Shale and Wall Street: Was the Decline in Natural Gas Prices Orchestrated?
In 2011, shale mergers and acquisitions (M&A) accounted for $46.5B in deals and became one of the largest profit centers for some Wall Street investment banks. This anomaly bears scrutiny since shale wells were considerably underperforming in dollar terms during this time. Analysts and investment bankers, nevertheless, emerged as some of the most vocal proponents of shale exploitation. By ensuring that production continued at a frenzied pace, in spite of poor well performance (in dollar terms), a glut in the market for natural gas resulted and prices were driven to new lows. In 2011, U.S. demand for natural gas was exceeded by supply by a factor of four.
It is highly unlikely that market-savvy bankers did not recognize that by overproducing natural gas a glut would occur with a concomitant severe price decline. This price decline, however, opened the door for significant transactional deals worth billions of dollars and thereby secured further large fees for the investment banks involved. In fact, shales became one of the largest profit centers within these banks in their energy M&A portfolios since 2010. The recent natural gas market glut was largely effected through overproduction of natural gas in order to meet financial analyst’s production targets and to provide cash flow to support operators’ imprudent leverage positions.
As prices plunged, Wall Street began executing deals to spin assets of troubled shale companies off to larger players in the industry. Such deals deteriorated only months later, resulting in massive write-downs in shale assets. In addition, the banks were instrumental in crafting convoluted financial products such as VPP’s (volumetric production payments); and despite of the obvious lack of sophisticated knowledge by many of these investors about the intricacies and risks of shale production, these products were subsequently sold to investors such as pension funds. Further, leases were bundled and flipped on unproved shale fields in much the same way as mortgage-backed securities had been bundled and sold on questionable underlying mortgage assets prior to the economic downturn of 2007.
As documented in this report, emerging independent information on shale plays in the U.S. confirms the following:
Wall Street promoted the shale gas drilling frenzy, which resulted in prices lower than the cost of production and thereby profited [enormously] from mergers & acquisitions and other transactional fees.
U.S. shale gas and shale oil reserves have been overestimated by a minimum of 100% and by as much as 400-500% by operators according to actual well production data filed in various states.
Shale oil wells are following the same steep decline rates and poor recovery efficiency observed in shale gas wells.
The price of natural gas has been driven down largely due to severe overproduction in meeting financial analysts’ targets of production growth for share appreciation coupled and exacerbated by imprudent leverage and thus a concomitant need to produce to meet debt service.
Due to extreme levels of debt, stated proved undeveloped reserves (PUDs) may not have been in compliance with SEC rules at some shale companies because of the threat of collateral default for those operators.
Industry is demonstrating reticence to engage in further shale investment, abandoning pipeline projects, IPOs and joint venture projects in spite of public rhetoric proclaiming shales to be a panacea for U.S. energy policy.
Exportation is being pursued for the differential between the domestic and international prices in an effort to shore up ailing balance sheets invested in shale assets
It is imperative that shale be examined thoroughly and independently to assess the true value of shale assets, particularly since policy on both the state and national level is being implemented based on production projections that are overtly optimistic (and thereby unrealistic) and wells that are significantly underperforming original projections.