The Great Compression: Implications of COVID-19 for the US Shale Industry

Fifteen-year U.S. shale boom entering period of “great compression.”

Vulnerable shale operators hit hard by COVID-19, and heightening oil price volatility.

Looming $300 billion of impairments could spark bankruptcies and deep consolidation.

Buyers beware, only 27% of major operators make attractive acquisition or merger targets.

Why it matters
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. shale industry in aggregate was losing money. Now simultaneously faced with a new normal of lower oil prices, reduced demand, capital constraints, heavy debt loads and COVID-led economic uncertainty, the industry is entering a period of “great compression.” Deloitte’s new study, “The Great Compression: Implications of COVID-19 for the US Shale Industry,” explains how present circumstances could trigger a deep consolidation in the U.S. shale industry and offers recommendations for operators to navigate the road ahead.

A $300 billion correction could be looming, 2Q inflection expected
According to the study, challenging oil market and economic conditions could prompt the shale industry in aggregate to impair or write-down the value of their assets by as much as $300 billion — with significant impairments expected in the second quarter of 2020. As a result, the leverage ratio of the industry could increase from 40% to 54%, potentially setting off a chain reaction of insolvencies and restructuring.

Approximately 30% of shale operators are technically insolvent at $35 per barrel
The study found nearly a third of today’s operators are technically insolvent with oil prices at $35 per barrel, and 50% at $20 per barrel. As asset impairments and write-downs increase debt ratios, an even greater number of companies could become at risk for bankruptcy.

The great compression could have lasting and domino effects
New telecommuting norms, regionalized trade and supply chains, a new fuel order, and stable business profile of new energies have fast-forwarded the specter of peak demand to the present. While a combination of global production cuts, easing of lockdowns worldwide, capex reductions and accelerated field decline rates have helped oil prices to recover from sub-zero levels, it remains to be seen if oil prices will return to $50 to $60 per barrel in 2020. As shale operators face these new realities, the reverberations could extend beyond the U.S. shale industry and have a domino effect across the oil and gas value chain.

Buyers beware, only 27% of major E&Ps identified as attractive acquisition targets
The study analyzed the operational and financial health of top U.S. shale operators and found that only 27% were “augmentors,” representing value-accretive targets for supermajors or large independents. Conversely, approximately 50% of major E&Ps were identified as “superfluous” or risky bets for potential buyers. The study found that any large acquisition or merger should be considered only if one plus one is greater than two, on both operational and financial fronts. A key question is what to buy and, more importantly, what not to buy.

Challenges come with opportunity
The U.S. shale industry appears to be facing a test of historic proportions as they enter a period of “great compression.” However, these difficulties also present an opportunity for revitalization through rigorous operational diagnosis and experimentation. Beyond M&A, companies that effectively integrate meta-data analytics, sustainability measures and digital technologies into their business models might be the likeliest to successfully respond, recover and thrive.