NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Businesses hate uncertainty. And the collapse in oil prices is making it harder for many companies to forecast such basic things as costs, spending plans and even earnings. 

The biggest impact, of course, is being felt by the energy industry itself.

Companies that serve the industry like oil service and construction companies and pipe producers are also affected. U.S. Steel (X)  recently announced it would temporarily close its pipe-manufacturing plant in Lorain, Ohio, and lay off 614 workers because of spending cuts by several North American oil and gas companies.

Indeed, in mid December when oil prices were 25% higher than they are today many independent oil and gas exploration companies, including ConocoPhillips (COP) and Apache  (APA) , slashed capital spending budgets for 2015 by 20% or more.

The most vulnerable oil companies are the smaller players, says John Stoltzfus, chief market strategist at Oppenheimer & Co. "Their balance sheets are significantly impacted and they've taken out a significant amount of debt."

Ironically that debt, which soared 55% since 2010 to $200 billion today among American oil and gas companies is the reason some companies will continue to drill because they can't afford not to, according to The Wall Street Journal. They need to service their debt. Rather than delaying drilling some companies like EXCO Resources (XCO) of Dallas are selling properties or suspending dividend payments.

Oil-related related loans are creating risks for lenders and the high yield market. CreditSights has identified about 25 oil companies at risk, including 14 which could default. Vulnerable companies include Sabine Oil & Gas, Quicksilver Resources  (KWK) , American Eagle Energy  (AMZG) and Goodrich Petroleum (GDP) .


"Don't be surprised if there are some bankruptcies and trouble in the high yield market," says Brad Sorensen, director of market and sector analyst at Schwab & Co. "There's been a huge dislocation-companies invested when from $100 a barrel for oil and now it's half of that."

Oppenheimer's Gheit says oil prices are close to bottom but could fall a bit further before stabilizing and $70 a barrel is a "logical" ceiling but speculation could change that.

What the industry expects, which impacts their capital spending and other plans, will be more broadly known when companies report earnings and offer guidance, starting in a few weeks. "We haven't heard anything yet from Exxon (XOM) , Chevron  (CVX) or BP (BP) ," says Gheit.

Analysts' earnings expectations for all sectors in the S&P 500 are down 5.7% from October and 25% lower for the energy sector, says Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ. He includes coal and alternative energy such as solar, wind and geothermal in the negative outlook for energy.

David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors says other commodities including gold and other metals are also at risk now because volatility in many markets had been suppressed by zero interest rates. Now "volatility is here to say," says Kotok, "and there will be reversals that will be dramatic."

There is a flip side to the decline in oil prices: the companies and industries that benefit from the decline in oil prices. They include airlines -- fuel is the biggest expense -- cruise lines, trucking, utilities and chemical plants, whose feedstocks are now cheaper.

"Consumer discretionary on the whole benefits," says Stovall. "As wages move higher and inflation remains lower and you add the beneficial impact of even lower energy prices, more money is put into consumer pockets. But we have yet to see any confirmation in the economic numbers and earnings."

Gasoline prices at the pump fell an average 29% in the second half of 2014, to an average $2.22 per gallon on December 29, according to the Energy Information Administration. The AAA estimates that saved Americans about $14 billion on gasoline in 2014, compared to 2013. That's probably one reason J.C. Penney  (JCP) reported a 3.7% jump in sales in November and December, when many were expecting further declines, and the stock soared. 


TheStreet Ratings team rates CONOCOPHILLIPS as a Buy with a ratings score of B+. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate CONOCOPHILLIPS (COP) a BUY. This is driven by a number of strengths, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its increase in net income, reasonable valuation levels, expanding profit margins, good cash flow from operations and largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had somewhat disappointing return on equity."

You can view the full analysis from the report here: COP Ratings Report

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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