Chesapeake Energy Unlikely Next Energy Merger Partner

On Monday I showed data on the mid-sized energy firms that could be next in line to be acquired on the heals of ExxonMobil’s (XOM) $31 billion buyout of XTO Energy (XTO). Today I wanted share my personal view that I do not believe natural giant Chesapeake Energy (CHK) will be next in line to be gobbled up if indeed the XTO deal sets off a domino effect in the industry.

For those who do not follow Chesapeake, they are one of the largest independent natural gas producers in the United States and the most gas-heavy exploration and production firm on the short list of possible buyouts going forward (about 90% of the present value of CHK’s reserves are natural gas).

A lot has changed for Chesapeake over the last 18 months. Back in July 2008 natural gas prices were a lot higher than today and Chesapeake, as the largest leaseholder of gas-producing acreage, was busy inking exploration partnerships for its massive shale properties. Big energy companies were eager to gain access to vast gas reserves and Chesapeake was interested in sharing some of the development costs to reduce their growth financing needs.

Shares of Chesapeake Energy peaked at $74 each in July 2008.  The company’s  co-founder and CEO, Aubrey McClendon, had been aggressively buying the stock on the way up, signaling his optimism over the company’s future prospects. At the peak, McClendon owned 5.2% of the company and those 34 million shares were worth a whopping $2.5 billion. Things could not have looked better.

Amazingly, within 5 months the tide had completely shifted. Natural gas prices began to decline as the financial crisis and subsequent recession began to rear their ugly heads. As the economy weakened demand for natural gas would drop and Chesapeake’s profits would take a hit. Then in December 2008 the stock started to drop a lot faster than its peer group. Rumors began to swirl that there was a large seller of the stock and that it might in fact be the company’s CEO. Chesapeake shares hit rock bottom around $10 each in December, down about 85% in just 5 months.

As rumors continued to run rampant about what was happening the company issued a press release informing investors that in fact McClendon had been issued a margin call by his brokerage firm and was forced to sell 93% of his holdings in the company. It turned out that McClendon had been using margin (borrowed money) to build up his stake over the years.

If that seemed reckless, despite his optimism about Chesapeake’s future, it turned out to be even more reckless given that he did not seem to hedge any of his massive margined stake even when the stock peaked and was worth billions of dollars.

Given the events that had transpired and how shocking they were, one can certainly understand why the stock began to lag the natural gas sector. After all, if McClendon could be so careless with his own money, who knew what he might do with shareholders’ capital. The stock did rebound from a panicked low of $10 to the 20’s in subsequent months, but it continued to lag behind its rivals; companies that carried a lot less baggage.

After such an embarrassment, McClendon vowed to slowly rebuild his stake over time, but he has yet to do so. He still owns 2.4 million shares of Chesapeake (a 0.4% stake) worth nearly $60 million but that has to feel like nothing compared to what he once had. And that is why I doubt Chesapeake will be the next natural gas company to be sold.

While it is pure speculation on my part, I do not believe that McClendon, who co-founded Chesapeake with Tom Ward (who now runs SandRidge Energy), would be extremely anxious to sell the company after he allowed $2.5 billion of equity to disappear within a matter of months. McClendon remains CEO and shows a lot of passion about continuing to grow the company himself.

In my view, the only motivation for him to sell at this point in the natural gas cycle would be to lessen his work load and cash out financially. While $60 million may seem like a lot to you and me, it may not be an attractive option for McClendon (or even $70 or $80 million if he accepted a premium) considering that he owned a 5%, $2.5 billion stake as recently as mid 2008. Furthermore, with natural gas prices in the tank lately it would be a reasonable argument to claim that it would not be in the best interests of shareholders to sell now either.

More likely I would bet that McClendon does in fact want to build up his stake again (maybe not back to 5% but somewhere above his current 0.4%), sell at a time when the natural gas market is a bit more favorable, and really cash in on the company he has built from nothing over the last two decades.

As a result, I really do not expect Chesapeake Energy to be sold in the near term (say the next 3-6 months at least). It just does not seem to be something McClendon would entertain given where we are right now in the natural gas cycle and what he has been through over the last couple of years.

McClendon is usually outspoken on quarterly conference calls, so perhaps he will even address the M&A landscape and his current thinking on the company’s fourth quarter earnings call in early February. If he does, I will be sure to keep you all posted.

All of that said, Peridot Capital continues to invest in the company. I believe it has excellent leverage to the future of the natural gas market, which will likely turn around sometime in the not-too-distant future as currently low prices discourage gas production. I am just not banking on a blockbuster merger anytime soon.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of CHK at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time