Plummeting oil prices are pushing some of the small-cap companies which flourished as part of the U.S. shale energy boom close to their breaking point, while also prompting some well-known fund managers to aggressively buy energy stocks.
Concerns about slowing growth in Europe and a stronger dollar have helped push the price of light crude oil down about 25 percent since June to about $82 a barrel, creeping closer to the average marginal cost of crude production of about $73 a barrel for U.S. onshore work, according to a research note from Baird Equity Research. Those declines have sent the SIG Oil Exploration and Production index down 21.2 percent over the last three months.
"The market is selling all of these companies, even if it's clear that $75 a barrel oil is not going to affect every company the same," said Mike Breard, an analyst who works on the Hodges Small-Cap fund, part of Dallas-based Hodges Capital.
It's a sudden turnabout for an industry that appears to be a victim of its own success. The high price of oil over the last decade was largely behind the push to mine shale oil through fracking, a controversial technique that uses high pressure to capture gas and oil trapped in deep rock.
Fracking has helped the U.S. become among the world's largest oil producers and led to concern that there is now an oversupply of crude. Production in the U.S. is on pace to add a record 1.1 million barrels a day in 2014, and another 963,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Already, the share price of small-cap shale oil companies such as Forest Oil has fallen below $1 as a result of high debt levels. Analysts now say that with the price of oil now close to the point where it's no longer profitable to drill, small-cap energy stocks laden with high costs and little cash on their balance sheets could prove vulnerable to further price declines and may become acquisition targets if oil stays below $75 a barrel for six months or more.