(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Someone should tell Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the United States Oil Fund LP. This is the ETF making all the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late. A nominally cheap and easy way to speculate on oil, its use of rolling futures positions made for dreadful returns and, most recently, almost certainly contributed to oil’s plunge into negative pricing. It seems likely more than one retail wannabe wildcatter is mystified as to why they ended up effectively paying others to take their “barrels.”
Knowing what you’re actually getting is important with any investment, of course. Which brings us to Mnuchin’s musings about extending government loans to struggling oil and gas producers, as reported by Bloomberg News on Thursday evening. Like USO owners, the lenders here — hello taxpayers — may find their collateral somewhat slippery. Also like the USO, their mere presence could make things worse.
Details are scant; there is talk of investment-grade firms maybe tapping a Federal Reserve lending program while “alternative structures” are considered for the riskier sort. But I was struck most by this line in the article:
The administration is also considering taking financial stakes in exchange for some loans, and some firms might be asked to reduce production, the person said.
Hmm. “Loans” that grant you a stake and a say in critical operational decisions. That almost sounds like equity.
There’s a reason for that. It is common for the riskiest exploration and production companies to only have one slug of secured financing in the form of reserve-based lending. This is a credit line from a consortium of banks secured against the value of the company’s oil and gas reserves. The value is typically reappraised twice a year, and energy prices are obviously a huge variable. You can imagine even one day of negative oil prices doesn’t make for a warm and fuzzy meeting with your account manager. The vast majority of respondents to a sector survey conducted by the law firm Haynes and Boone LLP expected borrowing bases to be cut by at least 20%. And that survey was conducted last month.
After a decade of applying the WeWork growth model to oil and gas, the industry has very little wiggle room. A wall of debt maturities is imminent, kicking in just as most production hedges roll off. So those credit lines may well be needed to cover repayments. Even a small cut could leave E&P firms exposed or in outright breach of covenants. Such considerations lay behind Whiting Petroleum Corp.’s decision to file for bankruptcy at the beginning of the month, as analysts at CreditSights laid out in a recent report.
For many firms, once you get beyond reserve-based lending, there’s precious little else to lend against. The capital stack is highly encumbered already. At almost 80%, energy high-yield issuers tracked by CreditSights have the highest proportion of net debt in their enterprise value of any major sector.
You may notice things looked much better in 2016. Oil crashed that year, too, but investors still had hope then of oil prices coming back. E&P companies took full advantage with a banner year for equity issuance. Fast forward, and investors have been backing away from the sector, especially its most indebted members, way before Covid-19 went global and Saudi Arabia and Russia went postal. A fresh source of capital must be found.
So it makes perfect sense that the government “loans” being touted around Washington look more like equity, because that’s what they would be, in practical terms. And the feds would be taking a position in E&P companies at a particularly bracing juncture, with oil prices in the tank and debt maturities rolling in. Exactly what they — I mean, we — would be taking on is something of a mystery, given the lack of clarity about oil demand, prices and production even six months out.
Moreover, loans to the weakest E&P firms would perpetuate the underlying condition afflicting the sector before Covid-19 hit: too much production and too little risk management. If there’s too much oil, it’s less than optimal to put more money into the business of producing more oil. How about a government debtor-in-possession facility instead?
At such times, we are lucky to have Continental Resources Inc. to exemplify the industry chutzpah of which, unlike cash, there is seemingly never a shortage. Having not bothered with boring stuff like hedging, founder Harold Hamm has alleged manipulation on the part of everyone from Saudi Arabia to “a flawed new computer model.” In the latest twist, Continental has reportedly invoked force majeure on a delivery contract for its oil — and honestly, caught on the wrong side of a price move, who hasn’t blamed God on occasion?
Similarly, President Donald Trump’s administration has been throwing fistfuls of spaghetti at the wall to bail out oil and gas producers, ranging from threats of tariffs on foreign barrels to the notion of paying E&P firms to keep oil in the ground and rebranding it as a strategic reserve. Equity dressed up as loans would represent a further step down this path. God knows if it will actually happen, especially if House Democrats have a say. But like the hapless ETF investor, you may soon be the (proud?) quasi-owner of something to do with oil.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.
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