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Volume X, Number 298

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The New World of COVID-19: Paradigm Shifts in the Oil and Gas Industry

Key takeaways

The boom and bust cycle epitomizes the oil and gas industry. Even so, the oil price decline in the first few months of 2020 is one for the record books. The historic collapse in demand due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and the general decline in economic activity, on the heels of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the ensuing price declines that included the much publicized negative prices in the market for near-term delivery of WTI, has shocked an industry for which shocks are part of its DNA.

A number of questions arise from this most recent episode. Will this shock lead to paradigm shifts in the oil and gas industry, or will this, with the benefit of hindsight, look like one of the many shocks the industry has experienced before? What aspects of financial management will change as a result of the pandemic-induced volatility? Will capital markets shut down for an industry already exposed to high volatility and shocks before the pandemic? How will industry participants and investors address a lack of liquidity, higher costs of capital, valuation challenges, increasing financial distress and potential bankruptcies, and the prospect of contract disputes? The discussion below begins to shed some light on these issues.

A historic collapse in demand

To put it mildly, 2020 has been volatile for the oil and gas sector. Between the beginning of 2020 and March 8, oil prices had declined by roughly 33%. Then on March 8, Saudi Arabia and Russia engaged in a price war, which was triggered by a breakdown in dialogue between OPEC and Russia.[1] In the meantime, COVID-19 caused a historic (and highly uncertain) drop in demand, given the global shutdown of economic activity in many sectors and the resulting decline in travel, changes in consumer behavior, and spike in unemployment. The combination of a price war and the economic shutdown due to COVID-19 contributed to an additional 18% decline in oil prices between March 8 and May 20, or a 45% decline from the beginning of the year to May 20, and a 69% drop since the peak in the summer of 2014 through May 20.[2] These drops incorporate a large rebound in prices since April 21, without which declines would have been even more dramatic, further highlighting volatility in oil prices.

WTI spot prices declined to as low as $8.91 per barrel in April 2020, a level not seen since at least 1986.[3] More remarkably, many producers are getting even less for their barrels in the shale and, in some cases, will have to pay somebody to take the oil they produced.[4] Needless to say, the current price environment is creating issues that challenge even the most prepared.

The oil and gas sector is not a newcomer to price volatility. It has experienced episodes of large price declines in the past: oil prices have declined 40% or more ten times since 1983.[5] In other words, since 1983 there has been a price decline of at least 40% roughly every four years. As a result, many companies in the sector have been capitalized accordingly.

However, certain aspects of this most recent episode of oil price decline are different. It has been swift, unforeseen by forecasters, and while there was an initial threat of increased supply, there has also been a rapid and deep contraction in demand, resulting in an unprecedented reduction in global consumption.[6]

Nowhere was the decline in oil prices more evident than in the futures market. Because of the shortage in storage space, the May WTI futures contract briefly dropped to a daily settlement price of $-37.63 on April 20, an unprecedented low.[7] Essentially, in the near-term futures market, owners of the physical commodity agreed to pay a counterparty more than $37 per barrel to take delivery of their oil. Whereas producers of excess tulips in the Netherlands can dump the excess product in the compost bin, no such option exists for excess oil production that needs to find appropriate storage.

The effect on the oil and gas industry

Publicly traded oil and gas companies had suffered large stock price declines since the 2008 financial crisis and following a major downward shock in oil prices in 2014-2015. Since the troughs of the financial crisis in March 2009 to the end of January 2020, the S&P 500 returned 498%, whereas the XOP, a major energy ETF, returned -17% over the same period, on a total return basis.[8]

After several short rebounds since the 2014-2015 downturn, 2019 was another weak year for the oil and gas sector. Even before COVID-19, the XOP declined 13% in 2019 whereas the S&P 500 returned 31%.[9] At the end of 2019, there were already predictions of potential problems, including higher defaults in the oil and gas sector.[10]

While it remains to be seen how deeply the current crisis will affect the oil and gas sector, based on past history, financial performance within the sector will depend in part on companies’ preexisting capital structure and ability to access liquidity. While each case is different and individual circumstances matter, in past episodes of oil price drops, companies’ capital structure and balance sheets have played an important role in their ability to weather shocks.[11]

During the current episode, in light of much lower oil prices and demand, revenues will likely contract meaningfully, at least in the short and medium term. Given this swift and deep contraction, companies with higher amounts of leverage and less access to liquidity will likely have a harder time covering costs, including their interest payments.

