Can floundering Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) catch a break in 2020? CHK stock is worth less than a third of what it was this time last year.
Natural gas, Chesapeake’s bread-and-butter, remains in a slump. The Iran incident briefly pushed oil up above $60/barrel, but prices fell back after tensions cooled down. With the company dependent on factors outside its control (energy prices), it’s tough to see how they can get themselves back on track.
The company’s high leverage also doesn’t help. A recent debt exchange may keep the company out of bankruptcy in the coming year, but in the long-term, the company’s work is cut for them with regard to de-leveraging. Based on quotes from the Finra/Morningstar Bond Screener, much of the company’s publicly-traded debt trades far below par value.
As a recent analysis from InvestorPlace’s Ian Bezek discussed, it’s telling that bondholders took 30%+ losses in the refinancing. And if the bonds aren’t worth their par value, that doesn’t bode well for Chesapeake’s equity.
In other words, even though shares trade around $0.70/share (down 80% from their 52-week high), they could go to zero. On the other hand, investors willing to risk a complete loss could see significant upside if energy prices rebound in the coming year.
Increased energy prices would improve the valuation of the company’s underlying assets. With asset sales, Chesapeake could pay down much of its debt, get out of the hole, and become a more stable enterprise. With natural gas prices depressed, Chesapeake’s highly-leveraged balance sheet, and asset impairment charges hitting the energy space, the stock’s near-term prospects do not look promising.
Handicapping Natural Gas
Chesapeake is not only overleveraged debt-wise. The company’s future prospects are all-too-dependent on natural gas prices. Even with cuts, the company’s production split remains heavily weighed towards natural gas.
There currently is oversupply in the natural gas market. This isn’t helped by the abundance of associated gas, that is, natural gas found with crude oil deposits. But some oil producers are opting to burning off the unprofitable natural gas, in lieu of selling it. However, this alone may not make up for the glut.
Much of Chesapeake’s production this year is hedged at higher prices ($2.75/MMBtu). This covers the company for 2020, but 2021 is another matter. Based on forecasts by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), estimates call for natural gas prices to be about $2.54/MMBtu. This is a rebound from their 2020 average price estimates ($2.33/MMBtu), but still far from prices seen in prior years.
Natural gas prices are the main catalyst to make or break Chesapeake. This plays into another factor with the company, which is the value of its underlying reserves. The company needs the market value of these assets to sustain in order to execute much-needed asset sales.
Asset Sales and CHK Stock
Chesapeake Energy is very dependent on factors outside its control. Yet, there are ways for the company’s management to work through these headwinds, helping reverse the stock’s downward trend.
Asset sales remain a big option for Chesapeake. The company was in talks to sell $1 billion in assets to Comstock Resources (NYSE:CRK). However, December’s refinancing deal has delayed talks on this proposed transaction.
Even if Chesapeake can find buyers for some of its assets, what types of prices do they expect to fetch? Chevron’s (NYSE:CVX) recent impairment charges were discussed in InvestorPlace contributor Mark Hake’s January 3 CHK stock analysis. However, Chevron is not the only big energy player writing-down oil and gas assets. Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A RDS.B) has also announced a big impairment charge.
Chesapeake’s oil and gas reserves are on the books at $14.9 billion. But with an estimated $8.76 billion in debt (post-debt exchange), and a current market cap of $1.32 billion, investors are implying these reserves are worth just around $10 billion. Unless the natural gas situation improves, the company’s margin for error is becoming thinner and thinner. If natural gas assets see further valuation impairments, Chesapeake’s assets may be worth less than its outstanding debt. In other words, CHK stock would truly have zero underlying value.
The Bottom Line on CHK Stock
It’s impossible to tell when or even if Chesapeake Energy will rebound. So much of the bull case hinges on “predicting the unpredictable.” How good are you at handicapping the natural gas markets? Unless you can develop a high-conviction case for higher gas prices in 2020 and 2021, I wouldn’t try to tackle this hot mess of a company.
You could speculate, and see big gains if a black swan event pushes natural gas prices back up to prior levels. But if you prefer to invest, and not gamble, Chesapeake is not your play. Look elsewhere for opportunity.
As of this writing, Thomas Niel did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.