It's probably nothing.
The Energy Intelligence news and analysis creator and aggregator is not one to haphazradly throw around hyperbolic claims and forecasts. So when it gets downright apocalyptic, as it did this week in a report titled "Is Debt Bomb About to Blow Up US Shale?", people listen... and if they are still long energy junk bonds, they panic.
"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?"
The full report by Paul Merolli, a senior editor and correspondent at Energy Intelligence:
Debt Bomb Ticking for US Shale
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 and when? It increasingly looks like a number of the weakest companies will run out of financial stamina in the first half of next year, and with every dollar of income going to service debt at many heavily leveraged independents, there are waves of others that also face serious trouble if the lower-for-longer oil price scenario extends further.
"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)....MORE
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And from March 2015's "Cash Strapped Chesapeake Reduced to Acting as Real Estate Broker for Shale Property Buyers (CHK; KKR)"
Always remember: In the short run balance sheets don't move stocks, in the long run they rule.