The rebound in oil prices this spring brought investors back into energy equities and the high-yield energy space. But since oil tanked again, and with the prospect of Iran bringing more oil onto the already oversupplied market, the view on oil prices has become more bearish. West Texas Intermediate is down more than 16 percent in just the past month.
"Now people are resetting expectations as far as the earnings power and viability of these companies, given the view that oil prices will be lower for longer," Contopoulos said.
For some of the smaller, riskier credits, funding may not be available in traditional markets, and they will spend much more to borrow if they find it elsewhere. Some who were coming against bank borrowing limits dipped into the capital markets, taking on new debt. There was also a rush of equities issuance across the industry earlier in the year, as companies worked to shore up capital.
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SandRidge Energy is one of those that tapped the debt market. Citigroup analysts, in a recent report, noted that they rate the company's debt overweight, saying SandRidge proactively raised secured debt to fund the 2016/2017 cap ex needs, reducing the risk of a bank borrowing base decrease.
"I think the industry is bifurcating. There are very good balance sheets where reserve-based lending isn't a critical component of what they're doing. The larger E&Ps—Anadarko, Devon, Apache, Noble Energy, EOG Resources. Those companies have higher credit ratings. They have access to the bond market," said Pickering. "Those guys are the top tier … the bottom tier, which are companies that are highly leveraged, they may have debt coming due quickly. Bond debt or what not. Those are companies that are shut out of broader credit markets."
Pickering said the banks will get increasingly nervous the longer the low prices prevail. "The lower tier, they're already in a world of hurt. Banks are going to be much more focused on them," he said. "… As the bank redeterminations happen, if the revolving credit lines get squeezed, a company that was reinvesting in drilling wells may not be able to do that…. It can create a challenging cycle."
While another sharp drop in the oil price would certainly limit industry borrowing, Citigroup's Edward Morse said an increase in bankruptcies among U.S. drillers would be bullish for oil. That in turn would help the industry more broadly by reducing output. There have been relatively few bankruptcies so far.
"A bullish sign would be not only a downturn in drilling activity, but also an increase in the rate of bankruptcy and other things. We think the (bank) redetermination in October is going to be a non-spectacular event. The redetermination in April will be a more spectacular event," if oil prices remain low, said Morse, who is global head of commodities research.
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The oil price is the bottom line for the industry when it comes to borrowing and if prices remain low, borrowing would be much tighter during the next bank review period in April. That could force bankruptcies, asset sales and mergers, Morse said.
"If nothing happens between now and October, there will be a lot more angst," Pickering said. "The distressed asset buyer and the private equity guys will be licking their lips to do some deals.... There's been a lot of money raised for energy private equity in the last 18 months."
Industry officials have said the tens of billions of dollars in private-equity funding sitting in the wings could in some ways help prolong the downturn in oil prices, as the availability of capital could very well help keep the industry drilling. But investors also look for stability, and volatile oil prices, like the recent drop from $60 into the mid-$40s, keeps capital sidelined.
"Where's there's lots of volatility, it's hard to act," said Pickering. "If we stay at $45 for a few months ... if nothing changes, things are going to get more active. If it goes down further, the worse it gets, the more nervous people will get, and the more catalysts there will be for companies to take action."
Yergin said the success of the drillers, their use of new technology and ability to extract more oil than ever, has in some ways hurt them more as prices fell.
Basically, the traditional shakeout in the market has not occurred. The self-correcting mechanism of less production did not kick in, while there had been expectations the U.S. industry would ultimately cut back output, instead of increasing it this year.
"Now resilient production is a problem for these companies...We think that to rebalance the market, U.S. production would have to fall by 600,000 barrels a day. With these financial pressures at this price range, it's more likely production, unlike in the first half of the year, would fall rather than increase," Yergin said.
Oil prices have been a moving target for Wall Street forecasters, and many now see a lower price than they forecast even several weeks ago. Yergin said unknowns for the price are the state of Chinese demand, as well as timing on Iran's return to the market.
"Certainly later in 2016, 2017, you'll see oil prices increase, higher prices than what we're seeing now. There's still going to be the winter and spring period. Demand goes down in the spring. I guess you could say already the prices we're seeing today reflect not only the market where it is, but also concerns about the first half of 2016," he said.
The oil market, meanwhile, is watching the fallout on the industry.
"I think everybody thought they were going to implode by now," said John Kilduff of Again Capital. "They haven't. They have amazing staying power. They're survivors. Is the day or reckoning in October or is the day of reckoning in April?"
Oil analysts have keyed in on borrowing and the October redetermination because they are trying to get a handle on how much the U.S. industry can produce and whether it is poised to cut back. While production increased about 600,000 barrels a day this year, it has stagnated for the past couple of months at a level of about 9.4 million barrels a day despite the shutdown of more than half the U.S. rigs.
The rapid growth in the U.S. industry has made it a swing producer of sorts, but instead of acting as a producer like Saudi Arabia with the government's hand on the switch, the U.S. industry's dozens of companies control the flow and they rely on capital.
"The U.S. is a swing producer. It just doesn't swing as much on the downside or upside as Saudi Arabia," said Morse.
As for Saudi Arabia, it ramped up its own production, after getting OPEC to agree to allow the market to set prices late last year. Saudi Arabia is now producing a record 10.5 million barrels a day. That has added pressure to the market, as has increased production from Iraq.
Gheit also says the U.S. industry's resilience has been surprising, and it has become more efficient, but the industry is still sitting on a high debt load.
"At the end of the day, borrowing is borrowing. Having this huge amount of debt is never, never good," Gheit said. "Especially, you see what the companies are doing right now. The oil companies are running on cash flow, not on earnings…. So all companies that I know of are not living within their means…. How long can that last?"
"Every company I know of, including Chevron, Exxon, BP, Apache, Anadarko, every company, you name it. They are all exceeding their cash flow. That's not sustainable. Something's got to give," he said. Gheit said the industry will have to look harder for cost cuts after already trimming spending, shutting down projects, laying off staff and trimming dividends.