HOUSTON (The Deal) -- One of the oil and gas industry's biggest conferences the North American Prospect Expo swept through Houston last week, and with it 15,000 attendees from 43 states and 35 countries, all looking to make deals. Tudor, Pickering, Holt held its popular reception at the Four Seasons, which attracted 1,000 attendees. It called the event "NAPE Untapped," with lots of craft beer flowing. Thompson & Knight and KeyBanc Capital Markets held their usual attended breakfasts. "Keep Calm, Frack On," was KeyBanc's goodbye slide to attendees. Also speaking too were former Alaska governor and onetime vice presidential candidate Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin and former First Lady Laura Bush.
Most conversations were dominated by talk of the severe slide in oil prices, where the opportunities are, and who the winners and losers will be. The consensus seemed to be that companies have responded rapidly to their suddenly less valuable resources by laying down rigs, laying off staff and cutting production targets, so maybe things aren't so dire, especially with oil prices inching up again. However, growth for growth's sake is out and capturing cost efficiencies is in both through technology, as well as through relationship-building (i.e., joint ventures, which would help sellers bridge their funding gaps and give buyers a piece of previously unattainable acreage). "It's not a time to freak out," KeyBanc analyst David Deckelbaum said. "It's time to focus on the balance sheet."
There was talk about the U.S. government allowing companies to export oil not just the byproducts as a way to deal with some of the oversupply in the U.S. from shale production. "We need to compete in the world market," Continental Resources (CLR) - Get Report CEO Jack Stark said in a presentation. "Ending the export ban would be good for the country and not result in higher gasoline prices." The usual complaints about regulatory red tape keeping oil and gas from reaching consumers were also made. "It's our Achilles' heel," Alan Armstrong, CEO of pipeline operator and natural gas processor Williams (WMB) - Get Report , said in his presentation. "Regulatory delays are making investment difficult."
Some interested buyers were on the floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center. A representative from Cubic Energy (CBNR) said the company was there to "kick the tires" while others were desperate to sell properties or find partners struggling KKR-backed Samson Resources was shopping several packages, as it did last year. Analysts at Global Hunter Securities Inc. said there appeared to be more interested buyers than sellers in the crowd public, private and private equity players "all looking for the deal of the decade" but no companies putting anything considered "core" on the chopping block.
Among those selling acreage, according to Global Hunter: SW Capital Partners-backed DJ Resources in the Niobrara, with the most likely buyer being Synergy Resources (SYRG) ; Halcon Resources's (HK) entire leasehold in the Utica Shale; Amelia Resources and VirTex Operating in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale; Southwestern Energy (SWN) - Get Report in the Arkoma (with bids due March 11); Abraxas Petroleum (AXAS) - Get Report in the Powder River Basin; Whiting Petroleum's (WLL) - Get Report Steelhead project in Michigan; and Chesapeake Energy (CHK) - Get Report in Southern Brazos County, Texas, East Arkansas, Johnson and Natrona counties in Wyoming and Niobrara County, also in Wyoming (where it's looking for a joint venture partner).
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For other companies looking to shed some weight, representatives from asset sellers Oil & Gas Clearinghouse and Raymond James were poised near the entrance with a handshake and a smile. So, too, was private equity firm Natural Gas Partners, with chief Ken Hersh roaming the floor. The booths of Chesapeake and American Energy Partners LP led by ousted Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon were again situated next to each other, as they were last year, and both were sponsors of the event (fortunately for American Energy Partners, "A" came before "C" in the alphabetized sponsorship billing). Now comes word that Chesapeake is suing McClendon for stealing trade secrets.
The investment bankers in attendance lamented the dearth of M&A so far in 2015, with the view that conditions will stay that way until oil prices come up more and production starts declining (maybe as early as the second quarter). Tim Perry, Credit Suisse's head of oil and gas for the Americas, thinks there will be an uptick in stock-for-stock corporate deals, as companies with good assets and bad balance sheets combine with companies with bad assets and good balance sheets. But they said asset sales will be tough with oil and gas prices still low and no money being offered for uneconomic plays. On Deckelbaum's potential takeover target list: Magnum Hunter Resources (MHR) , Gulfport Energy (GPOR) - Get Report and Eclipse Resources (ECR) - Get Report , all of which have valuable properties in the Utica but not enough money to develop them.
Meanwhile, private equity firms are looking for prospects "like crazy," Jefferies Group managing director Bill Marko said, noting they have $50 billion in equity to deploy $100 billion including debt. Overseas companies are also shopping (one of his international clients instructed him to "find companies that are distressed, high quality and cheap"). Throw in sovereign wealth funds, infrastructure funds and institutions looking to invest directly rather than through private equity funds (Harvard University's endowment, for example), and 2015 may become a "highly competitive year for deals," Morgan Stanley managing director Geoff Davis said.
Credit Suisse's Perry said the good news is that some companies are finding they still have access to capital markets and are thus able to keep potential buyers at bay. He mentioned Southwestern raising $2.2 billion last month in acquisition financing. Others who have managed to raise equity or debt: Eclipse, Synergy, Jones Energy (JONE) , Parsley Energy (PE) - Get Report , Bonanza Creek Energy (BCEI) - Get Report , Diamondback Energy (FANG) - Get Report and CrownRock, a joint venture between CrownQuest Operating and private equity firm Lime Rock Partners. "It's private money versus capital market transactions right now," he said. But if the capital markets shut tight, production starts sliding and companies start missing debt payments, then get ready for some old fashioned M&A.
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