The dominoes are toppling, just as we have been expecting for nearly a year now, but slower than we thought. The fact-resistant strain of humans (Thank you, Borowitz Report) now in charge of the world are trying to use vast amounts of money to counteract gravity, and, counterintuitively, succeeded in slowing the dominoes’ fall. But not for long.
To review our expectations of last summer: the hideous decline rate of fracking wells (of up to 90% in three years) was forcing frackers to borrow huge amounts of money to put up large numbers of new wells at a breakneck pace in order to preserve the illusion (it was always an illusion) of a revolution in American oil leading to prosperity and “energy independence.” On average, it cost the frackers over $4 to get $1 of revenue in the door during the first quarter of this year. A year ago, with oil commanding $100 a barrel, they were still spending $2. As the old joke goes, the only way to make any money when you’re losing on every transaction is to make up for it with volume. But since most of the money spent was capital expenditure — i.e. new wells — their operating statements showed profits and nobody looked at the balance sheets.
We ran this scenario on our abacus and concluded that these guys were going to go broke. And that when they did, not only would U.S. oil production resume its long slide toward zero, begun in 1970, but they would blow up the junk-bond market, almost certainly the bond market, and probably the stock market. These expectations were in place before the price of oil tanked last fall, and set the expectations in concrete.
Now, let’s review the state of play:
Are they broke? Pretty much. As Bloomberg reports (“The Shale Industry Could be Swallowed by its Own Debt”), S&P has so far this year lowered the outlook or downgraded the credit of almost half the exploration and production companies it rates. Amazingly, despite the awful numbers, lenders have continued to pour money into the zombie companies (See “Oil Money: Too Dumb to Fail”) as they struggle to keep pumping so they can turn over their debt so they can keep pumping. Remember the old advice — when you find yourself in a hole, stop drilling? They don’t.
Has the junk-bond market fallen apart yet? Looks like it. “Investors” experiencing sudden attacks of vertigo pulled $5.5 billion out of the junk bond market in the two weeks ending June 17, and $3.6 billion so far this year out of the funds based on high-risk “leveraged” loans.
Is the regular bond market in danger? Oh, yeah. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, last week “High grade credit funds suffered their biggest outflow this year, and double the previous week.” Some of this was no doubt related to the hair-on-fire volatility of the European and Asian bond markets during the last month or so, but not all of it.
Is oil fracking production declining? Yes, indeed. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fracking output declined last month, by more this month, and will continue falling off at least through the end of the year. (It’s really a forever thing, but they can’t bring themselves to say it.) [See “It’s Official: The Shale-Oil Boom is Over”]. Worldwide, 150,000 jobs in oil and gas production have vaporized, with the U.S. having the “fastest and steepest decline.”
Is the stock market in trouble? Deeply. On Thursday, the Nasdaq tech-stock index reached its highest number in history, but only the uninformed, the inexperienced and the truly, deviously evil are celebrating it. It’s like having a party because grandma, at 99, just recorded her highest temperature ever. Stocks are hideously over-valued, highly leveraged, and insanely volatile — all sure signs of impending crash. Every day now, you can find some Master of the Universe talking of the need to have at hand a bag of “physical cash” in preparation for what they are referring to as a “systemic event.”
How much more clearly, and with how much more authority, could we possibly be told to brace for impact?