Data from the current episode show that while all energy companies are suffering, those with higher credit ratings[12] have seen relatively smaller declines in stock prices and lower credit spreads.[13] From the S&P 500 peak on February 19, 2020, to the S&P trough on March 23, 2020, stock prices declined 55% for energy firms rated A- or better, whereas energy firms with below investment-grade ratings dropped 65%.[14] Companies with A- ratings or better tend to have a combination of less leverage, more scale, a more diverse asset base, and more access to liquidity and capital markets than those that are non-investment grade (i.e., with ratings of BB+ or less).

A similar story is also playing out in the bond market. Credit spreads (the difference between bond and treasury yields) have widened for the energy sector since late March. Furthermore, consistent with the stock market, spreads of high-yield energy issuers widened much more compared to investment-grade issuers.[15]

Even more important than spreads is access to capital markets. Companies in the A or above ratings categories have been able to raise large amounts of debt capital over the last couple of months.[16] In contrast, companies with speculative debt ratings have not been able to access the debt markets as readily.[17]

When an industry is in distress, one of the issues with credit ratings is that credit and equity investors may not just look at what the ratings are today, but at what they may be in the near future. Not surprisingly, ratings agencies have downgraded many companies in the oil and gas space in 2020, and the high percentage of negative outlooks (75%) and watch negatives suggest that more downgrades may come.[18] Relative to the beginning of this year, as of May 20 more than 76% of oil and gas companies have experienced a negative rating action by S&P. Of those companies with negative rating actions, 72% saw downgrades and 56% saw negative outlook changes.[19]

The crisis playbook

Historically, companies have shored up their balance sheets and attempted to raise liquidity in times of past episodes of oil price declines. The crisis playbook from 2001, 2008, and 2015 (for the energy sector specifically) applies today as well: cut costs, cut or defer capital expenditures, cut shareholder distributions, extend maturities, draw on bank lines, increase the size of existing bank lines, obtain covenant relief, manage accounts receivable and payables, sell assets, and equitize the balance sheet.[20]

The current downturn happened remarkably fast, yet energy companies have already started taking many of these measures. A number of companies have announced meaningful reductions in capital expenditures and large layoffs, and companies have also started to draw on their lines of credit to shore up liquidity.[21]

If history is a guide, companies with less need for and better access to capital and liquidity are likely to fare better. They are more likely to be able to draw on existing lines of credit, get additional credit lines, and tap other sources of liquidity. Only the largest and best capitalized companies can cut dividends or stop buybacks. Smaller and less well capitalized companies likely did not have meaningful dividends or buyback programs to begin with. 

Corporate finance and litigation implications

  • Financial distress, bankruptcies, restructurings: Bankruptcy filings are starting to emerge and attorneys are predicting more bankruptcies among oil and gas companies.[22] Some companies will reorganize and reemerge with stronger balance sheets, whereas others may liquidate if the economic viability of some of the shale plays does not reemerge soon.
  • Financing under duress: Many companies will raise crisis financing to fend off further value erosion or distress. This financing may come in the form of equity, convertible bonds, or preferred stock with warrants.[23]
  • Client credit issues: Midstream companies that have agreements with producers to provide production and processing services in exchange for reserve rights must be mindful of the effect of producer financial distress or bankruptcies on their finances. Some recent court decisions have allowed producers in bankruptcy to renegotiate these agreements.[24] Cases of contract disputes based on COVID-19 are starting to emerge.[25]
  • Lender conflict: Some oil producers rely on reserve-based loans, in which the borrowing base is derived from the value of producers’ reserves. The decline in oil prices, and accompanying reassessment of reserves, may lead to declines in producers’ capacity to borrow, may provide grounds for conflicts with lenders, and could trigger litigation, distress, or bankruptcies.[26]
  • Lease/royalty conflicts: Decisions to close wells and shut down facilities due to expected reductions in production may lead to litigation involving leasing contracts and royalties. This could involve further litigation if companies fail to make appropriate shut-down decisions.[27]
  • Valuation and M&A: Companies will try to become more efficient via mergers that increase scale, or will raise funds by selling assets. In both instances, it will be challenging to decide on appropriate valuation methods in M&A transactions. Some methodologies are very difficult to implement when there is very little visibility about the future.
  • Unpredictability: Companies will be challenged to provide guidance to investors given the magnitude of uncertainties in the sector.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, who are responsible for the content, and do not necessarily represent the views of Cornerstone Research. This article was first published by Law360.


