator sets, motors, turbines and electrical equipment, among other equipment and supplies.

Small variations in demand at the retail end tend to dramatically amplify, as they travel upstream across supply chains to the effect of making order amounts imbalanced – exaggerated in one week and almost zero in the following week. This amplification of demand fluctuations from downstream to upstream in a supply chain is called the ‘bullwhip effect’.

Variability also comes from changes and updates of the demand forecasts.  After all, we are aware that the ‘bullwhip effect’ is the tendency of small variations in demand to become larger as their implications are transmitted backward through the supply chain.

This bullwhip effect has caused some economic inefficiency. For instance, equipment manufacturers held excess inventory during the boom and took a long time to draw it down when the recession hit. They also made excessive capacity investments near the peak and suffered a low or negative return on investment. Also, component and parts suppliers lost orders that they were not able to fulfill at the peak due to inadequate capacity and long lead times caused by large backlogs.

Over the long term, this volatility costs the equivalent of 9% of the cost of producing a barrel of oil. Smoothing volatility in demand and prices would result in steadier and more profitable capital expansion, which means a higher return on assets. Steadier prices would translate to higher operating profits and lower operating costs as companies would go through fewer waves of layoffs and subsequent re-hiring. Perhaps most importantly, more stable R&D investments would result in greater oilfield productivity.

The million dollar question then comes to the surface. What can oil companies and their equipment suppliers do? Passing all risk to suppliers is a ‘win-lose’ strategy that only works well for buyers and then only when demand is decreasing because buyers can drive prices lower. In contrast, ‘going long’ minimises the cost throughout the supply chain, especially if combined with collaborative supply chain management activities such as sharing production, marketing, and engineering information among exploration and production companies, refiners, and manufacturers; sharing of capital investment; and sharing of supply risk through price indexing and the use of options and futures contracts.

If you ‘go long’, be sure to sign long enough agreements to bridge the up-and-down cycle. Many buyers think a long-term agreement is 3-5 years in duration. Because this is shorter than it takes for an initial demand shock to reverberate through the supply chain, the contract has a significant risk of painful and premature failure. From the past consulting experience working with NOCs, IOCs, Independents and other oil field equipment suppliers, it indicates that if you are going to go long, you may need a much longer agreement in order to fully mitigate the impact of production-inventory- capacity cycles. And the optimal length varies according to the category of purchased equipment or services.


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