Tesla Planning Battery for Emerging Home Energy-Storage Market By Dana Hull and Mark Chediak – Feb 11, 2015, 10:48:18 PM

Tesla Planning Battery for Emerging Home Energy-Storage Market
By Dana Hull and Mark Chediak – Feb 11, 2015, 10:48:18 PM

(Bloomberg) — Tesla Motors Inc., best known for making the all-electric Model S sedan, is using its lithium-ion battery technology to position itself as a frontrunner in the emerging energy-storage market that supplements and may ultimately threaten the traditional electric grid.

“We are going to unveil the Tesla home battery, the consumer battery that would be for use in people’s houses or businesses fairly soon,” Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said during an earnings conference call with analysts Wednesday.

Combining solar panels with large, efficient batteries could allow some homeowners to avoid buying electricity from utilities. Morgan Stanley said last year that Tesla’s energy-storage product could be “disruptive” in the U.S. and in Europe as customers seek to avoid utility fees by going “off-grid.” Musk said the product unveiling would occur within the next month or two.

“We have the design done, and it should start going into production in about six months or so,” Musk said. “It’s really great.”

Tesla already offers residential energy-storage units to select customers through SolarCity Corp., the solar-power company that lists Musk as its chairman and biggest shareholder. Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory is also making larger stationary storage systems for businesses and utility clients. The Palo Alto, California-based automaker has installed a storage unit at its Tejon Ranch Supercharger station off Interstate 5 in Southern California and has several other commercial installations in the field.

Utility Clients

But the even larger market may be utility clients.

“A lot of utilities are working in this space and we are talking to almost all of them,” Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel said on the earnings call Wednesday. “This is a business that is gaining an increasing amount of our attention.”

California sees energy storage as a critical tool to better manage the electric grid, integrate a growing amount of solar and wind power, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Utilities like PG&E Corp. are now required to procure about 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2020, enough to supply roughly 1 million homes.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dana Hull in San Francisco at dhull12@bloomberg.net; Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net Terje Langeland

Natural Gas Drops Below $3 for First Time Since 2012 By Naureen S. Malik – Dec 26, 2014, 2:56:43 PM

Natural Gas Drops Below $3 for First Time Since 2012
By Naureen S. Malik – Dec 26, 2014, 2:56:43 PM Bloomberg

Natural gas slumped below $3 per million British thermal units in New York for the first time since 2012 on speculation that record production will overwhelm demand for the heating fuel.

Futures settled at the lowest in 27 months and have plunged 26 percent in December, heading for the biggest one-month drop since July 2008, as mild weather and record production erased a surplus to year-ago levels for the first time in two years. Temperatures will be mostly above average in the eastern half of the U.S. through Dec. 30, according to Commodity Weather Group LLC.

“We don’t see anything scary in the forecast,” said Stephen Schork, president of Schork Group Inc., a consulting group in Villanova, Pennsylvania. “You had this psyche where people were worried about a polar vortex; we had a cold October and a cold early November, and boom, if you were long you are wrong.”

Natural gas for January delivery fell 2.3 cents, or 0.8 percent, to settle at $3.007 per million Btu on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures touched $2.973, the lowest intraday price since Sept. 26, 2012. Volume was 54 percent below the 100-day average for the time of day at 2:32 p.m. Gas dropped 13 percent this week.

Prices broke below several technical support levels, including $3.046 and then $3, and may be headed toward $2.80 or lower, said Schork.

Playing Short

“I am playing this market short,” he said. “Anyone who is selling now is trying to trigger a panic selloff.”

February $2.50 puts were the most active options in electronic trading. The price slipped 0.1 cent to 2.6 cents on volume of 557 as of 2:36 p.m.

Above-normal temperatures in the East this week will give way to mostly seasonal readings from Maine to Florida through Jan. 9, according to Commodity Weather in Bethesda, Maryland. The central states will see below-normal readings on Dec. 31 through the first week of January.

The high in New York tomorrow may be 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), 10 more than usual, data from AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania, show. Chicago temperatures may reach 46 degrees, 13 above normal.

Fracking

An estimated 49 percent of U.S. households use gas for heating, led by the Midwest and Northeast, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“We haven’t seen a lot of cold weather this winter,” said Carl Larry, a Houston-based director of oil and gas at Frost & Sullivan. “The warmer it stays, the more pressure on natural gas. Gas production is not dropping and demand is not that high.”

Rising Output

In the absence of extreme weather, rising production will leave inventories at an all-time high above 4 trillion cubic feet by the end of October 2015, BNP Paribas SA said in a report Dec. 23.

BNP Paribas lowered its estimate for average 2015 gas prices to $3.60 per million Btu from $3.75.

“Unseasonably warm weather this month now necessitates extreme conditions ahead in order to avert a surplus,” Teri Viswanath, director of commodities strategy for the bank in New York, said in the report.

Gas stockpiles fell by 49 billion cubic feet to 3.246 trillion cubic feet in the seven days ended Dec. 19, below the five-year average withdrawal for the fourth straight week, EIA data show.

Supplies were 150 billion, or 4.9 percent, higher than year-earlier levels. The surplus will “balloon to just shy of 200 billion cubic feet” by the start of next year, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Record-High Production

Production of the heating and power plant fuel expanded in 2014 to an all-time high for the fourth consecutive year, rising 5.5 percent to 74.26 billion cubic feet a day, EIA data show. Daily output will rise another 3.1 percent next year to 76.58 billion, marking a decade of gains as technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made it more economic to extract fuel from shale rock.

The Marcellus formation in the East has emerged as the biggest driver of gas production growth in the U.S. Production from the shale formation may average 16.3 billion cubic feet a day in January, up 19 percent from a year earlier, the EIA said in its monthly Drilling Productivity Report on Dec. 8.

“This market continues to look oversupplied,” Aaron Calder, senior market analyst at Gelber & Associates in Houston, said by phone on Dec. 24.

Bears’ Takeover

Low gas prices are “eventually going to provide some sort of floor” by prompting power generators to switch from burning coal, said Calder. “This withdrawal shows that it’s going to be a while coming. In the meantime, we are going to see bears take over this market.”

The relative strength index, a technical momentum indicator, declined to 28.8 at 2:36 p.m., falling below 30, a reading considered by some traders to be a buy signal, for the first time since July. The RSI had risen to more than 74 in October before the recent selloff.

“A lot of people came in trading natural gas not really understanding what a powder keg it is in the energy sector,” Schork said. “This is the most volatile market but had been lying dormant for four or five years. The fact that its breaking the $3 barrier, at this point buy at your own risk.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Naureen S. Malik in New York at nmalik28@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Marino at dmarino4@bloomberg.net Charlotte Porter,

Why Saudis Decided Not to Prop Up Oil – WSJ

WORLD NEWS
Why Saudis Decided Not to Prop Up Oil
In American Shale Oil, A Perceived Threat to OPEC Market Share

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By JAY SOLOMON in Washington and SUMMER SAID in Dubai
Dec. 21, 2014 10:33 p.m. ET

In early October, Saudi Arabia’s representative to OPEC surprised attendees at a New York seminar by revealing his government was content to let global energy prices slide.
Nasser al-Dossary ’s message broke from decades of Saudi orthodoxy that sought to keep prices high by limiting global oil production, said people familiar with the session. That set the stage for Saudi Arabia’s oil mandarins to send crude prices tumbling late last month after persuading other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep production steady.

Hard-hit countries like Iran, Russia and Venezuela suspected the move was a coordinated effort between the oil kingdom and its longtime ally, the U.S., to weaken their foes’ economies and geopolitical standing.

But the story of Saudi Arabia’s new oil strategy, pieced together through interviews with senior Middle Eastern, American and European officials, isn’t one of an old alliance. It is a story of a budding rivalry, driven by what Saudi Arabia views as a threat posed by American energy firms, these officials said.

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Shale-oil production in places like Texas and North Dakota has boosted U.S. output, displacing exports to the U.S. from OPEC members and adding to global oversupply.

RELATED COVERAGE

Mr. Dossary’s October message signaled a direct challenge to North American energy firms that the Arab monarchy believes have fueled a supply glut by using new shale-oil technologies, said the people familiar with the session.
Saudi officials became convinced they couldn’t bolster prices alone amid the new-crude flood. They also concluded many other OPEC members would balk at meaningful cuts, as would big non-OPEC producers like Russia and Mexico. If Riyadh cut production alone, Saudi officials feared, other producers would swoop in and steal market share.
Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi tested that conclusion just 48 hours before the Nov. 27 OPEC decision, meeting in Vienna with oil heads of several big producer nations to suggest a coordinated output cut. As he suspected going in, he couldn’t get an agreement, said people familiar with the meeting.

The option left: Let prices slide to test how long, and at what levels, American shale producers can keep pumping.

OPEC’s Nov. 27 move helped drive crude prices to below $60 a barrel from over $100 this summer. It fueled discord among OPEC’s members—and among other energy powers—who have grown accustomed to triple-digit oil prices padding their governments’ balance sheets.

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Mr. Naimi on Thursday said Saudi Arabia and OPEC had no choice but to keep production at current levels amid the price weakness.
“In a situation like this, it is difficult, if not impossible for the kingdom or OPEC, to take any action that may result in lower market share and higher quotas from others, at a time when it is difficult to control prices,” the official Saudi press agency quoted him as saying. Mr. Naimi didn’t respond to inquiries. Saudi oil-ministry representatives wouldn’t comment for this article.
The Saudi approach is part of a significant evolution in Riyadh’s relationship with Washington over the past decade. Close allies since World War II, the countries prospered on the kingdom’s providing a steady oil flow in exchange for America’s securing its borders.
But the U.S.’s emergence as an energy rival is testing this foundation in ways not yet widely appreciated, said U.S. and Saudi officials, as have major differences over American Middle East policies.
Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by letting oil prices plunge, said Arab, American and European officials. Saudi officials have said their economy can survive at least two years with low prices, thanks partly to the kingdom’s $750 billion foreign-exchange reserves. Arab officials believe many less-efficient producers will be driven out of the market.
Still, some oil-industry executives said, Riyadh and Mr. Naimi may underestimate how technology and the shale-oil boom have fundamentally altered energy markets. Many U.S. companies, they said, can make money or break even with oil below $40.
The move has also exposed cracks inside the Saudi ruling circle. In October, as the oil-price slide accelerated, billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew to King Abdullah, castigated Mr. Naimi in an open letter for appearing to shrug off price declines. Belittling the impact, he wrote, “is a catastrophe that cannot go unmentioned.”

OPEC’s Dilemma

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At about that time, Mr. Naimi’s deputy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, another nephew of the king, worried to colleagues that the kingdom’s budget couldn’t bear lower prices long, said people familiar with the matter. The offices of Prince Abdulaziz and Prince al-Waleed didn’t respond to inquiries.
Saudi Arabia and its massive energy reserves have played a major role in shaping world affairs for 50 years. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration credited the Saudis with maintaining high oil production to drive down prices and weaken the Soviet Union’s finances. The price drop also fueled an economic recovery in the U.S.
A spokesman for the National Security Council on Sunday said Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains strong and focused on cooperation on numerous economic and security issues. “Our bilateral relationship is built on over 70 years of close cooperation whether it is counterterrorism, military to military training, educational exchanges, energy security, or bolstering trade and investment,” said NSC spokesman Alistair Baskey.
President Barack Obama ’s administration has worked closely with Saudi Arabia to try using energy markets to pressure Iran into constraining its nuclear program, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Beginning in 2009, U.S. officials coordinated with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to assure major buyers of Iranian oil would have alternatives if they weaned themselves off Tehran.
The strategy helped the West cut by half Iran’s energy exports over the past three years, said Robert Einhorn, who coordinated U.S. sanctions on Iran in the Obama administration. “What made this possible was that the Saudis and others were able to produce more.”
But Washington’s relations with Riyadh have soured in recent years due to differences over the Obama administration’s handling of Middle East political instability. King Abdullah was incensed last year when Mr. Obama reneged on his pledge to launch military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ’s regime following its alleged poison-gas use against civilians. Saudi officials also felt deceived after the Obama administration launched secret nuclear negotiations in 2012 with Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival.
OPEC: The Cartel is Standing Pat on Production, for Now

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“Saudi Arabia’s reliance on U.S. protection is a thing of the past,” said Nawaf Obaid, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Belfer Center who has advised the Saudi government on foreign policy. “The Saudis will remain America’s most important strategic partner in the Middle East, but not its closest.”
Washington is entering a new era in its Saudi Arabia relationship, although the alliance remains crucial to the global economy, said Amos Hochstein, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia was never dependent on energy. Our relationship is evolving,” he said. “We will never be energy independent because it’s a global commodity. But we can be more efficient and self-sufficient.”
The American energy boom has further complicated relations, said U.S. and Saudi officials. Senior Saudi officials have appeared perplexed in recent months in gauging the impact of the American boom.
In late September, Ibrahim al-Muhanna, a top adviser to Mr. Naimi, said publicly in Bahrain he didn’t foresee oil prices falling much below $90 a barrel due to what he said was the high cost of extracting North American shale oil. He didn’t respond to inquiries.
The Saudis largely kept silent as prices kept falling. Then Mr. Naimi went on vacation in late September, removing himself from a public debate over whether OPEC should rein in production at its November meeting.
Mr. Naimi tended sheep before starting as an errand boy at Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. He worked his way to chief executive before becoming minister in 1995. He won a reputation for data-driven decision making. In the late 1990s, he focused on U.S. Midwest commercial crude-oil inventories—if levels got too high, OPEC needed to cut.
Which Oil Producers Are Breaking Even?

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Mr. Naimi’s comments can rattle or soothe oil markets. So his vacation’s timing puzzled many of his colleagues, said people familiar with the matter, and during his absence there was bickering inside the government about how to arrest the price decline. The question: whether to focus on stopping the short-term revenue impact of the price decline or to exploit the medium-term potential of its reducing competition from North American shale producers.
Meanwhile, OPEC members were slashing prices, often undercutting one another. In early November, Saudi Aramco cut prices to U.S. customers, a move aimed at locking in customers as shale output swelled, industry officials said.
Returning from his holiday, Mr. Naimi met with Venezuela’s foreign minister and its chief OPEC representative, Rafael Ramirez, on a Venezuelan resort island. Privately, the Saudi told his hosts he would support a production cut only if the Venezuelans could persuade producers inside and outside OPEC to participate, people briefed on the meeting said. A Venezuelan foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to comment.
Mr. Ramirez traveled to Russia, Algeria, Iran and Qatar to woo production-cut support. Two days before OPEC’s Nov. 27 meeting, he gathered senior energy officials from Russia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia—including Mr. Naimi—at Vienna’s Hyatt Hotel.
On the table was a proposal to take two million barrels a day off the market, officials familiar with the talks said. OPEC would shoulder the bulk of the cut, but Russia and Mexico were expected to trim a combined 500,000 daily barrels.
Mr. Naimi had expected Russia to balk, these people said. Indeed, the Russian delegates said they couldn’t cut production for technical reasons and because they might lose pumping capacity by shutting wells. An official at OAO Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, confirmed the meeting took place but denied there were discussions about an output cut.
The discussions never made it as far as what Mexico might be willing to do. “From the start, Russia made it clear that it wasn’t going to cut production, and the meeting ended there,” said a person familiar with the discussion. A Mexican energy-ministry spokesman didn’t respond to inquiries.
Mr. Naimi argued it was in everyone’s interest to take collective action and that the market would eventually force the Russians to cut. Russia, he said, couldn’t keep producing roughly 10 million barrels a day unless oil prices were over at least $100.
Mr. Naimi headed to the Nov. 27 OPEC meeting with King Abdullah’s support to align OPEC’s Arab states behind a policy of no production cuts and of defending market share, said people familiar with his mandate. The U.A.E., Kuwait and Qatar gave their support ahead of the meeting.
At the meeting, Mr. Naimi addressed other OPEC ministers, who were asked to leave aides outside the room. He conceded falling prices would be painful but said losing customers to U.S. shale would be worse, people briefed on his comments said.
Mr. Naimi wasn’t advocating forcing down prices to hurt U.S. shale producers, these people said, but was warning that if OPEC cut output, non-cartel crude would likely replace it. OPEC ministers agreed to keep their production ceiling unchanged.
Sell orders flooded oil markets. Shares in big producers tumbled, along with currencies of petro-states like Russia and Nigeria.
U.S. and Arab officials have privately gushed that the decline could undercut the ability of Tehran, Moscow and Caracas to play destabilizing roles globally, and have voiced optimism that Iran’s financial woes could force it into more nuclear concessions.
“If in the process, you have 30% off Iran’s income, fine,” said a senior Arab official involved in the oil deliberations. “If in the process, you shave 30% off Russia’s income, fine.”
There remains a risk prices don’t quickly recover. Some in the Saudi media have criticized Mr. Naimi for a policy they say could be disastrous for the kingdom’s economy. Riyadh depends on oil for 90% of its budget.
“All OPEC and non-OPEC officials are in a state of shock,” said Muhammad al-Sabban, a former adviser to Mr. Naimi, adding that a “ ‘wait and see’ is their only option.”
—Benoît Faucon, Sarah Kent and Kejal Vyas contributed to this article.
Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com and Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com

Oil Crash Exposes New Risks for U.S. Shale Drillers

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

U.S. shale oil production.

Tumbling oil prices have exposed a weakness in the insurance that some U.S. shale drillers bought to protect themselves against a crash.

At least six companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (PXD) and Noble Energy Inc. (NBL), used a strategy known as a three-way collar that doesn’t guarantee a minimum price if crude falls below a certain level, according to company filings. While three-ways can be cheaper than other hedges, they can leave drillers exposed to steep declines.

“Producers are inherently bullish,” said Mike Corley, the founder of Mercatus Energy Advisors, a Houston-based firm that advises companies on hedging strategies. “It’s just the nature of the business. You’re not going to go drill holes in the ground if you think prices are going down.”

Oil Prices

The three-way hedges risk exacerbating a cash squeeze for companies trying to cope with the biggest plunge in oil prices this decade. West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, dropped about 50 percent since June amid a worldwide glut. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided Nov. 27 to hold production steady as the 12-member group competes for market share against U.S. shale drillers that have pushed domestic output to the highest since at least 1983.

WTI for January delivery rose $2.41, or 4.5 percent, to settle at $56.52 a barrel today on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Debt Price

Shares of oil companies are also dropping, with a 49 percent decline in the 76-member Bloomberg Intelligence North America E&P Valuation Peers index from this year’s peak in June. The drilling had been driven by high oil prices and low-cost financing. Companies spent $1.30 for every dollar earned selling oil and gas in the third quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg on 56 of the U.S.-listed companies in the E&P index.

Financing costs are now rising as prices sink. The average borrowing cost for energy companies in the U.S. high-yield debt market has almost doubled to 10.43 percent from an all-time low of 5.68 percent in June, Bank of America Merrill Lynch data show.

Locking in a minimum price for crude reassures investors that companies will have the cash to keep expanding and lenders that debt can be repaid. While several companies such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC), Bonanza Creek (BCEI) Energy Inc., Callon Petroleum Co., Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc. and Parsley Energy Inc., use three-way collars, Pioneer uses more than its competitors, company records show.

‘Best Hedges’

Scott Sheffield, Pioneer’s chairman and chief executive officer, said during a Nov. 5 earnings call that his company has “probably the best hedges in place among the industry.” Having pumped 89,000 barrels a day in the third quarter, Pioneer is one of the biggest oil producers in U.S. shale.

Pioneer used three-ways to cover 85 percent of its projected 2015 output, the company’sDecember investor presentation shows. The strategy capped the upside price at $99.36 a barrel and guaranteed a minimum, or floor, of $87.98. By themselves, those positions would ensure almost $34 a barrel more than yesterday’s price.

However, Pioneer added a third element by selling a put option, sometimes called a subfloor, at $73.54. That gives the buyer the right to sell oil at that price by a specific date.

Below that threshold, Pioneer is no longer entitled to the floor of $87.98, only the difference between the floor and the subfloor, or $14.44 on top of the market price. So at yesterday’s price of $54.11, Pioneer would realize $68.55 a barrel.

‘Better Upside’

David Leaverton, a spokesman for Irving, Texas-based Pioneer, declined to comment on the company’s hedging strategy. The company said in its December investor presentation that “three-way collars protect downside while providing better upside exposure than traditional collars or swaps.”

The company hedged 95,767 barrels a day next year using the three-ways. If yesterday’s prices persist through the first quarter, Pioneer would realize $1.86 million less every day than it would have using the collar with the floor of $87.98. That would add up to more than $167 million in the first quarter, equal to about 14 percent of Pioneer’s third-quarter revenue.

Exposure Cost

The strategy ensures that the bulk of Pioneer’s production will earn more than yesterday’s market price. The three-ways will also prove valuable if oil rises above the subfloor.

“What they have is much better than nothing,” said Tim Revzan, an analyst with Sterne Agee Group Inc. in New York. “But they left some money on the table that they could have locked in at a better price.”

Noble Energy used three-ways to hedge 33,000 barrels a day, according to third-quarter SEC filings. Assuming yesterday’s prices persist, Houston-based Noble will bring in $50 million less in the first quarter than it would have by locking in the floor prices.

Bonanza Creek, based in Denver, Colorado, set up three-ways with a floor of $84.32 and a subfloor of $68.08, SEC records show. If prices stay where they are, the company will realize $8.1 million less in the first quarter than it would have by just using the floor.

Ryan Zorn, Bonanza Creek’s senior vice president of finance, said that the comparison doesn’t take into account the advantages of the strategy. The proceeds from selling the $68.08 puts helped pay for the protection at $84.32, without which Bonanza Creek would likely have purchased cheaper options with a lower floor.

’Much Better’

“The other comparison is if we’d done nothing,” Zorn said. “I view it as being much better than being unhedged.”

Representatives for Anadarko, Noble, Carrizo and Parsley didn’t return e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.

“Because we’ve had high energy prices for so long, it could have given them a false sense of confidence,” said Ray Carbone, president of Paramount Options Inc. in New York. “They picked a price they thought it wouldn’t go below. It has turned out to be very expensive.”

Callon (CPE)’s first-quarter three-ways cover 158,000 barrels with a floor of $90 and a subfloor of $75, company filings show. Callon, based in Natchez, Mississippi, will get $3.3 million less that it would have realized by using the $90 floor, assuming prices stay where they are.

“Certainly, if we’d had the foresight to know prices were going to crater, you’d want to be in the swap instead of the three-way,” said Eric Williams, a spokesman for Callon. “Swaps make more sense if you knew prices were going to go down the way they did, but a few months ago everyone was bullish.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Asjylyn Loder in New York at aloder@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Dan Stets at dstets@bloomberg.net Richard Stubbe

Fed Bubble Bursts in $550 Billion of Energy Debt: Credit Markets By Christine Idzelis and Craig Torres – Dec 11, 2014, 10:59:52 AM

The danger of stimulus-induced bubbles is starting to play out in the market for energy-company debt.

Since early 2010, energy producers have raised $550 billion of new bonds and loans as the Federal Reserve held borrowing costs near zero, according to Deutsche Bank AG. With oil prices plunging, investors are questioning the ability of some issuers to meet their debt obligations. Research firm CreditSights Inc. predicts the default rate for energy junk bonds will double to eight percent next year.

“Anything that becomes a mania — it ends badly,” said Tim Gramatovich, who helps manage more than $800 million as chief investment officer of Santa Barbara, California-based Peritus Asset Management. “And this is a mania.”

The Fed’s decision to keep benchmark interest rates at record lows for six years has encouraged investors to funnel cash into speculative-grade securities to generate returns, raising concern that risks were being overlooked. A report from Moody’s Investors Service this week found that investor protections in corporate debt are at an all-time low, while average yields on junk bonds were recently lower than what investment-grade companies were paying before the credit crisis.

Borrowing costs for energy companies have skyrocketed in the past six months as West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, has dropped 44 percent to $60.46 a barrel since reaching this year’s peak of $107.26 in June.

Yields Surge

Yields on junk-rated energy bonds climbed to a more-than-five-year high of 9.5 percent this week from 5.7 percent in June, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data. At least three energy-related borrowers, including C&J Energy Services Inc. (CJES ▼ -3.13% 12.07), postponed financings this month as sentiment soured.

“It’s been super cheap” for energy companies to obtain financing over the past five years, said Brian Gibbons, a senior analyst for oil and gas at CreditSights in New York. Now, companies with ratings of B or below are “virtually shut out of the market” and will have to “rely on a combination of asset sales” and their credit lines, he said.

Companies rated Ba1 and lower by Moody’s and BB+ and below by Standard & Poor’s are considered speculative grade.

Stimulus Effect

The Fed’s three rounds of bond buying were a gift to small companies in the capital-intensive energy industry that needed cheap borrowing costs to thrive, according to Chris Lafakis, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Quantitative easing “has been one of the keys to the fast, breakneck pace of the growth in U.S. oil production which requires abundant capital,” Lafakis said.

One of those to take advantage was Energy XXI Ltd. (EXXI ▼ -1.39% 2.84), an oil and gas explorer, which has raised more than $2 billion in the bond market in the past four years.

The Houston-based company’s $750 million of 9.25 percent notes, issued in December 2010, have tumbled to 64 cents on the dollar from 106.3 cents in September, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. They yield 27.7 percent.

Energy XXI got its lenders in August to waive a potential violation of its credit agreement because its debt had risen relative to its earnings, according to a regulatory filing. In September, lenders agreed to increase the amount of leverage allowed.

Bubble Risk

“We think the sell-off has been a little over done,” said Greg Smith, a vice president in Energy XXI’s investor relations department. “People are trading us as though we’re distressed.”

The company has “plenty of liquidity,” Smith said. “Come January we’ll be free cash flow positive,” which is “a rarity in this business,” he said.

The debt rout is one of the latest examples of a boom and bust in U.S. markets as unprecedented Fed stimulus fuels a hunt for yield. The fallout has been limited so far, yet the longer the Fed holds its benchmark lending rate near zero, the greater the risk of more consequential bubbles, according to former Fed governor Jeremy Stein.

“To the extent that highly accommodative monetary policy courts risks to the economy further down the road, there is more of a live trade-off than there was at 8 percent unemployment” said Stein, now a Harvard University professor.

Joblessness of 5.8 percent in November was about half a percentage point away from the Fed’s estimate of full employment, or the lowest level of labor market slack the economy can sustain before companies bid up wages.

Job Creation

Employment in support services for oil and gas operations has surged 70 percent since the U.S. expansion began in June 2009, while oil and gas extraction payrolls have climbed 34 percent.

“There are distortions in multiple markets,” said Lawrence Goodman, president of the Center for Financial Stability, a monetary research group in New York. “It is like a Whac-A-Mole game: You don’t know where it is going to pop up next.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a July 2 speech in Washington that she saw “pockets of increased risk-taking,” including in the corporate debt markets.

Midstates Petroleum Co. (MPO ▼ -11.56% 1.30) is spending about $1.15 drilling for every dollar earned selling oil and gas. Outspending cash flow is the norm for many companies in the U.S. shale boom.

Changing Environment

The Houston-based company’s $700 million of 9.25 percent notes due in June 2021 have plummeted to 53.5 cents from 108 cents at the beginning of September, according to Trace. The debt is rated Caa1 by Moody’s and B- by S&P.

Representatives of Midstates didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Some borrowers are under pressure just a few months after selling new debt. Sanchez Energy Corp.’s $1.15 billion of 6.125 percent notes maturing in January 2023, issued this year, have tumbled to 77 cents from 101 cents in September, according to Trace. Proceeds from the bonds were partly used to fund a purchase of Eagle Ford shale assets from Royal Dutch Shell Plc. (RDSA ▲ 0.78% 25.97)

“The company has planned for and is poised to rapidly adapt to a changing commodity price environment,” Tony Sanchez, III, chief executive officer of Sanchez Energy, said in a statement yesterday.

The Houston-based company expects to fully fund its 2015 capital program from operating cash flow and cash on hand without drawing on its revolving credit line, the statement said.

Magnum Hunter

Sanchez Energy has never had positive free cash flow. Michael Long, chief financial officer, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

“Oil companies that have high funding costs in the Eagle Ford and the Bakken shale plays are the ones that are most exposed right now due to lower crude prices,” Gary C. Evans, chief executive officer of Magnum Hunter Resources (MHR ▼ -4.16% 3.46) Corp., said in a phone interview.

Magnum Hunter’s $600 million of 9.75 percent debt due in 2020 has tumbled to 84.5 cents from 109 cents in September, Trace data show. The notes are rated CCC by S&P and yield 13.9 percent.

Evans said Houston-based Magnum Hunter sold almost all of its oil properties over the last year and a half and is now predominantly a gas company.

Default Risk

“We’ve insulated ourselves,” Evans said. For other energy borrowers at risk, “the liquidity squeeze” will probably occur in March or April when banks re-calculate have much they may borrow under their credit lines based on the value of their oil reserves.

Deutsche Bank analysts predicted in a Dec. 8 report that about a third of companies rated B or CCC may be unable to meet their obligations should oil prices drop to $55 a barrel.

“If you keep oil prices low enough for long enough, there is a pretty good case that some of the weakest issuers in the high-yield space will run into cash-flow issues,” Oleg Melentyev, a New York-based credit strategist at Deutsche Bank, said in a telephone interview.

For Related News and Information: Junk Fervor Cools as Oil Rout Upends Energy Debt: Credit Markets Junk Backing Shale Boom Faces $11.6 Billion Loss: Credit Markets Shale Boom’s Allure to Wall Street Tested by Drop in Oil Prices Oil Slump Heaps Bond Losses in $50 Billion Glut: Credit Markets Drillers Piling Up More Debt Than Oil Hunting Fortunes in Shale

To contact the reporters on this story: Christine Idzelis in New York at cidzelis@bloomberg.net; Craig Torres in Washington at ctorres3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shannon D. Harrington at sharrington6@bloomberg.net Caroline Salas Gage, Faris Khan

BUSINESS Oil’s Fall Puts a Chill on U.S. Drilling Energy Firms Slash Spending, Staff as Crude’s Decline Accelerates

By LYNN COOK and ERIN AILWORTH WSJ
Dec. 10, 2014 7:15 p.m. ET

U.S. energy companies are starting to cut drilling, lay off workers and slash spending in the face of an accelerating decline in oil prices, which fell to a fresh five-year low Wednesday.

The number of rigs drilling for oil in North Dakota and parts of Texas has started to edge down, new drilling permits have dropped sharply since October, and many companies say they are going to focus on their most profitable wells.

EOG Resources Inc. this week said it would shed many of its Canadian oil and gas fields, close its Calgary office and lay off employees there as it refocuses in the U.S. Matador Resources Co. of Dallas is contemplating temporarily leaving the prolific Eagle Ford Shale area in South Texas in favor of drilling elsewhere in Texas and New Mexico where it can make more money.

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Investors sold off shares of energy companies including EOG as the U.S. benchmark oil price fell to $60.94 on Wednesday. EOG lost nearly 3% to $86.79 while shale specialists Continental Resources Inc. and Chesapeake Energy Corp. both declined about 7%. Many of these U.S. independent drillers have lost half their value since June.

Shares of global energy giants have fared better than the independent U.S. companies because their refining operations are benefiting from cheaper oil. But some of the biggest are disclosing cutbacks.

BP PLC, which has been cutting back since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, outlined a further $1 billion restructuring on Wednesday. ConocoPhillips , one of the biggest shale producers in the U.S., recently said it would spend 20% less next year on drilling wells, honing in on its sweetest spots instead of drilling its more expensive areas like Colorado’s Niobrara.

“At this point a contraction is unavoidable,” said Karr Ingham, economist for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.

One reason for the stock declines is investors are skeptical: Whatever their plans, U.S. companies produced 9.1 million barrels a day last week, the highest level since 1983, according to federal data. There is so much oil sloshing around the U.S. that refiners can’t use it all, so 1.5 million barrels of crude went into U.S. oil stockpiles last week.

ENLARGE
Some companies will be able to keep pumping even at lower prices, depending on the location and quality of their wells. Enterprise Products Partners LP, which operates pipelines and oil storage terminals across the U.S., said its analysis shows that the average well in many shale formations aren’t profitable at $60 oil. But wells considered high grade can withstand much lower prices. For instance, some wells in South Texas are profitable at prices of $30 a barrel, while the best in North Dakota’s Bakken area can only withstand a drop to under $50 a barrel.

Energy companies’ hedging strategies run the gamut from Continental Resources, which cancelled nearly all its price hedges and projected oil prices would soon rise, to Pioneer Natural Resources Co. of Irving, Texas, which has hedged 85% of its oil and gas output for 2015. Companies that hedged their production aren’t as exposed to falling prices and may not have to pump less or curb spending as quickly.

Surging American oil output has helped create a global glut of oil that has sent prices spiraling downward. The benchmark U.S. oil price, which briefly rose above $107 a barrel in late June, closed below $61 a barrel Wednesday, down 43% since its summer high.

Drilling permits issued in the U.S. dropped 36% between October and November, according to data from Drillinginfo, but remain 13% above their year earlier level.

Another sign of the energy industry’s pullback: the number of rigs drilling for oil in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas has started to drop. Drilling in the nation’s second most active oil region hit a peak of 210 rigs in July but recently fell to 190 rigs.

These declines don’t necessarily mean that U.S. oil output will fall, said Greg Haas, a director at research firm Stratas Advisors in Houston, because companies are getting more efficient at drilling. “It used to be if the rig count dropped then oil production dropped, but not anymore,” he said.

In a sense, energy companies are a victim of their own success. EOG, Chesapeake and others learned to drill and frack wells faster and wring more from each well. Chesapeake says its initial production at new wells in the Eagle Ford improved by 65% over the last five years.

Houston-based EOG took 22 days to drill a well in South Texas in 2011; today it takes less than nine days. The company recently said it can earn a 10% profit after taxes even if oil prices were to fall to $40 a barrel.

However, companies with a lot of debt, low rates of return and little chance of drilling their way to better profitability will be hurt if crude remains below $75 a barrel, according to analysts at Global Hunter Securities.

Among the companies they cited was Triangle Petroleum Corp. Jon Samuels, president of the Denver-based independent explorer, said his company is profitable at the current price of oil.

Triangle’s shares are down 47% in the last two months. It is pushing vendors for cheaper prices for drilling equipment and contract labor in the new year, which should help bring down costs, he said.

“You’re going to see activity levels and spending go down substantially compared to this year,” Mr. Samuels said, adding that the stock market reaction to crude’s price drop has been overblown.

Write to Lynn Cook at lynn.cook@wsj.com and Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com

Will Wildcatter’s ‘Naked’ Gamble on Oil Prices Pay Off? Continental Resources CEO Hamm Sells Hedges, Betting on Quick Rebound in Crude

By ERIN AILWORTH, GREGORY ZUCKERMAN and DANIEL GILBERT WSJ
Dec. 9, 2014 12:35 p.m. ET

Harold Hamm ’s willingness to make risky bets helped him build Continental Resources Inc. into the one of the biggest oil producers in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and a symbol of the U.S. energy boom. But his latest gamble—a quick rebound in crude prices—is rubbing some investors and analysts the wrong way.

Mr. Hamm, who founded Continental and owns 68% of its shares, announced in early November that the company had cashed in almost all of its financial hedges that guaranteed it could sell millions of barrels of oil for about $100 apiece. The company said it had realized $433 million in cash from selling the hedges, some of which ran through 2016.

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“We feel like we’re at the bottom rung here on prices and we’ll see them recover pretty drastically, pretty quick,” Mr. Hamm said on a Nov. 5 call with analysts. He said the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries was pushing down oil prices to slow America’s expanding energy output.

Now, removing the hedges, known in the industry as “going naked,” looks misguided even to some of the company’s fans, after the recent tumble for oil prices. The benchmark price for U.S. oil has continued to slide, falling from $81 in late October to $63.82 on Tuesday.

If Continental had kept the contracts that insured it against lower crude prices, it could have reaped $52 million more for its oil in November, according to a Wall Street Journal review of company disclosures. And it might have received $75 million more this month, assuming current conditions continue.

The Journal’s calculation of about $127 million in forgone revenue is similar to projections by several Wall Street analysts, and those projections would continue to rise in the coming months if oil prices remain below $96 a barrel.

ENLARGE
The company said it disagreed with the Journal’s figures but wouldn’t provide its own, except to say that after figuring in revenue it received for selling its hedges, it expects the “net negative effect” to be $25 million to $30 million in November and December. It sold nearly $1.2 billion of oil and gas in the third quarter and reported net income of $533 million.

“It was a bad move with terrible timing,” said Gregg Jacobson, a portfolio manager at Caymus Capital Partners LP, a $200 million Houston hedge fund manager that had about 4.5% of its portfolio in Continental shares as of the end of the third quarter. Though he thinks the hedging sale will prompt some investors to view the company as unusually risky, Mr. Jacobson said he remains a supporter because of its executives’ skill in finding and drilling for oil.

“In the long run, the stock will respond to how they perform in the field,” he said.

While shares of many U.S. energy producers have had double-digit percentage declines since oil prices began falling in late June, Continental’s stock has been hammered. Its shares, which closed up 7.2% at $36.18 on Tuesday, have fallen by more than half since the end of August, and more than 25% since Mr. Hamm disclosed on Nov. 5 that the company had sold the hedges.

Mr. Hamm said in an interview that he still believes his bet could pay off but that it might take as many as two years to tell. “You can’t condemn that as a bad decision,” he said. “You haven’t seen it play out.”

Companies like Continental can react quickly to market changes, he said, which gives them an advantage over OPEC’s members. The cartel is discounting “the resiliency of U.S. producers,” he said, adding that investors “need to look at Continental long-term.”

A wildcatter—he has called himself an “explorationist”—Mr. Hamm started the company that would become Continental in 1967 and first struck oil in 1971 in Oklahoma. More than two decades ago, he began focusing on exploring the then-little-known Williston Basin, which stretches from South Dakota to the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Over time, his company became a leader in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which has become one of the biggest oil fields in the U.S.

Continental produced nearly 35 million barrels of oil last year, almost four times what it was producing five years earlier. That growth has helped push U.S. oil output to more than 9 million barrels of crude a day, up from 5 million in 2008.

Though Continental has become a leader of the U.S. energy boom, it is unusual. Institutional and activist investors have curbed some of the risk-taking of wildcatters at other energy outfits, and few companies of Continental’s size remain controlled by their founders.

Continental said it had 5.2 million barrels insured in November and December at an average price of about $100.

When oil prices are falling, hedges—contracts that many energy companies buy to protect against declining prices by guaranteeing a minimum price for the oil and gas they produce—become much more valuable. Continental notes that several of its competitors aren’t hedged, including Apache Corp. , which has no hedges on the books in 2015. Apache said it does have some production insured through the end of this year.

Mr. Hamm isn’t the first energy executive to abandon hedges. Under the leadership of former CEO Aubrey McClendon , Chesapeake Energy Corp. dropped its natural-gas hedges in 2011, leaving it exposed to a dismal gas market and dealing with a cash crunch the following year.

‘It was a bad move with terrible timing… In the long run, the stock will respond to how they perform in the field’
—Gregg Jacobson, a portfolio manager at Caymus Capital Partners
Continental isn’t likely to face a liquidity crisis—its debt is smaller than many of its competitors at about 1.7 times its cash flow, according to S&P Capital IQ. And the company has $1.75 billion in unused credit, recent financial filings show.

“They’ve built such a good balance sheet, they have the luxury of making this gamble,” said Jason Wangler, an analyst for Wunderlich Securities, who called the move a speculative bet. “They left money on the table in the short term.”

Mr. Hamm, he said, is “the guy you’re investing in, as much as the company.”

Since selling Continental’s hedges, Mr. Hamm has lost about $4.4 billion of his personal fortune as Continental’s shares have fallen—a loss that could be compounded by Mr. Hamm’s divorce. A judge recently awarded the former Mrs. Hamm, Sue Ann Arnall, a nearly $1 billion settlement; she appealed that decision on Friday. Mr. Hamm now owns about $9.2 billion of company stock.

Some investors say Continental’s primary acreage in the Bakken and elsewhere renders the hedging decision less important in the long-term.

“Cash flow next year will be lower and more volatile, assuming prices stay under pressure,” said Joe Chin, an analyst at Obermeyer Wood Investment Counsel LLLP, an Aspen, Colo., firm that owned 340,000 Continental shares at the end of the third quarter. “But we remain confident about management’s ability to deploy capital.”

Write to Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com, Gregory Zuckerman at gregory.zuckerman@wsj.com and Daniel Gilbert at daniel.gilbert@wsj.com