Bankruptcy risks in the US shale sector are rising, with weak oil prices and tightening access to credit worsening the outlook for some producers just as a “staggering” $86bn in debt maturities start to come due.
Speculative-grade, or subinvestment, debt makes up more than 60 per cent of the total to be repaid between now and 2024, “implying a higher degree of default risk for the industry”, said Moody’s, the rating agency, in a report on Wednesday.
Speculative-grade maturities will peak in 2022, dwarfing investment-grade maturities by almost two to one that year, Moody’s said.
But weakening oil and gas prices, and bearish market sentiment — caused by expectations of a global oil-supply overhang in the first half of 2020 — will hurt producers’ efforts to raise more money this year, in turn threatening to starve them of capital to invest in production to keep cash flow intact, said analysts.
Companies already rated at subinvestment level and those focused on natural gas are especially exposed and will face investors that have developed a “risk aversion” to the sector, said the Moody’s report.
Natural gas-focused Antero Resources, EQT and Chesapeake, which between them hold debt of more than $5bn due to mature between now and 2024, were among 12 companies Moody’s said would face a “particularly challenging” refinancing outlook.
“While these companies have already taken some measures to address maturities, more needs to be done,” said Moody’s.
In January, the average interest rate paid by shale producers for corporate debt rated by Moody’s as B3, or highly speculative, was 400-500 basis points above the average for B3 rated debt across all sectors, said Sajjad Alam, the lead author of the Moody’s report.
Oil prices have fallen more than 15 per cent since early January, reflecting worries about global oversupply that have been exacerbated by the weakness of Chinese demand since the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, front-month US natural gas prices plunged to their lowest February close in 20 years last week, amid unseasonably warm weather.
But US shale producers are also victims of their own longer-term success. Natural gas output in the Lower 48 states of the contiguous US has almost doubled since 2005 and crude oil production has leapt almost 160 per cent since 2008.
US natural gas production, which hit a record high in 2019, would rise by another 2 per cent this year, according to a forecast last week by the Energy Information Administration, a division of the Department of Energy. Crude oil production would increase almost 8 per cent, to 13.2m barrels a day, it said.
That already represents a slowing of recent annual growth rates, but the looming credit crunch and increased cost of capital for indebted producers, alongside persistent weakness in oil and gas prices, could further damp production growth expectations, said analysts.