Save for later Print Download Share LinkedIn Twitter The US E&P sector could be on the cusp of massive defaults and bankruptcies so staggering they pose a serious threat to the US economy. Without higher oil and gas prices -- which few experts foresee in the near future -- an over-leveraged, under-hedged US E&P industry faces a truly grim 2016. How bad could things get? "I could see a wave of defaults and bankruptcies on the scale of the telecoms, which triggered the 2001 recession," Timothy Smith, president of consultancy Petro Lucrum, told a Platts energy conference in Houston last week. Much has been made about the resiliency of US oil production in the face of low prices, but the truth is that many producers are maximizing their output -- even unprofitable volumes -- because they need the cash flow to service their debt (related). "As an industry, we're at the point where every dollar of free cash flow now goes to paying back debt," Angle Capital's Steve Ilkay told the same conference. Ilkay, who advises North American producers on asset management, said during the boom years of 2012-14 about 55% of the sector's free cash flow, which is calculated by subtracting capital expenditures from operating cash flow, was allocated toward debt repayment. With West Texas Intermediate (WTI) stuck below $50 per barrel since August -- and closer to $40 recently -- the industry has responded with deeper cuts to capex and a greater focus on efficiency (EIF Nov.4'15). However, experts say this won't be enough to avoid a bloody reckoning with persistent low oil and gas prices, as the sector grapples with some $200 billion-plus in high-yield debt, which it absorbed to finance the shale oil boom. Credit quality has been steadily deteriorating since June 2014, when WTI peaked at $108/bbl. Standard and Poor's says there have been 19 defaults so far in 2015 across the US oil and gas industry, while another 15 companies have filed for bankruptcy. Besides those that have missed interest or principal payments, the default category also includes companies that have entered into "distressed exchanges" with their creditors, including Halcon, SandRidge, Midstates, Goodrich, Warren, Exco, Venoco and Energy XXI (EIF Jul.8'15). Of the 153 oil and gas companies that S&P applies credit ratings to, roughly two-thirds are E&P firms. Among these E&Ps, 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-. What does this all mean in layman's terms? "Quite frankly it's a lot of gloom and doom," says Thomas Watters, managing director of S&P's oil and gas ratings. "I lose sleep over what could unfold." He says companies with ratings of B- or below are "on life support," while those further down the ratings scale at C+ or lower are "maybe looking at a year, year-and-a-half before they default or file for bankruptcy." While capital markets were still open to struggling E&P firms in the first half of the year, they are closing fast as investors accept a "lower for longer" oil price scenario. High-yield E&P firms raised $29 billion from 44 issuances of public debt in 2014. So far in 2015, $13 billion in junk-rated debt been raised from 23 issuances -- but only two have come after June (EIF Jul.29'15). After posting negative free cash flow of $24 billion in 2015, capex cuts and efficiency measures should help the industry post positive free cash flow of $8 billion in 2016, S&P reckons. However, the high-yield E&Ps are expected to see negative free cash flow of $10 billion, so the group that can least afford a cash crunch will get just that. Better hedging could have helped, but data from IHS Energy shows a woefully under-hedged E&P sector in 2016. Small producers have 27% of their oil production hedged at an average price of $77/bbl; midsized firms have 26% hedged at $69; and large producers have just 4% hedged at $63. That is much less protection than E&P firms had in place for 2015 (EIF Aug.19'15). Small and midsized producers, which rely heavily on revolving lines of credit with banks, have not yet seen these liquidity lifelines cut off. Some analysts were shocked after banks reduced lines to credit to E&Ps by just 10% on average during October redetermination negotiations (EIF Oct.14'15). Banks appear to be putting off the inevitable in hopes of a price rebound. Many have been using price forecasts above the average 12-month forward strip -- suggesting the pain could extend to energy lenders if markets don't recover as they expect. Heading into October redeterminations, Macquerie Tristone's energy lending survey showed banks using an average 2016 WTI price outlook of $54. That has since dropped to around $47 this quarter -- closer to the $46 indicated by the Nymex strip. Yet another source of concern for E&Ps and their lenders are price-related impairments and asset write-downs (EIF Nov.11'15). 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," says Glickman. This will be a problem up and down the E&P sector, not just for the little guys. 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. "That's staggering, just alarming to me," said Watters, noting that E&P firms' borrowing capacity is contingent on such measures (EIF Jul.22'15). Many believe all of these issues will come to a head in first-half 2016, as the effect of fewer hedges is felt and banks once again reassess credit lines in April. Pitifully low natural gas prices could also play a big factor, especially if the US experiences a mild winter. The confluence of these factors could be the catalyst that finally spurs a long-awaited tidal wave of mergers and acquisitions throughout the sector (EIF Oct.28'15). News of rampant defaults, bankruptcies and write-downs, combined with closed capital markets, might be enough to lower upstream asset valuations to the point where buyers and sellers can more easily agree to deals. Watters describes an "M&A playland" for strong companies with investment-grade credit ratings, noting that the six largest integrated majors together hold a war chest of some $500 billion. Smith says it could be a great opportunity for majors to improve their positions in US shale, where they were famously late in the game. "Some of the best shale acreage is held by companies with poor balance sheets. It seems like a natural fit," he says. But there's also some $100 billion in private equity sitting on the sidelines, meaning majors and large independents may face stiff competition (EIF Oct.28'15). Anadarko has openly complained about being outbid for assets by management teams backed by private equity. "Does that mean we're overpaying? No," insists one private equity executive. "It means we're willing to pay a bit more because we think our guys can run the assets better than some larger outfits, who can struggle with cost structures."