by Wolf Richter
When money was growing on trees even for junk-rated companies, and when Wall Street still performed miracles for a fee, thanks to the greatest credit bubble in US history, oil and gas drillers grabbed this money channeled to them from investors and refilled the ever deeper holes fracking was drilling into their balance sheets.
But the prices for crude oil, US natural gas, and natural gas liquids have all plunged. Revenues from unhedged production are down 40% or 50%, or more from just seven months ago. And when the hedges expire, the problem will get worse. The industry has been through this before. It knows what to do.
Layoffs are cascading through the oil and gas sector. On Tuesday, the Dallas Fed projected that in Texas alone, 140,000 jobs could be eliminated. Halliburton said that it was axing an undisclosed number of people in Houston. Suncor Energy, Canada’s largest oil producer, will dump 1,000 workers in its tar-sands projects. Helmerich & Payne is idling rigs and cutting jobs. Smaller companies are slashing projects and jobs at an even faster pace. And now Slumberger, the world’s biggest oilfield-services company, will cut 9,000 jobs.
It had had an earnings debacle. It announced that Q4 EPS grew by 11% year-over-year to $1.50, “excluding charges and credits.” In reality, its net income plunged 81% to $302 million, after $1.8 billion in write-offs that included its production assets in Texas.
To prop up its shares, it announced that it would increase its dividend by 25%. And yes, it blew $1.1 billion in the quarter and $4.7 billion in the year, on share buybacks, a program that would continue, it said. Financial engineering works. On Thursday, its shares were down 35% since June. But on Friday, after the announcement, they jumped 6%.
All these companies had gone on hiring binges over the last few years. Those binges are now being unwound. “We want to live within our means,” is how Suncor CFO Alister Cowan explained the phenomenon.
Because now, they have to.
Larger drillers outspent their cash flows from production by 112% and smaller to midsize drillers by a breathtaking 157%, Barclays estimated. But no problem. Wall Street was eager to supply the remaining juice, and the piles of debt on these companies’ balance sheets ballooned. Oil-field services companies, suppliers, steel companies, accommodation providers… they all benefited.
Now the music has stopped. Suddenly, many of these companies are essentially locked out of the capital markets. They have to live within their means or go under.
California Resources, for example. This oil-and-gas production company operating exclusively in oil-state California, was spun off from Occidental Petroleum November 2014 to inflate Oxy’s share price. As part of the financial engineering that went into the spinoff, California Resources was loaded up with debt to pay Oxy $6 billion. Shares started trading on December 1. Bank of America explained at the time that the company was undervalued and rated it a buy with a $14-a-share outlook. Those hapless souls who believed the Wall Street hype and bought these misbegotten shares have watched them drop to $4.33 by today, losing 57% of their investment in seven weeks.
Its junk bonds – 6% notes due 2024 – were trading at 79 cents on the dollar today, down another 3 points from last week, according to S&P Capital IQ LCD.
Others weren’t so lucky.
Samson Resources is barely hanging on. It was acquired for $7.2 billion in 2011 by a group of private-equity firms led by KKR. They loaded it up with $3.6 billion in new debt and saddled it with “management fees.” Since its acquisition, it lost over $3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported. This is the inevitable result of fracking for natural gas whose price has been below the cost of production for years – though the industry has vigorously denied this at every twist and turn to attract the new money it needed to fill the holes fracking for gas was leaving behind.
Having burned through most of its available credit, Samson is getting rid of workers and selling off a big part of its oil-and-gas fields. According to S&P Capital IQ LCD, its junk bonds – 9.75% notes due 2020 – traded at 26.5 cents on the dollar today, down about 10 points this week alone.
Halcón Resources, which cut its 2015 budget by 55% to 60% just to survive somehow, saw its shares plunge 10% today to $1.20, down 85% since June, and down 25% since January 12 when I wrote about it last. Its junk bonds slid six points this week to 72 cents on the dollar.
Hercules Offshore, when I last wrote about it on October 15, was trading for $1.47 a share, down 81% since July. This rock-bottom price might have induced some folks to jump in and follow the Wall-Street hype-advice to “buy the most hated stocks.” Today, it’s trading for $0.82 a share, down another 44%. In mid-October, its 8.75% notes due 2022 traded at 66 cent on the dollar. Yesterday they traded at 45.
Despite what Wall-Street hype mongers want us to believe: bottom-fishing in the early stages of an oil bust can be one of the most expensive things to do.
Paragon Offshore is another perfect example of Wall Street engineering in the oil and gas sector. The offshore driller was spun off from Noble in early August 2014 with the goal of goosing Noble’s stock price. They loaded up the new company with debt. As part of the spinoff, it sold $580 million in junk bonds at 100 cents on the dollar. When its shares started trading, they immediately plunged. By the time I wrote about the company on October 15, they’d dropped 68% to $5.60. And the 6.75% notes due 2022 were trading at 77 cents on the dollar. Then in November, Paragon had the temerity to take on more debt to acquire Prospector Drilling Offshore.
