Energy companies on the ropes as investors look for deals

An energy lender says his phone has been ringing off the hook with investors looking to take advantage of the current depressed mood in the oilpatch.

Behind the scenes of the oil shock

With oil prices sliding, there's a lot of investor interest in the loans of oil companies. (Hasan Jamali/Canadian Press)

So far 2015 has not been a banner year for the energy sector. Budgets have been slashed, earnings are down and jobs are being cut.

The mood in Alberta is tense.

Behind the scenes though, it's a different story. Opportunities are being sensed, calls are being made, flights are being booked to Calgary. 

Bruce Edgelow. vice-president of energy with ATB Financial, says his phone has been ringing off the hook with investors both inside and outside Canada looking to take advantage of the current downturn in the oilpatch.

'"We're being polite, but we're not necessarily returning phone calls or setting up meetings.- Bruce Edgelow, ATB Financial

ATB is a provincially-owned financial institution that lends heavily to Alberta businesses, including many in the oil and gas sector.

Edgelow says the calls have been coming from investors that would like to relieve ATB of some of the riskier loans it has made to the oilpatch.

U.S. investors travelling to Alberta

Tim Gramatovich, chief investment officer of California-based Peritus Asset Management — which invests in high yield debt, was in Calgary at the end of January looking for deals.

"We're not tipping our hand as to what we are looking for, but what we're looking for is opportunity sets both in the debt and equity markets."

The main focus right now is distressed debt.

The basic equation is this: oilsands companies borrow big to develop their projects, but when oil prices drop and cash flow dries up, the debt becomes harder to pay and its value goes down.

Debt for 25 cents on the dollar

Depending on the company, this debt can be bought for as little as 25 cents on the dollar. There are different scenarios that can unfold from there. If a distressed company goes through restructuring, the bondholders have a big say in how restructuring unfolds and could end up owning a portion of the company. It's called loan to own.

Or the energy company comes back as oil prices recover and the bonds increase in value and can be resold on the market or even held to maturity. Or everything goes badly and the debt becomes worthless. It's an investment with big risks and big potential.

Much of it is based on the prediction that oil simply cannot stay this low for very long.

Low oil unsustainable

"Oil prices are unsustainable at these levels for any length of time," said Gramatovich. "The global production game is unstable, everyone is snooping around, asking where are the values?"

Gramatovich has been investing in Canada for a decade because he seeks projects that are long term, with slow declines in reserves. He is less interested in the shale boom in the U.S.

"When you look at the U.S. shale business, what do you own? What you own is a bunch of rocks that require an incredible amount of money to extract the oil," he said.

While Gramtovich might be nervous about shale oil investments, not everyone is.

Kent Collier is the chief executive of Reorg Research, which provides analysis on distressed firms.

Reorg recently held an event in New York to talk about potential deals in the energy sector. Roughly 40 hedge funds sent representatives. Collier said funds are mostly focused on the US shale market.

"I haven't seen this much interest in one sector since the collapse of Lehman. Its remarkable."

So there are lots of buyers, but what about the sellers? Bruce Edgelow of ATB Financial says he's not interested in selling, preferring to ride out the cycle alongside its customers in the oilpatch.

"We're being polite, but we're not necessarily returning phone calls or setting up meetings."


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