U.S. shale executives often boast of low breakeven prices, reassuring investors of their ability to operate at a high level even when oil prices fall. But new data suggests that the industry slowed dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2018 in response to the plunge in oil prices.
A survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas finds that shale activity slammed on the brakes in the fourth quarter. “The business activity index—the survey’s broadest measure of conditions facing Eleventh District energy firms—remained positive, but barely so, plunging from 43.3 in the third quarter to 2.3 in the fourth,” the Dallas Fed reported on January 3.
The 2.3 reading is only slightly positive – zero would mean that business activity from Texas energy firms was flat compared to the prior quarter. A negative reading would mean a contraction in activity.
The deceleration was true for multiple segments within oil and gas. For instance, the oil production index fell from 34.8 in the third quarter to 29.1 in the fourth. The natural gas production index to 24.8 in the fourth quarter, down from 35.5 in the prior quarter.
But even as production held up, drilling activity indicated a sharper slowdown was underway. The index for utilization of equipment by oilfield services firms dropped sharply in the fourth quarter, down from 43 points in the third quarter to just 1.6 in the fourth – falling to the point where there was almost no growth at all quarter-on-quarter.
Meanwhile, employment has also taken a hit. The employment index fell from 31.7 to 17.5, suggesting a “moderating in both employment and work hours growth in the fourth quarter,” the Dallas Fed wrote. Labor conditions in oilfield services were particularly hit hard.
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