Two days ago, Moody’s downgraded the outfit to Ba3, with negative outlook, citing the “rapid and significant deterioration in offshore rig-market fundamentals,” “the high likelihood” its older rigs might “not find new contracts,” and the “mostly debt-funded acquisition” of Prospector Drilling. The downgrade affects about $1.64 billion in debt.
Today, Paragon’s shares trade for $2.18, down another 61% since October 15. Its junk bonds are down to 58 cents on the dollar.
Swift Energy – whose stock, now at $2.37, has been declining for years and is down 84% from a year ago – saw its junk bonds shrivel another eight points over the week to 36 cents on the dollar.
“Such movement demonstrates the challenging market conditions for oil-spill credits, with spotty trades and often large price gaps lower,” S&P Capital IQ LCD reported.
It boils down to this: these companies are locked out of the capital markets for all practical purposes: at these share prices, they can’t raise equity capital without wiping out existing stockholders; and they can’t issue new debt at affordable rates. For them, the junk-bond music has stopped. And their banks are getting nervous too.
Their hope rests on cutting operating costs and capital expenditures, and coddling every dollar they get, while pushing production to maximize cash flow, which ironically will contribute to the oil glut and pressure prices further. They’re hoping to hang on until the next miracle arrives.
These Two Charts Show the True Fiasco of US Oil & Gas
by Wolf Richter
Rig count for oil and for gas: two separate fiascoes
Oil-and-gas exploration and production companies in the US have announced cutbacks of 30%, 40%, or 50% and beyond in operating budgets and capital expenditures. They want to survive in an environment of plunging oil and gas prices, and hence plunging revenues. They loaded up on debt, and that debt is now exacting its pound of flesh.
These companies lease drilling rigs from oil-field services companies, such as Halliburton. When the going gets tough and they run out of borrowed money, they stop leasing rigs, and they try to get out from under the rigs that they have already contracted for. It’s a slow process. But it has begun.
The number of rigs drilling for oil in the US dropped another 55 in the latest week to 1,366, the lowest since October 2013, down 15.1% from the peak in the second week of October last year, when 1,609 rigs were drilling for oil.
The rig count had already dropped by 61 in the prior week, the largest week-to-week drop in Baker Hughes’ data series going back to 1987. In percentage terms (-4.12%), it had been the largest drop since the Financial Crisis.
In both weeks combined, the rig count plunged by 116, or 7.8%. The last time it started plunging like this for two weeks was in December 2007 (also down 7.8%, ironically), at the cusp of the stock market crash.
California lost 4 active oil and gas rigs in the latest week, bringing the rig count to 18 (including 1 offshore), from 45 rigs (including 2 offshore) reported on November 21. In those eight weeks, the rig count plunged 60%! Drilling is coming to a halt in California.
North Dakota, second largest oil-producing state, lost another 6 rigs in the latest week, to 156 active rigs. Down 13.3% in five weeks.
Texas, the largest oil-producing state, got hit the hardest, not in percentage terms – that honor belongs to California – but in number of rigs that have been evaporating: 44 in the latest week. The oil and gas rig count is now at 766, the lowest since March 2011. That’s down 15.4% from the peak of 905 rigs reported on November 21.
This is what drilling activity looks like across the US:
As I wrote a few days ago in This Is Just the Beginning of the Great American Oil Bust:
Estimates vary widely as to how far the rig cutting will go. Barclays’ analyst Anderson estimated that at least 500 rigs could be idled in the American oil patch by the end of the year. Raymond James analyst Praveen Narra said that his firm estimated that up to 850 rigs could be idled this year. If 60% are idled, as was the case during the Financial Crisis, it would mean that 965 rigs would be taken out of service.
Over the last 10 years, the oil and gas business in the US has become huge, and the unwind will be huge as well.
Rigs drilling for natural gas follow a different pattern. The rig count collapsed years ago as the price of natural gas fell below the cost of production, after a phenomenal no-holds-barred fracking boom in the years before the financial crisis, which culminated in August 2008 when over 1,600 gas rigs were active. This resulted in a “gas glut” that killed prices, pushing them below the cost of production.
The rig count collapsed in two phases, first during the financial crisis, and then after a sucker rally, during the “gas glut.” It has turned into a true fiasco for the industry and increasingly for its investors:
But why is production still rising after this kind of plunge in drilling activity?
There are a number of reasons, but one stands out: Numerous of these newly drilled and completed or partially completed wells couldn’t be hooked up to pipelines because the growth of the pipeline infrastructure hadn’t kept up with the drilling boom. These wells – by some estimates, 1,300 in the Marcellus alone – just sat there, waiting for the pipeline. Over the last two years, pipeline infrastructure has reached these wells, and despite the plunge in drilling activity, “production” – which is counted when natural gas reaches a trading hub, not when the well is drilled – has soared in 2014.
So the rig count for natural gas dropped 19 in the latest reporting week, to 310, matching the low of June 2014, levels not seen since May 1993! Yet, in the overall fiasco that natural gas drillers are facing, this is just another minor downtick, and barely visible on the chart.