The US Energy Sector on the Verge of a Cataclysmic Default

 

The U.S. E&P sector could be on the cusp of massive defaults and bankruptcies so staggering they pose a serious threat to the U.S. economy, according to Paul Merolli, a senior editor and correspondent for Energy Intelligence, an energy sector news and analysis aggregator. Merolli’s report calls out the over-leveraged, under-hedged U.S. E&P sector, which has been trying to keep up appearances over the past 12 months by slashing operating costs and capex to keep production costs lower than oil prices.

But experts believe that lower costs and improving efficiency won’t be enough for the sector as it grapples with some $200 billion-plus in high-yield debt, which the U.S. E&P sector used to finance the shale oil boom. According to Standard and Poor’s, there have already been 19 U.S. energy sector defaults so far in 2015, while another 15 companies have filed for bankruptcy. The default category also includes companies that have entered into “distressed exchanges” with their creditors.

Moreover, a Nov. 24 report from S&P Capital IQ titled “A Cautionary Climate” shows that the total assets and liabilities of U.S. energy companies filing for bankruptcy protection have grown in each quarter of 2015, and the third quarter was no exception with assets totaling more than $6.2 billion and liabilities totaling more than $8.9 billion. Each quarter of 2015 was larger than the total for all U.S. energy bankruptcies in 2014.

Also see: Oil Patch Bankruptcies Total $13.1 Billion So Far This Year

U.S. E&P Sector: Junk rating

According to Energy Intelligence, Standard & Poor’s applies ratings to around 100 E&P firms. Of these, 77% now have high-yield or “junk” ratings of BB+ or lower, 63% are rated B+ or worse, and 31% or 51 companies are rated below B-. Companies rated B- or below are effectively on life support, while those rated C+ are “maybe looking at a year, year-and-a-half before they default or file for bankruptcy,” according to Thomas Watters, managing director of S&P’s oil and gas ratings, speaking to Energy Intelligence.

High-yield E&Ps are expected to see negative free cash flow of $10 billion during 2016, even after all the recent capex cuts and efficiency measures. Unfortunately, capital markets are closing rapidly to new E&P debt issues. Last year, the U.S. E&P sector raised $29 billion from 44 issuances of public debt in 2014, but this year only $13 billion has been raised across 23 issuances, almost all of which occurred during the first half of the year.

What’s more, the U.S. E&P sector is woefully under-hedged. Energy Intelligence’s data shows that small producers have 27% of their oil production hedged at an average price of $77/bbl, mid-sized firms have 26% hedged at $69, and large producers have just 4% hedged at $63.

U.S. E&P sector: a final lifeline

It is believed that the U.S. E&P sector will really start to cave in April when banks are due to start their next review of borrowing bases. Borrowing bases are redeterminedevery six months, and banks use market oil prices to calculate the value of company oil reserves, which companies are then able to borrow against.

Haynes and Boone’s Borrowing Base Survey is predicting an average cut of 39% to borrowing bases when the next round of revaluations take place. In September, The Financial Times reported on a research note from Bank of America which pointed out that only a fifth of “higher-quality” energy companies had used up more than half of their borrowing base capacity. For junk-rated companies, however, it’s a different picture. Citi points out that only 21% of the junk-rated energy companies it covers have any borrowing base capacity left at all.

So with borrowing bases set to fall at the beginning of next year and capital market access drying up, it looks as if many oil companies are going to find their liquidity deteriorating significantly going forward. Another source of concern for E&Ps and their lenders are price-related impairments and asset write-downs which have already amounted to $70.1 billion so far this year, compared to the $94.3 billion total for the previous 10-year period of 2005-14. And there could be further write-downs on the horizon:

“Year-to-date, there has been $70.1 billion in asset write-downs in 2015, approaching the $94.3 billion total for the previous 10-year period of 2005-14, according to Stuart Glickman, head of S&P Capital’s oil equities research. And he expects even more write-downs and impairments to emerge at year-end. “Companies are putting this off for a long as they can. You don’t want to be negotiating in capital markets with a weakened hand,”

“Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest US independent producers, shocked earlier this month by indicating a $13 billion reduction in the so-called PV-10, or “present value,” of its oil and gas reserves to $7 billion. Had Chesapeake used 12-month futures strip prices — instead of Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated trailing 12-month prices for PV values — the value would’ve fallen to $4 billion.” — Source: Energy Intelligence, “Is Debt Bomb About to Blow Up US Shale?

This conclusion is also supported by research from S&P Capital IQ:

“Using data from SNL Financial, we looked at natural gas-focused companies across the value chain to see whether there is a relationship between their level of revolver usage and their forward multiples. Within this subset of companies, exploration and production (E&P) companies have the greatest usage of their revolving credit facilities — 57% on average, excluding those with either no revolving credit or no usage on their revolving credit lines. As of late September 2015, this sub-industry also had a forward EBITDA multiple of about 6.2x.” — Source: S&P Capital IQ, “A Cautionary Climate.”

E&P sector waiting for a bailout

All in all, it looks as if the U.S. E&P sector has a rough year ahead of it, but for strong companies with investment-grade credit ratings, next year could become an “M&A playland” according to Energy Intelligence. The six-largest integrated majors together hold a war chest of some $500 billion, and there’s a further $100 billion in private equity sitting on the sidelines.

Whatever happens, it looks as if the U.S. E&P sector is about to undergo a period of significant change.

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