Editor's pick: Originally published Jan. 15.
The new year hasn't exactly brought glad tidings to the oil and gas industry.
Oil prices briefly fell below a key threshold of $30 per barrel on Tuesday, prices not seen in 12 years. Royal Bank of Scotland analyst Andrew Roberts forecast in a doomsday report that Brent oil could fall further to $16 in the first quarter as demand drops and the world runs out of ships in which to store it. Last week Chevron (CVX - Get Report) announced it was laying off 7,000 people, and BP (BP - Get Report) followed up this week with 4,000.
"Even the strongest names, with the highest multiples, are starting to see some weakness," Wunderlich Securities analyst Jason Wangler wrote in a report this week titled No Fun in Energy.
Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit added to the malaise, predicting on CNBC that half of all U.S. shale producers will be forced into Chapter 11. "The longer oil prices remain low, the more companies are likely to file for bankruptcy," he told The Deal, the most vulnerable being those with debt ratios above 40% and high break-even points.
An alternative? How about getting hitched? By combining assets, companies could cut duplicative functions, benefit from economies of scale and be better able to tap the capital markets.
A lot of folks were expecting a flood of corporate mergers and acquisitions in the sector last year. But the banks ended up going easy on oil and gas companies during loan re-determination time and companies were able to tap the capital markets in the first half of last year, which allowed them to live another day without having to sell assets or themselves.
As a result, M&A in the industry was down almost a quarter last year to $143 billion, according to figures out this week from data provider IHS. Analysis by oil and gas research firm Wood Mackenzie shows that 2015 was the slowest year for M&A in the sector in over a decade, with spending on deals collapsing by two-thirds, not including Royal Dutch Shell's (RDS.A - Get Report) mammoth $82 billion purchase of BG Group.
With asset sales bringing in little money and financing options only available to the stealthy going forward, expect to see more combinations.
Gabriele Sorbara, an analyst at Topeka Capital Markets, thinks West Texas' and New Mexico's Permian Basin in particular will yield more M&A. His top takeout candidates include under-leveraged, high-quality names including Energen (EGN) , Diamondback Energy (FANG - Get Report) , Parsley Energy (PE - Get Report) , Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD - Get Report) and Cimarex Energy (XEC - Get Report) . He thinks mergers of equals will be common, such as a possible combination between Concho Resources (CXO - Get Report) and Cimarex.
Analysts at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. say excess costs have built up among five small companies operating in West Texas' Midland Basin, including Energen, Diamondback, Parsley, Laredo Petroleum (LPI - Get Report) and RSP Permian (RSPP) , compared with larger competitors such as Concho and Cimarex, which could lead to some combinations.
They think Energen and Laredo are the most likely takeout candidates in the group given their under-capitalized drilling programs and potential synergistic cost cuts, as Diamondback and RSP have the most lean overhead. "Corporate consolidation cannot be ruled out," they said.
Christopher Sheehan, director of energy M&A research at IHS, said oil and gas producers with heavy debt burdens and hedges rolling off this year will become increasingly vulnerable and will either have to dispose of prized assets, face serious restructuring, including the potential for bankruptcy, or become takeover targets.
Indeed, the firm's database is tracking more than $200 billion worth of oil and gas property and corporate opportunities that have the potential to transform the portfolios of stronger players. "The volume of global assets for sale and companies under financial duress are surging as oil prices continue to be subdued," he says.
Wood Mackenzie thinks upstream oil and gas deal activity is set to ramp up this year regardless of what happens to oil prices, with low prices leading distressed players to sell assets and maybe themselves to survive and rising prices leading companies to make deals before inflation sets in. Says M&A analyst Greig Aitken: "As we saw in [the second quarter of] 2015, when sentiment takes hold that oil prices are on the path to recovery, M&A activity can pick up quickly." Bring it on.