When Shale Hedges Fail: The Downside Of Three-Ways

"[Shale Oil]Producers are inherently bullish," warns one energy-hedging firm, and that truth belies the weakness in the apparent hedging programs many over-optimistic energy firms are facing now. We hear day after day that, in the short-term, low prices can be handled "because they're hedged," but producers were so exuberant about the direction of oil prices they didn't do simple linear hedges (swaps or futures) to manage price movements, but instead, as Bloomberg reports, used the so-called "three-way collar." Simply put instead of a floor and a ceiling for prices, there is a 3rd (bullish) leg of low-strike sold puts that subsidized the cost of the hedge... unless the price of oil goes below that strike, in which case the hedge fails and, as a lot of producers are finding, they are now losing money.

 

As Bloomberg reports,

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.”

 

The three-way hedges risk exacerbating a cash squeeze for companies trying to cope with the biggest plunge in oil prices this decade.

This is what the three-way looks like in practice...

Pioneer used three-ways to cover 85 percent of its projected 2015 output, the company’s December 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.

 

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.

And then there's this brilliant insight...

“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.”

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So... not hedged then!?