“People need to kinda settle in for a while.” That’s what Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said about the low price of oil at the company’s investor conference. “I see a lot of supply out there.”
So Exxon is going to do its darnedest to add to this supply: 16 new production projects will start pumping oil and gas through 2017. Production will rise from 4 million barrels per day to 4.3 million. But it will spend less money to get there, largely because suppliers have had to cut their prices.
That’s the global oil story. In the US, a similar scenario is playing out. Drillers are laying some people off, not massive numbers yet. Like Exxon, they’re shoving big price cuts down the throats of their suppliers. They’re cutting back on drilling by idling the least efficient rigs in the least productive plays – and they’re not kidding about that.
In the latest week, they idled a 64 rigs drilling for oil, according to Baker Hughes, which publishes the data every Friday. Only 922 rigs were still active, down 42.7% from October, when they’d peaked. Within 21 weeks, they’ve taken out 687 rigs, the most terrific, vertigo-inducing oil-rig nose dive in the data series, and possibly in history:
As Exxon and other drillers are overeager to explain: just because we’re cutting capex, and just because the rig count plunges, doesn’t mean our production is going down. And it may not for a long time. Drillers, loaded up with debt, must have the cash flow from production to survive.
But with demand languishing, US crude oil inventories are building up further. Excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, crude oil stocks rose by another 10.3 million barrels to 444.4 million barrels as of March 4, the highest level in the data series going back to 1982, according to the Energy Information Administration. Crude oil stocks were 22% (80.6 million barrels) higher than at the same time last year.
“When you have that much storage out there, it takes a long time to work that off,” said BP CEO Bob Dudley, possibly with one eye on this chart:
So now there is a lot of discussion when exactly storage facilities will be full, or nearly full, or full in some regions. In theory, once overproduction hits used-up storage capacity, the price of oil will plummet to whatever level short sellers envision in their wildest dreams. Because: what are you going to do with all this oil coming out of the ground with no place to go?
A couple of days ago, the EIA estimated that crude oil stock levels nationwide on February 20 (when they were a lot lower than today) used up 60% of the “working storage capacity,” up from 48% last year at that time. It varied by region:
Capacity is about 67% full in Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point for West Texas Intermediate futures contracts), compared with 50% at this point last year. Working capacity in Cushing alone is about 71 million barrels, or … about 14% of the national total.
As of September 2014, storage capacity in the US was 521 million barrels. So if weekly increases amount to an average of 6 million barrels, it would take about 13 weeks to fill the 77 million barrels of remaining capacity. Then all kinds of operational issues would arise. Along with a dizzying plunge in price.
In early 2012, when natural gas hit a decade low of $1.92 per million Btu, they predicted the same: storage would be full, and excess production would have to be flared, that is burned, because there would be no takers, and what else are you going to do with it? So its price would drop to zero.
They actually proffered that, and the media picked it up, and regular folks began shorting natural gas like crazy and got burned themselves, because it didn’t take long for the price to jump 50% and then 100%.
Oil is a different animal. The driving season will start soon. American SUVs and pickups are designed to burn fuel in prodigious quantities. People will be eager to drive them a little more, now that gas is cheaper, and they’ll get busy shortly and fix that inventory problem, at least for this year. But if production continues to rise at this rate, all bets are off for next year.
Natural gas, though it refused to go to zero, nevertheless got re-crushed, and the price remains below the cost of production at most wells. Drilling activity has dwindled. Drillers idled 12 gas rigs in the latest week. Now only 268 rigs are drilling for gas, the lowest since April 1993, and down 83.4% from its peak in 2008! This is what the natural gas fracking boom-and-bust cycle looks like:
Producing gas at a loss year after year has consequences. For the longest time, drillers were able to paper over their losses on natural gas wells with a variety of means and go back to the big trough and feed on more money that investors were throwing at them, because money is what fracking drills into the ground.
But that trough is no longer being refilled for some companies. And they’re running out. “Restructuring” and “bankruptcy” are suddenly the operative terms.
“Default Monday”: Oil & Gas Face Their Creditors
Debt funded the fracking boom. Now oil and gas prices have collapsed, and so has the ability to service that debt. The oil bust of the 1980s took down 700 banks, including 9 of the 10 largest in Texas. But this time, it’s different. This time, bondholders are on the hook.
And these bonds – they’re called “junk bonds” for a reason – are already cracking. Busts start with small companies and proceed to larger ones. “Bankruptcy” and “restructuring” are the terms that wipe out stockholders and leave bondholders and other creditors to tussle over the scraps.
Early January, WBH Energy, a fracking outfit in Texas, kicked off the series by filing for bankruptcy protection. It listed assets and liabilities of $10 million to $50 million. Small fry.
