Friday, May 01, 2015

Looking for Value? Start with Truth-Telling at EXCO Resources

Wow! How refreshing to witness a senior executive immune to the “Bullsh-t Syndrome” (the commonplace corporate condition where imaginary events are presented as fact). C. John Wilder, who recently joined EXCO Resources' (XCO - $2.05) Board of Directors as Executive Chairman, had this to say on the Q1 earnings’ call about challenges currently facing the natural gas producer amid low energy prices:

  • “EXCO is highly levered. The company's net debt to market cap of 72% and net debt to EBITDA 4.3x are simply not sustainable. We have annual cash interest fixed costs of $107 million. We must improve these metrics, and that will take both time and ruthless execution.
  • EXCO has underutilized gathering and firm transportation commitments of approximately $90 million per year. Of this amount, approximately $40 million isn't used at all. This is a critical problem, which will require commercial ingenuity to solve.
  • EXCO's net drilling inventory is inadequate. EXCO suffers from a lack of a high networking interest locations with a current average operating net working interest across the shale portfolio of 35%, we're essentially a contract driller. We need to reposition the portfolio to average 60% to 75% net working interest. EXCO has a highly qualified operational team, and needs more economic interest in its project.
  • EXCO's drilling and completion costs are too high. EXCO has made progress reducing drilling and completion costs, but we still need to reduce cost by an additional 15% to 20%. This is our number one objective and we will require lean manufacturing practices across the portfolio.
  • EXCO's corporate G&A is simply too high for its drilling program. EXCO needs to book NPV from drilling of about 5X its corporate overhead. Today, NPV accretion is about equal to annual G&A. To fix this, we need to improve both sides of the equation, reducing G&A and increasing the amount of NPV generated by drilling.
If Wilder can execute on survivability and value creation through operational efficiencies, EXCO could be well-positioned to capitalize on the current commodity cycle – and yield significant gains for risk-tolerant investors when forward gas & oil price decks move higher.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Oil Glut Doesnt Mean U.S. Running Out of Crude Storage Capacity

Although the U.S. rig count has fallen dramatically, reaching the lowest level since April 2011, domestic crude output continues to soar. At last count, total US crude stocks stood at 468 million barrels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report issued on March 13.

Seizing the theme that petroleum production from conventional and shale deposits has yet to show signs of a slowdown, the collective media narrative portends an apocalyptic future where “U.S. oil glut will fill storage” – leading to a classic Econ 101 supply-demand model where the price of crude collapses to $10 to $20 a barrel.

The IEA says the principal storage hub in Cushing, Ohlahoma held 49.2 million barrels by end-February, equating to 70% of total working storage capacity at the nation’s largest hub.

Given ballooning crude stocks, is America truly running out of places to store all this crude?

Contrary to the vatic utterances by headline seeking “talking heads,” we are not running out of storage capacity – and E&P companies will not be forced to sell crude at give-away prices.

In “The Truth about U.S. Crude Storage,” a percipient Robert Rapier, managing editor at Energy Trends Insider, reminds us that Cushing isn’t the only place crude oil is stored:

“If Cushing continues to fill, oil producers will start looking at some (of those) other areas to store their crude. And with 200 million barrels still available, oil producers could continue to add a million barrels a week for nearly 4 years before crude oil storage is actually full,” says Rapier.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Linn Energy's Price Decline to Accelerate

Attracted to Linn Energy’s (LINE-$10.93) turnaround potential (share price is off 62.5% from its 52-week high) and 11.2% payout ($1.25 dividend/share)? Think again.

In only one of the last four years has LINE been able to cover fixed charges, including dividend payments: Earnings were insufficient to cover fixed charges by approximately $457 million and $696 million for the year ended 2014 and 2013, respectively.

Like operating profits, asset valuations could prove illusory, too. LINE has spent more than $30 billion to acquire working and royalty interests in producing U.S. basins holding total proved reserves of 7.2 Tcfe, allegedly worth an estimated $12.5 billion in (discounted) future cash flows. Allegedly because the calculus driving this valuation assumes natural gas and oil prices of $4.35 MMBtu and $95.27 per barrel.

Given the precipitous decline in commodity prices, investors should expect further massive “non-cash” impairment charges – which could hinder LINE’s ability to finance future capital needs:  buried under $10.3 billion in debt, the company has “limited unpledged assets” to put up as collateral for needed borrowings.

New drilling programs to be funded with capital from Blackstone will do little to clean up LINE’s anemic balance sheet and liquidity issues: Assuming constant capital spending and distributions over the next three years, analysts estimate net debt to EBITDAX ratios could increase to 6.8x by year end and up to 7.1x by year-ending 2016 (as higher priced hedges roll off and cash flow declines).

If LINE is to survive, look for that 11 percent dividend yield to vanish like the value of its hydrocarbon assets. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

EU Kicks Can on Greek Debt Down the Road -- Again

Eurozone finance ministers demonstrated their continued lack of resolve by kicking the can down the road – again: an agreement has been reached to extend Greece's financial rescue by four months.

This action sends yet another message that Europe (EU) lacks resolve: politically [Ukraine and the Islamist jihad problem] and economically [Greece]. 

The European Central Bank must stop supporting fundamentally flawed and weak economic institutions and let “Grexit” move forward.

Is the ECB afraid letting Greece fall will hasten the unraveling of both the EU and the Euro? Or, could it be the politically-connected are using influence to prevent billions in bond portfolio write-downs?

