An unconventional fraud

THE rise of unconventional oil and gas got a big boost late last week with a mega-takeover bid – what Slugcatcher suspects is the first "unconventional fraud" – and slumping profits for conventional producers caused by, you guessed it, unconventional gas.

The big bid came from China's state-controlled CNOOC group, which launched a $US18.2 billion offer for Canada's Nexen, owner of a vast-tract of oil-sands in western Canada.

The fraud surfaced soon after the bid but was launched well before, as all insider-trading swindles are.

The roll-call of falling profits followed the Nexen deal as most of the world's major oil companies revealed how they had been hurt by the collapse of the gas price in the US.

The bid first, because while it is eye-catching and a fresh example of China staking its claim to the lion's share of the world's oil and mining reserves, it is not guaranteed to succeed.

Cash is not the issue because CNOOC is offering a very generous $27.50 a share for Nexen, a price some 61% higher than what Nexen was trading at before the Chinese move.

The problem is political, with US politicians already queuing up to oppose the deal in exactly the same way they successfully opposed CNOOC's first big international expansion, the $18.5 billion offer for Unocal in 2005.

Then, as now, politicians and the anti-China lobby reckon the bid should be killed off because China does not allow foreign companies (especially those from the US) reciprocal rights to acquire assets in China.

The US reaction has preceded what could be anger in Canada at more of its natural resources falling under the control of Beijing.

Clues that the CNOOC move on Nexen is doomed to fail can be found in the reaction of investors who initially stampeded into the stock but then pulled back.

Nexen's price on the New York Stock Exchange never rose above the seemingly generous price.

If CNOOC strikes out a second time with a big North American move it may have only itself, or its advisers, to blame because there is no doubt political pressure will feed off the reports of a Chinese orchestrated fraud in Nexen stock.

What happened is that at least two Chinese-controlled companies based in Hong Kong and Singapore, which had not previously been active in Nexen shares, launched heavy buying raids just two days before the bid was lobbed.

According to reports from New York, a company with the surprisingly obvious name of "Well Advantage" snapped up a large parcel of Nexen shares.

It then tried to offload them within days to lock in a $13 million profit.

It appears to have been an appallingly run scam that triggered loud warning bells for exchange regulators who have moved swiftly to freeze the deals.

"Well Advantage and these traders engaged in an all-too-familiar pattern of misusing inside information to place extremely timely trades and profit handsomely from their illegal acts," Securities and Exchange Commission market-abuse unit deputy chief Sanjay Wadhwa said.

In the centre of the SEC's cross-hairs is the business empire of Chinese billionaire Zhang Zhirong, who controls Well Advantage and is said to have a close relationship with CNOOC.

US fears of Chinese economic power, plus the scent of a good, old-fashioned piece of rotten business practice, is probably all it needs to skedaddle the bid for Nexen.

As for the financial pain flowing from the falling US gas price caused directly by rising levels of unconventional gas production, there was a line of victims.

It starts with Royal Dutch Shell, roped in BG Group and rolled on to ExxonMobil, which claimed a higher profit for the June quarter but only after including asset sales.

Shell said its second-quarter profit was down 13% to $5.7 billion thanks to the collapse in US gas prices.

BG was hit by a $1.3 billion asset-value write-down because of the poor profit outlook from its North American business and ExxonMobil would have reported a $2.3 billion profit fall if not for the sale of a Japanese oil refinery.

As if to underline the way unconventional oil and gas is changing the way the wider industry operates, there were comparisons drawn between the profitability of companies with extensive North American assets and those yet to feel the price-reduction blowtorch caused by high levels of shale-gas production.

While North American profits tumbled, European gas companies, such as Britain's Centrica and Norway's Statoil, boosted profits in the latest quarter.

The unconventional challenge means all eyes will be on BHP Billiton's August 22 profit statement.

It is likely to include a big write-down in the value of its North American shale gas assets and the possibility of management changes, with shareholders calling for the sacking of executives who made the ill-timed shale investments.

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