A month ago we wrote that with oil plunging, the flipside of the widely documented "secret" deal by Obama/Kerry with the Saudis to crush Russia with low, low oil prices, is that none other than America's own shale industry would be placed under the microscope soon, as its viability at a price well below the shale industry's cost curve is suddenly put in doubt.
We concluded that "while we understand if Saudi Arabia is employing a dumping strategy to punish the Kremlin as per the "deal" with Obama's White House, very soon there will be a very vocal, very insolvent and very domestic shale community demanding answers from the Obama administration, as once again the "costs" meant to punish Russia end up crippling the only truly viable industry under the current presidency. As a reminder, the last time Obama threatened Russia with "costs", he sent Europe into a triple-dip recession. It would truly be the crowning achievement of Obama's career if, amazingly, he manages to bankrupt the US shale "miracle" next."
Since then crude has continued to slide, and both Brent and WTI are now trading at a price where just a year ago would seem ludicrous: in the mid-$70s. And the future of America's "shale miracle" has only gotten ever murkier since a month ago.
But suddenly it is not just the shale companies that are starting to look impaired. According to a Deutsche Bank analysis looking at what the "tipping point" for highly levered companies is in "oil price terms", things start to get really ugly should crude drop another $15 or so per barrell. Its conclusion: "we would expect to see 1/3rd of US energy Bs/CCCs to restructure, which would imply a 15% default rate for overall US HY energy, and a 2.5% contribution to the broad US HY default rate.... A shock of that magnitude could be sufficient to trigger a broader HY market default cycle, if materialized. "
Here are the details:
So how big of an impact on fundamentals should we expect from the move in oil price so far and where is the true tipping point for the sector? Let’s start with some basic datapoint describing the energy sector – it is the largest single industry component of the USD DM HY index, however, given this market’s relatively good sector diversification, it only represents 16% of its market value (figure 2). Energy is noticeably tilted towards higher quality, with BB/B/CCC proportions at 53/35/12, compared to overall market at 47/37/17. We find further confirmation to this higher-quality tilt by looking at Figure 3 below, which shows its leverage being around 3.4x compared to 4.0x for overall market. Similarly, their interest coverage stands at noticeably higher levels, even having declined substantially in recent years (Figure 4).
Energy issuer leverage has increased faster than that of the rest of the market in recent years, but this trend has largely exhausted itself in recent quarters. As Figure 5 demonstrates, growth rates in total debt outstanding among US HY energy names have been only slightly higher relative to the rest of HY market. It is almost certain in our mind that with the current shakeout in this space further incremental leverage will be a lot harder to come by going forward.
Perhaps the most unsustainable trend that existed in energy going into this episode shown in Figure 6, which plots the sector’s overall capex expenditure, as a pct of EBITDAs. The graph averaged 150% level over the past four years, clearly the kind of development that could not sustain itself over a longer-term horizon. Our 45%-full sample of issuers reporting Q3 numbers has shown this figure coming down to 110%, a move in the right direction, and yet a level that suggests further capacity for decline. This chart also shows, perhaps better than any other we have seen, the extent to which current economic recovery in the US has in fact been driven by the energy development story alone.
The next question we would like to address here is to what extent the move in oil so far could translate into actual credit losses across the energy sector. To help us approach this question we are borrowing from the material we are going to discuss in-depth in next week’s report on our views on timing/extent of the upcoming default cycle. For the purposes of the current exercise we will limit ourselves to saying that we have identified total debt/enterprise value (D/EV) as an important factor helping us narrow down the list of potential defaulters. Specifically, our historical analysis shows that names that go into restructuring, on average, have their D/EV ratio at 65% two years prior to default, and, expectedly, this ratio rises all the way to 100% at the time of restructuring. From experiences in 2008-09 credit cycle we have also determined that there was a 1:3 relationship between the number of defaulting issuers and the number of issuers trading at 65%+ D/EV prior to the cycle. Again, we are going to present detailed evidence behind these assumptions in the next week’s report.
For the time being, we will limit ourselves to applying these metrics to current valuations in the US HY energy sector, and specifically, its single-B/CCC segment. At the moment, average D/EV metric here is 55%, up from 43% in late June, before the 26% move lower in oil. About 28 pct of energy B/CCC names are trading at 65%+ D/EV, implying an 8.5% default rate among them, assuming historical 1/3rd default probability holds. This would translate into a 4.3% default rate for the overall US HY energy sector (including BBs), and 0.7% across the US HY bond market.
Looking at the bond side of valuation picture, we find that energy Bs/CCCs are trading at a 270bp premium over non-Energy Bs/CCCs today (Figure 7). This premium implies incremental default rate of 4.5% (= spread * (1 – recovery) = 270 * (1-0.4) = 4.5%). Actual default rate among US HY Bs/CCCs is currently running at 3%, a level that we expect to increase to 5% next year (not to be confused with overall US HY default rate, currently running at 1.7% and expected to increase to 3.0% next year).
The bottom line is hardly as pretty as all those preaching that the lower the oil the better for the economy:
In the next step we are attempting to perform a stress-test on oil, defined this way: what would it take for overall US energy Bs/CCCs segment to start trading at 65%+ total debt/enterprise value? Our logic in modeling this scenario goes along the following lines: if a 25% drop in WTI since June 30th was sufficient to push their average D/EV from 43 to 55, then it would take a further 0.8x similar move in oil to get the whole sector to average 65 = (65-55)/(55-43) = 0.8x, which translates into another 20% decline in WTI from its recent low of $77 to roughly $60/bbl. If this scenario were to materialize, based on historical default incidence, we would expect to see 1/3rd of US energy Bs/CCCs to restructure, which would imply a 15% default rate for overall US HY energy, and a 2.5% contribution to the broad US HY default rate.
How should one trade an ongoing collapse in oil prices? Simple: sell B/CCC-rated energy bonds and wait to pick up 10%.
If this scenario were to materialize, the US energy Bs/CCCs would have to trade at spreads north of 1,800bp, or about a 1,000bps away from its current levels. Such a spread widening translates into a 40pt drop in average dollar price from its current level of 92pts for energy Bs/CCCs.
It gets worse, because energy CapEx is about to tumble, which means far less exploration (and US fixed investment thus GDP), far less supply, and ultimately a higher oil price.
As the market adjusts to realities of sharply lower oil prices, it is important for to remember that the US HY energy sector is a higher quality part of the market. Higher credit quality will help many of them absorb an oil price shock without jeopardizing production plans or ability to service debt. Their capex rates, expressed as a pct of EBITDAs, have already declined from an average of 150% over the past four years to roughly 110% today. We still consider this level to be high and thus subject to further pressures. This in turn should work towards slower rates of supply growth, and thus ultimately towards supporting a new floor for oil prices. A 25% in oil price so far has pushed debt/enterprise valuations among US energy B/CCC names to a point suggesting 8.5% future default probability, while their bonds are pricing in a 9.5% default probability.
And the scariest conclusion of all:
Finally, our stress-test shows that a further 20% drop in WTI to $60/bbl is likely to push the whole sector into distress, a scenario where average B/CCC energy name will start trading at 65% D/EV, implying a 30% default rate for the whole segment. A shock of that magnitude could be sufficient to trigger a broader HY market default cycle, if materialized.
And now back to the old "plunging oil prices are good for the economy" spin cycle.