As Greece and the troubles of other EU economies demonstrate: fiat currencies are a joke. Might it be time to revisit the Gold Standard?  

For those too young to remember: the Gold Standard is a monetary system that fixes the prices of sovereign domestic currencies in terms of a specified amount of gold. Under the gold standard, a government is legally limited as to how much paper money it can print. A bankrupt country lacking hard reserves to back up its paper currency would lose license to print and put into circulation even more worthless currency.

The Gold Standard effectively came to an end last century when Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon severed the formal links between global currencies and hard commodities (to prevent a run on the U.S. dollar).

What institutional holders of sovereign European debt will not acknowledge publicly is that the EU is in a death spiral. How ironic that the Germanic leader Odoacer overthrew  
Romulus, the last of the Western Emperors in the divided Roman Republic, in 476 C.E. Today, too, the fate of the European experiment (EU) lay in the hands of another German, Chancellor Angelica Mercer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is Janet Yellen Too Chummy With Wall Street?

Is this bull market too dependent on "easy money" policies - QE?

Could it be that the real reason that Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is afraid to pull the trigger on an interest rate hike is that it would spook Wall Street? I don't want to start "yellin" - but if the economy is as strong as Obama and his economic team likes to brag it is - maybe it's time to start raising key rates?

Friday, February 06, 2015

Is Carly Fiorina Accomplished Enough for a White House Run?


Former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ-$$37.95) CEO Carly Fiorina criticized preordained 2016 Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton in prepared remarks at the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines last month.

"Like Hillary Clinton, I too have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something," said Fiorina. "Mrs. Clinton, flying is an activity not an accomplishment."

Before officially announcing her run for the White House top gig, however, the potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate might want to check her hubris at the door: an examination of her performance during her tenure as chief executive of the tech titan suggests the erstwhile “Most Powerful Woman in Business” has little to brag about - and accomplished very little in that leadership role.

True, Fiorina’s official HP bio paints the picture of a visionary leader:

In July 1999, Carly Fiorina joined HP as chief executive officer, and was named chairman a year later. She resigned from her position on February 8, 2005. While at HP, Fiorina led the reinvention of the company many associate with the birth of Silicon Valley by returning HP to its roots of innovation and invention, reorganizing it to be more agile and competitive, and charting a new strategy to use HP's depth and breadth to help customers and consumers prosper in the digital age. As part of that reinvention, Fiorina led the company's 2002 merger with Compaq Computer, one of the largest high-tech mergers in history. As chairman of HP, she also worked to build on HP's historic commitment to social responsibility, taking global citizenship to another level by leveraging HP's worldwide presence to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

Albeit, as Mark Twain noted, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

And the truth reveals a lackluster legacy: under her tutelage, net income from continuing operations at HP stagnated – slipping from $3.6B in 2000 to $3.4B in 2004 – and shareholder value declined 38 percent (falling from $28.30/share to $17.56/share).

Looking not through Fiorina’s prism of the past, but actual history, the $25B acquisition (which includes acquisition-related charges) of Compaq Computer was a dismal failure too: A name makeover to “Personal Systems Group” (PSG) couldn’t hide the fact that Fiorina bough a low-margin, personal computer manufacturing business which suffered from sequentially lower average selling prices (due to competitive pricing pressure) and declining volumes in both commercial and consumer desktop PCs.

PSG's earnings from operations as a percent of net revenue amounted to 0.9% in fiscal 2004 - and even this anemic profit resulted mostly due to cuts in operating expenses (such as headcount and lower R&D spending).

In May 2012, HP closed the book on this failed marriage with a $1.2bn write-down in the value of the Compaq trade name.

Her vainglorious promulgations to the contrary, Fiorina did little to “to make a difference in the lives of millions of people.” 

Fiorina did, however, prove the adage that there is no such thing as failure in the corner office. She left in 2005 with a severance package worth an estimated $42 million.

If incompetence and hubris are requisites for presidential aspirations, Fiorina is halfway there. 

Ed. note: this commentary should ot be construed as an endorsement for the likely candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Energy Stocks Surge on Expected Bottoming in Crude Prices

Nordic American Offshore (NAO-$11.11) management has repeatedly stated that the fundamentals of its PSV (platform supply vessel) leasing business are “not directly exposed to the price of oil to a significant extent.”

“The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.” ~ Victorian-era English author Stephen Butler

The company announced a $1.7 million loss in net-income for fourth quarter 2014. Management now attributes the disappointing results to weakening demand for new drill projects in the North Sea – tied to a decline in the price of oil!

Many energy-related stocks of all stripes (including speculative E&P companies with highly-leveraged balance sheets) have climbed more than 10% in just the last two trading sessions: The 10Q Detective's diversified energy portfolio has also benefited handsomely from surging oil prices. That said, it is our view that the worst is not yet over in the oil patch – as drillers slash capex budgets, look for further downward revisions in profit outlooks to be announced on conference calls this month.

Given the continued imbalance between expectations and reality, we sold most of our positions as the markets rallied today. Where it was possible to obtain “reasonable” bid prices (depending on option activity), we did write covered calls on a few remaining positions, such as Seadrill Partners (SDLP-$15.04), to provide some down-side insurance as we wait for ex-dividend dates.

We will look to repurchase previously discussed stocks on any market pullback.