[1] “Saudi Arabia Launches Oil Price War after Russia Deal Collapse,” Financial Times, March 8, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/d700b71a-6122-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5.

[2] Refinitiv.

[3] WTI closing spot price for April 21, 2020, from Refinitiv.

[4] “Oil Prices Dip below Zero as Producers Forced to Pay to Dispose of Excess,” The Guardian, April 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/20/oil-prices-sink-to-20-year-low-as-un-sounds-alarm-on-to-covid-19-relief-fund.

[5] Refinitiv.

[6] “Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO),” U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 2020, https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/archives/feb20.pdf; “Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO),” U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 2020, https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/archives/apr20.pdf.

[7] WTI futures contracts are settled by physical delivery of WTI crude oil in Cushing, Oklahoma. Therefore, a buyer of these futures contracts needs to take physical delivery of the oil. Buyers include refineries and airlines. Since these buyers were faced with full storage tanks and low demand due to COVID-19, this led to an unprecedented scenario where sellers had to pay buyers to store the oil, and hence the May WTI contract briefly went negative the day before the near-term contract was set to mature.

[8] Refinitiv.

[9] Refinitiv.

[10] “Energy Defaults Are on the Rise Again, Clouded Economic Outlook Calls for a Higher US Speculative-Grade Default Rate,” Moody’s, October 31, 2019, https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-Energy-defaults-are-on-the-rise-a....

[11] “Here We Go Again…Financial Policies in Volatile Environments: Lessons for and from Energy Firms,” JP Morgan, February 2015, https://www.jpmorgan.com/jpmpdf/1320693987524.pdf.

[12] A credit rating represents a rating agency’s opinion regarding the borrower’s ability to repay a particular debt or financial obligation. Higher ratings are associated with higher creditworthiness.   

[13] A credit spread is the difference in yield or rate of return between bonds of different credit quality and is a measure of the additional yield required by investors to hold the riskier bond.

[14] Refinitiv.  Median figures based on all U.S. Oil and Gas companies with available S&P Long-Term Issuer Level rating..

[15] Refinitiv.

[16] “BP Racks Up $6 Billion in New Debt in Three Months Amid Pandemic,” Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/bp-posts-loss-maintains-dividend-amid-pande... “Exxon Raises $9.5 Billion to Load Up on Cash While Debt Market Still Open to New Deals,” Reuters, April 13, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-exxon-mobil-debt/exxon-raises-9-5-bil....

[17] “US Oil Companies Race to Restructure Debt,” Financial Times, March 19, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/c1be5ca0-695a-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3; “American Oil Drillers Were Hanging On by a Thread. Then Came the Virus.” New York Times, March 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/business/energy-environment/coronavir....

[18] Refinitiv.

[19] Refinitiv.  Percentages calculated based on all U.S. Oil and Gas companies with available S&P Long-Term Issuer Level rating.  Some companies experienced both downgrades and negative outlook changes.

[20] “Here We Go Again…Financial Policies in Volatile Environments: Lessons for and from Energy Firms,” JP Morgan, February 2015, https://www.jpmorgan.com/jpmpdf/1320693987524.pdf.

[21] “Thousands of Oil and Gas Workers Have Been Laid Off in Houston. What’s Next?,” Houston Public Media, April 29, 2020, https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/energy-environment/2020... “US Oil Companies Race to Restructure Debt,” Financial Times, March 19, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/c1be5ca0-695a-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3; “Dash for Cash: Companies Draw $124bn from Credit Lines,” Financial Times, March 24, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/6b299c42-6c66-11ea-89df-41bea055720b.

