$550 Billion Energy Junk Bond Bubble Busts; “Whac-A-Mole” Distortions in Multiple Markets

The energy junk bond bubble has finally popped. Falling crude prices were the catalyst. Junk bonds of Energy XXI Ltd. plunged to 64 cents on the dollar from 106.3 cents since September. They now yield over 27%. Energy XXI Ltd. raised over $2 billion.

Energy production is extremely capital intense, and often accompanied by negative free cash flow.

Recently I have been getting numerous cold-calls, nearly all of them energy related. These companies need money, and snake-oil salesmen attempt to get it for them.

Energy investment added to GDP since 2010, with $550 billion in bond and loan offerings. Energy will now have a negative impact on GDP as funding dries up. And if oil prices do not head back up, expect outright defaults, and lots of them. This is what happens when bubbles burst.

Who Caused the Energy Bubble?

The Fed of course, holding interest rates at record lows. But it’s exceptionally rare to see anyone in mainstream media point the finger in the right direction. Today I have as notable and welcome exception.

Kudos to Bloomberg writers Christine Idzelis and Craig Torres for placing blame precisely where it belong in their report Fed Bubble Bursts in $550 Billion of Energy Debt.

Since early 2010, energy producers have raised $550 billion of new bonds and loans as the Federal Reserve held borrowing costs near zero, according to Deutsche Bank AG. With oil prices plunging, investors are questioning the ability of some issuers to meet their debt obligations. Research firm CreditSights Inc. predicts the default rate for energy junk bonds will double to eight percent next year.

“Anything that becomes a mania — it ends badly,” said Tim Gramatovich, who helps manage more than $800 million as chief investment officer of Santa Barbara, California-based Peritus Asset Management. “And this is a mania.”

The Fed’s decision to keep benchmark interest rates at record lows for six years has encouraged investors to funnel cash into speculative-grade securities to generate returns, raising concern that risks were being overlooked. A report from Moody’s Investors Service this week found that investor protections in corporate debt are at an all-time low, while average yields on junk bonds were recently lower than what investment-grade companies were paying before the credit crisis.

Yields Surge

Yields on junk-rated energy bonds climbed to a more-than-five-year high of 9.5 percent this week from 5.7 percent in June, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data. At least three energy-related borrowers, including C&J Energy Services Inc. (CJES), postponed financings this month as sentiment soured.

Stimulus Effect

The Fed’s three rounds of bond buying were a gift to small companies in the capital-intensive energy industry that needed cheap borrowing costs to thrive, according to Chris Lafakis, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Quantitative easing “has been one of the keys to the fast, breakneck pace of the growth in U.S. oil production which requires abundant capital,” Lafakis said.

One of those to take advantage was Energy XXI Ltd. (EXXI), an oil and gas explorer, which has raised more than $2 billion in the bond market in the past four years.

The Houston-based company’s $750 million of 9.25 percent notes, issued in December 2010, have tumbled to 64 cents on the dollar from 106.3 cents in September, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. They yield 27.7 percent.

Energy XXI got its lenders in August to waive a potential violation of its credit agreement because its debt had risen relative to its earnings, according to a regulatory filing. In September, lenders agreed to increase the amount of leverage allowed.

The debt rout is one of the latest examples of a boom and bust in U.S. markets as unprecedented Fed stimulus fuels a hunt for yield. The fallout has been limited so far, yet the longer the Fed holds its benchmark lending rate near zero, the greater the risk of more consequential bubbles, according to former Fed governor Jeremy Stein.

“There are distortions in multiple markets,” said Lawrence Goodman, president of the Center for Financial Stability, a monetary research group in New York. “It is like a Whac-A-Mole game: You don’t know where it is going to pop up next.”

“Whac-A-Mole” Distortions in Multiple Markets

Lawrence Goodman along with writers Idzelis and Torres win the blue ribbon for accurate assessment of the month.

Yet, “Whac-A-Mole” has barely started. I suspect all junk bonds will come into question the moment the Fed hikes or the economy sours, whichever comes first.

Moreover, it’s not just the US in play. I foresee global “Whac-A-Mole” in various currencies, equities, junk bonds, bank bonds and even sovereign bonds (especially European bonds).

For example, please consider the dismal state or European banks as noted in Charts Show 28 Seriously Troubled Mega-Banks: 24 of them in Europe.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock