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

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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