A week later, GASFRAC filed for bankruptcy in Alberta, where it’s based, and in Texas – under Chapter 15 for cross-border bankruptcies. Not long ago, it was a highly touted IPO, whose “waterless fracking” technology would change a parched world. Instead of water, the system pumps liquid propane gel (similar to Napalm) into the ground; much of it can be recaptured, in theory.
Ironically, it went bankrupt for other reasons: operating losses, “reduced industry activity,” the inability to find a buyer that would have paid enough to bail out its creditors, and “limited access to capital markets.” The endless source of money without which fracking doesn’t work had dried up.
On February 17, Quicksilver Resources announced that it would not make a $13.6 million interest payment on its senior notes due in 2019. It invoked the possibility of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to “restructure its capital structure.” Stockholders don’t have much to lose; the stock is already worthless. The question is what the creditors will get.
It has hired Houlihan Lokey Capital, Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics, “and other advisors.” During its 30-day grace period before this turns into an outright default, it will haggle with its creditors over the “company’s options.”
On February 27, Hercules Offshore had its share-price target slashed to zero, from $4 a share, at Deutsche Bank, which finally downgraded the stock to “sell.” If you wait till Deutsche Bank tells you to sell, you’re ruined!
When I wrote about Hercules on October 15, HERO was trading at $1.47 a share, down 81% since July. Those who followed the hype to “buy the most hated stocks” that day lost another 44% by the time I wrote about it on January 16, when HERO was at $0.82 a share. Wednesday, shares closed at $0.60.
Deutsche Bank was right, if late. HERO is headed for zero (what a trip to have a stock symbol that rhymes with zero). It’s going to restructure its junk debt. Stockholders will end up holding the bag.
On Monday, due to “chronically low natural gas prices exacerbated by suddenly weaker crude oil prices,” Moody’s downgraded gas-driller Samson Resources, to Caa3, invoking “a high risk of default.”
It was the second time in three months that Moody’s downgraded the company. The tempo is picking up. Moody’s:
The company’s stressed liquidity position, delays in reaching agreements on potential asset sales and its retention of restructuring advisors increases the possibility that the company may pursue a debt restructuring that Moody’s would view as a default.
Moody’s was late to the party. On February 26, it was leaked that Samson had hired restructuring advisers Kirkland & Ellis and Blackstone’s restructuring group to figure out how to deal with its $3.75 billion in debt. A group of private equity firms, led by KKR, had acquired Samson in 2011 for $7.2 billion. Since then, Samson has lost $3 billion. KKR has written down its equity investment to 5 cents on the dollar.
This is no longer small fry.
Also on Monday, oil-and-gas exploration and production company BPZ Resources announced that it would not pay $62 million in principal and interest on convertible notes that were due on March 1. It will use its grace period of 10 days on the principal and of 30 days on the interest to figure out how to approach the rest of its existence. It invoked Chapter 11 bankruptcy as one of the options.
If it fails to make the payments within the grace period, it would also automatically be in default of its 2017 convertible bonds, which would push the default to $229 million.
BPZ tried to refinance the 2015 convertible notes in October and get some extra cash. Fracking devours prodigious amounts of cash. But there’d been no takers for the $150 million offering. Even bond fund managers, driven to sheer madness by the Fed’s policies, had lost their appetite. And its stock is worthless.
Also on Monday – it was “default Monday” or something – American Eagle Energy announced that it would not make a $9.8 million interest payment on $175 million in bonds due that day. It will use its 30-day grace period to hash out its future with its creditors. And it hired two additional advisory firms.
One thing we know already: after years in the desert, restructuring advisers are licking their chops.
The company has $13.6 million in negative working capital, only $25.9 million in cash, and its $60 million revolving credit line has been maxed out.
But here is the thing: the company sold these bonds last August! And this was supposed to be its first interest payment.
That’s what a real credit bubble looks like. In the Fed’s environment of near-zero yield on reasonable investments, bond fund managers are roving the land chasing whatever yield they can discern. And they’re holding their nose while they pick up this stuff to jam it into bond funds that other folks have in their retirement portfolio.
Not even a single interest payment!
Borrowed money fueled the fracking boom. The old money has been drilled into the ground. The new money is starting to dry up. Fracked wells, due to their horrendous decline rates, produce most of their oil and gas over the first two years. And if prices are low during that time, producers will never recuperate their investment in those wells, even if prices shoot up afterwards. And they’ll never be able to pay off the debt from the cash flow of those wells. A chilling scenario that creditors were blind to before, but are now increasingly forced to contemplate.