[22] “Feds’ Loan Actions Not Enough to Keep Drillers Afloat,” Law360, May 1, 2020, https://www.law360.com/bankruptcy/articles/1269510/feds-loan-actions-not... “Industry Attorney Warns Upstream Bankruptcies Could Reach ‘Category 5’ Status,” S&P Global Market Intelligence, April 8, 2020, https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news....

[23] “Companies Tap Convertible Debt in Droves Amid Pandemic,” Law360, May 1, 2020, https://www.law360.com/privateequity/articles/1269038/companies-tap-conv....

[24] “Oil and Gas Cos. Must Prepare for Counterparty Bankruptcies,” Law360, April 7, 2020, https://www.law360.com/articles/1259178/oil-and-gas-cos-must-prepare-for....

[25] “Pipeline Co. Says Driller Can’t Use COVID-19 to Break Deal,” Law360, May 4, 2020, https://www.law360.com/articles/1269984/pipeline-co-says-driller-can-t-u....

[26] “Borrowing Report Forecasts Oil Lending Bloodbath,” Law360, April 1, 2020, https://www.law360.com/articles/1259332/borrowing-report-forecasts-oil-l....

[27] “Oil and Gas Shut-Ins Risk Royalty Litigation,” Law360, April 17, 2020, https://www.law360.com/articles/1264649/oil-and-gas-shut-ins-risk-royalt....

Copyright ©2020 Cornerstone ResearchNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 274
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Frank Schneider Consultant Cornerstone Research
Vice President

Frank Schneider assesses loss causation, class certification, economic losses, and valuation issues for companies and investors across a range of industries and financial instruments. He focuses on litigation involving financial institutions, including asset management and private equity, securities, valuation issues, M&A transactions, credit rating agencies, and white collar matters. Dr. Schneider has provided financial and statistical analyses for internal and regulatory investigations, many of which require analysis of big data.

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Allie Schwartz Financial Attorney Cornerstone Research New York, NY
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Allie Schwartz specializes in the valuation of securities and financial derivatives in the context of securities litigation, bankruptcy, and regulatory disputes. She also works extensively on issues affecting financial institutions, such as addressing allegations of anticompetitive behavior, insider and disruptive trading, hedging and risk management, and issues in consumer finance.

Dr. Schwartz has more than a decade of experience supporting experts through multiple stages of litigation, such as deposition, domestic and international arbitration, and trial. She has also provided support on a variety of regulatory inquiries, including analyzing complex data and presenting findings to enforcement staff.

Securities class actions

Dr. Schwartz has worked on numerous cases involving class certification and merits issues, such as loss causation and assessment of damages. These matters have involved domestic securities such as common stock and corporate bonds, as well as mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and international American depositary receipts (ADRs), among others. Dr. Schwartz has worked on notable securities class actions, such as IBEW Local 90 Pension Fund et al. v. Deutsche Bank AG et al. and In re BP p.l.c. Securities Litigation.

Financial institutions

In matters related to financial institutions, Dr. Schwartz has conducted valuation analyses of various financial derivatives, and assessed transaction costs and issues related to hedging and risk management practices. She has extensive experience in analyzing alleged anticompetitive behavior by rate-setting banks in major financial markets. Dr. Schwartz’s experience covers a variety of products, notably credit default swaps (CDS), fixed income (such as corporate, municipal, sovereign and treasury bonds, interest rate swaps, and forward rate agreements [FRAs]), FX, equity derivatives, commodities, and structured products (such as RMBS, CMBS, and CDOs). On these matters, Dr. Schwartz has worked with investment and commercial banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, private equity firms, and FinTech entities, among others.

Bankruptcy and financial distress

Dr. Schwartz co-leads Cornerstone Research’s bankruptcy and financial distress group. She has provided litigation support on matters involving valuation of assets and financial instruments in the context of bankruptcy litigation. She has also addressed issues related to solvency and capital adequacy in the context of alleged fraudulent transfers, and determination of cramdown rates.

Regulatory investigations

Dr. Schwartz has worked on numerous matters involving investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Department of Justice (DOJ), and the New York Attorney General (NYAG), as well as internal and other regulatory investigations and resulting litigation. On these matters, Dr. Schwartz has addressed allegations of market and benchmark manipulation, spoofing and laddering, insider trading, suitability of investment, and alleged Ponzi schemes, among others.

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