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Even If Oil Rally Continues, Lenders Still At Risk

Yves here. Even with the impressive oil rally of the last two days, it isn’t clear that producers and lenders are out of the woods. While some analysts contend that the bottom is in, others see the rally as technical, driven in large measure by short-covering, and likely to fade.

The uncertainty lies in what is really happening on the production side. Even though market-watchers took cheer from a sharp fall in rigs in service to 2012 level, it’s possible to keep production levels high with fewer rigs. For instance, a January 20 article in the Financial Times discussed how BHP Billiton was reducing its rig count in the US for shale oil from 26 at year end to 16 by June. Notice this section:

The company does not expect the slowdown to have an immediate effect on its oil and gas production, which it still expects to average about 700,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the year to the end of June, including a 50 per cent increase in US shale oil production.

Catch that? BHP Billiton expects to achieve higher production with fewer rigs.

The incentives of producers are just like that of OPEC: they need to keep revenues up to cover their obligations. That means it is not yet clear when we’ll see real reductions in output.

Moreover, even if this rally holds, another question is how quickly prices get back to levels that producers deem to be viable, which is over $80 a barrel and more like over $100 a barrel. If prices languish in the $50-$60 range, it will not provide much relief.

By Nick Cunningham, a Washington DC-based writer on energy and environmental issues. You can follow him on twitter at @nickcunningham1. Originally published at OilPrice

The oil markets are showing some life, having rallied 11 percent over a two-day period. But if a bigger rebound is not around the corner, it won’t just be oil companies that will be feeling the pain: their lenders will also face some steep losses if drillers can’t come up with the cash to cover debt payments.

Drilling for oil is an expensive process. Until the oil begins to flow, companies have to shell out cash without seeing much in return. Without revenues from other wells already in production, oil companies have to take on debt to finance operations. Even for companies with big production portfolios, debt is a crucial source of funds to keep the treadmill of new drilling going. Between 2010 and 2014, the oil industry took on around $550 billion in debt, a period of time in which oil prices surged. Now with a crash, that volume that becomes especially hard to service.

The largest banks – JP Morgan, or Citibank, for example – are so massive that losses on loans to the energy industry will likely result in only “slight negatives,” as JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon put it a January conference call with investors. But smaller more regionally-focused banks, especially in Texas and North Dakota, are facing a much bigger problem.

During the last oil crash in the 1980’s, around 700 banks failed after oil prices crashed. Analysts aren’t expecting failures to come close to those numbers, but there are a series of banks that have high percentages of their loan portfolios coming from the energy sector. For example, companies like International Bancshares has (42.4 percent), and Cullen/Frost Bankers (35.9 percent), two Texas-based regional banks, are highly exposed, as CNN Money reported in January.

Canadian banks are also reeling from oil prices that have dropped by more than 50 percent since mid-2014. The S&P/TSX Commercial Banks index, an index of eight Canadian banks, dropped by around 10 percent in January, the index’s worst start to a year since 1990, according to Bloomberg.

Even British banks could be on the hook. The Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, and a series of other British banks are exposed to more than $50 billion in high-yield loans in the energy sector.

But not all lenders are in trouble. Eyeing wounded animals, some financial vultures sense an opportunity. Hedge funds and private equity are stepping into the fray, providing credit to distressed oil companies at exorbitant rates. Shut out of traditional debt markets, oil companies drowning in debt have few other options. Particularly for smaller drillers, these emergency loans provide a lifeline to pay off other debt.

Bloomberg reported on February 2 that several major private equity firms – Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management, Blackstone Group, and KKR – are in the midst of taking massive positions in indebted oil companies.

KKR, for example, provided $700 million in credit to Preferred Sands LLC, a producer of sand used to frack oil and gas wells. In exchange for the emergency loan – which carried a 15 percent yield – KKR took a 40 percent ownership stake in the company. Blackstone did a similar deal with Linn Energy LLC, another struggling oil firm.

The New York Times chronicled the case of Resolute Energy, a company barely alive after being overwhelmed by debt. Highbridge Capital Management, a hedge fund, provided $150 million in loans to the company at a more than 10 percent interest rate.

The onerous terms on new debt obviously makes it even less likely that oil drillers will be able to get back on their feet. But these vulture investors know that they can seize assets in the event of a bankruptcy. And if oil prices do turnaround, then these financial institutions come away with potentially lucrative oil-producing assets that they obtained at fire sale prices.

“The single best opportunity to invest is distressed debt in energy,” David Rubenstein, a co-founder of The Carlyle Group, said in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

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7 comments

  1. tswkr

    If the root of the shale boom was truly a Minsky bubble, then only a recovery of prices back to the costs of production will not be enough to restore the industry. The exuberance is gone and debt can no longer be relied upon to keep insolvent operations going or to keep investment going at a rate to offset depletion.

  2. mrfred

    The Saudis are determined to to make a run on the shale oil producers. They have the cash reserves and, more importantly, the will, to finish what they started. A brief price bubble isnt going to change the trajectory of oil prices.

  3. drfrank

    Thought experiment, idealistic: Suppose fracking in the US were conducted in a environmentally responsible way and financed in a way that did not expose it to volatility of oil prices, did not put regulated lenders like regional banks at risk and did not offer opportunities to high yield debt underwriters or vulture funds. . . . Now what would be the implications for US foreign policy, Defence Department spending, US employment and housing. etc. ? To Saudi power, funding of terrorists, Arab state regime change? Russian energy exports to Europe and/or China? US manufacturing and competitive exports based on US energy supplies? My guess: what we would save in foreign engagements would more than offset whatever kind of subsidy would be needed to protect US energy independence, the world would be a safer and more civilised place, the US more prosperous and equal.

    1. Praedor

      But it is a thought that cannot be made real. It is impossible to do fracking in an “environmentally responsible way”. Even if they quit using the nasty toxic additions to the fracking fluid and went with water, sand, and some “safe” additive, the BIG problem is WATER. There is not enough fresh water resources to sustain fracking, period, let alone do it in an environmentally friendly way. Very soon the already extant water issues that are hitting the western US will really start heating up and causing all kinds of problems for the environment, for unsustainable cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc…to add a HUGE water suck to the mix in the form of frackers? Let’s say we even get into desalination in a big way (inevitable anyway to sustain all west coast cities at the very least), it is not a cheap operation to generate fresh water from sea water. No, eventually something is going to HAVE to give – and it cannot be cities and the millions of people living in them for the sake of frackers.

  4. Luke The Debtor

    The biggest vicim so far has been the North Sea. I wonde if this means the UK becomes a third world country. Oil revenues and Russian oligarchs can no longer prop up real estate prices in London.

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