Everybody knows it.
It’s practically inevitable at this point.
Someone has to step up and buy out Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK).
Chesapeake CEO, Aubrey McClendon, should be admired for his part in building the country’s second-largest gas company. The company grew exponentially since he co-founded it in 1989 and began his 23-year reign as chairman.
But now McClendon’s strategic risk-taking has finally caught up to him. And the barbarians are at the gates.
Many shareholders have called for his resignation. Others have openly said the company should listen to offers. Billionaire investor, Carl Icahn – who has a legendary penchant for instigating regime change (just ask former Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang about that) – is fortifying his position. And just this morning, four board members announced they’d retire.
Chesapeake stock has lost nearly half of its value in the past year. And worries over McClendon aren’t the only thing driving down share prices.
Tumbling gas prices have done just as much to torpedo Chesapeake stock. And while gas prices will eventually rebound, they may not do so quickly enough to save Chesapeake.
The company recently said that it could face a cash shortfall as early as next year if natural gas, which accounts for 83% of Chesapeake’s reserves, doesn’t bounce back soon. And after outspending cash flow in 19 of the past 21 years, the company already has about $13 billion of debt.
That debt is now the biggest deterrent to a takeover, but it would be manageable for any large oil major looking to lock up some prime assets – and there are several that fit that bill.
Chesapeake has proven reserves equivalent to 3.13 billion barrels of oil. And more than that, it’s the largest onshore leaseholder in the United States, with approximately 14 million net acres of land under lease. That includes a top two position in some of the country’s largest shale plays, including Barnett, Haynesville, Marcellus, Wolfcamp, Bone Spring, Eagle Ford and Utica.
And with its stock ravished and management in disarray, the potential cost of these assets is relatively cheap.
Chesapeake’s enterprise value – the sum of its stock, net debt, minority interest and preferred equity – is about $29 billion. That’s only 9.2-times the value of its proved reserves, the cheapest among U.S. oil explorers and producers, as well as integrated oil companies, according to Bloomberg data.
So who’s going to step up and buy out Chesapeake?
Takeover Candidate #1: ExxonMobil Corp.
ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) was one of the first names analysts threw out there when Chesapeake hit the skids. To begin with, Exxon is the only natural gas producer bigger than Chesapeake and it has $18.67 billion of cash on hand.
There’s also a precedent. Two years ago Exxon shelled out $35 billion to acquire XTO Energy – the country’s largest gas producer at the time. That deal doubled Exxon’s natural gas production and, more importantly, allowed the energy giant to absorb XTO’s fracking expertise.
This was part of a long-term strategy for Exxon, which sees cleaner natural gas leapfrogging coal to become the world’s second-largest energy source by 2025.
But with a glut of natural gas on the market, prices have been depressed and the XTO deal has yet to pay off. So it seems unlikely that Exxon would break the bank with another monstrous natural gas acquisition.
Plus, it looks as though the company intends to spend its capital elsewhere.
An environmental filing, seen by Reuters, suggests Exxon wants to build a multi-billion-dollar chemical plant in Texas to take advantage of cheap North American shale gas.
Given that, Exxon seems comfortable standing pat – but you still can’t rule it out.
Takeover Candidate #2: Chevron
Chevron (NYSE: CVX) has been relatively slow in acquiring American shale reserves. Instead, it’s preferred to stand on the sidelines and watch its rivals grapple with falling natural gas prices.
However, it’s hard to see natural gas prices falling much further than they already have. That said, now may be the perfect time to get some skin in the game.
After all, Chevron’s year-over-year oil and gas production has declined for five straight quarters. But the company clearly has the capital to make a big move.
During the 12 months that ended in March, Chevron earned $25.95 billion and generated revenue of $251.43 billion. And it had about $16 billion of cash and cash equivalents on hand at the end of last year.
So the capability is there.
However, Chevron also has been plagued by serious environmental concerns. The company’s fracking methodology and pollution have been called into question, and it’s fighting hard to redeem itself after an oil leak sprung at one of its fields off the coast of Brazil.
That means this may not be the best time for Chevron to try to absorb Chesapeake.
Takeover Candidate #3: BHP Billiton
In many ways a dark horse candidate, Anglo-Australian mining giant, BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP), is also the most likely suitor for Chesapeake.
While it’s the world’s largest mining company, BHP also is the seventh-largest independent oil company. The company had $10 billion of cash and cash equivalents on hand at the end of 2011 and maintains favorable credit ratings.
Additionally, BHP’s CEO, Marius Kloppers, has what some might call an aggressive management style. He made huge waves with his attempted takeover of Rio Tinto PLC (NYSE: RIO) – the Aussie rival that’s also the world’s third-largest mining company.
That takeover attempt ultimately failed but BHP’s $12.1 billion offer for Petrohawk Energy in July of last year landed. That netted BHP stakes in three of the most popular shale formations in the United States: the Eagle Ford, Haynesville and Permian Basin.
And just a few months prior to that, Kloppers snapped up $4.75 billion worth of Chesapeake assets. So BHP knows what Chesapeake has to offer.
There’s no question that the mining giant has the desire for shale assets, a disposition toward sizeable acquisitions and a balance sheet that’s capable of getting a big deal done.
Indeed, Chesapeake’s impressive array of U.S. shale assets could prove quite the steal for the Aussie juggernaut… unless someone else beats them to it.