The seemingly never-ending free fall for oil prices could eventually bankrupt a third of energy producers, and at least one analyst says the current “bust” is worse than the mid-1980s downturn.
“The current oil price downturn is now deeper and longer than any other downturn over the last 45 years,” Morgan Stanley analyst Martijn Rats said in a report released Monday.
A year ago, Rats pointed to a number of similarities between the current oil price drop and the one in 1986. “Still, we expected that ultimately such a bearish scenario would not materialise. This has turned out to be too optimistic,” Rats said.
Oil sagged briefly to a 12-year low of less than $30 Tuesday before recovering to $30.44 per barrel. Prices have fallen from more than $100 since mid-2014. Some analysts have said the bottom lies near $10 a barrel.
LSU Center for Energy Studies Executive Director David Dismukes said it’s hard to say whether the current bust could be worse than 1986 for Louisiana.
“I think it will be different. The economy’s more diversified now,” Dismukes said. “It’s mostly a service-sector downturn for us because there’s not a huge number of companies that actually have the assets.”
The state’s oil and gas industry lost 10,100 jobs, or 19 percent, for the 12 months ending Nov. 30, the latest figures available. But economists say those numbers are miniscule compared with the carnage in the 1980s, when oil tanked and so did the state’s economy.
Louisiana’s unemployment rate — not adjusted for seasonal changes — hit double digits in 1982 and languished there through 1988. Describing a drilling company as bankrupt was practically redundant.
The state’s jobless rate was 5.9 percent in November.
Gregg Gothreaux, president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, said the energy industry was much larger in the 1980s, and the population smaller, so the downturn’s impact was that much greater.
Roughly 70 percent of Lafayette’s economy was tied to oil and gas then, compared with 45 percent today, he said. Lafayette probably lost half or more of its oil and gas jobs then.
The metro area’s oil and gas employment is down a little more than 11 percent over the year. Gothreaux said Lafayette still relies on the energy industry, but the area’s economy is more diverse.
Dismukes said Louisiana’s exploration and production industry already has been through a recent downturn. The Haynesville Shale, a natural gas formation in north Louisiana, boomed and then petered out in 2012 as production sliced the price of natural gas from a high of $13 per thousand cubic feet to about $1.80.
These days, most of the areas with large numbers of oil and gas production jobs at risk lie in out-of-state shale formations, including the Utica and Marcellus, which cover parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, Dismukes said.
Low prices forced U.S.-based energy companies to slash 95,000 jobs in 2015, according to consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Oil giant BP announced Tuesday it will cut about 4,000 exploration and production jobs this year.
And the cutting isn’t over.
The Wall Street Journal reports that 18 months from now, up to 30 percent of U.S. oil and gas firms could be seeking federal bankruptcy court protection while the companies restructure.
Publicly traded U.S. and Canadian production companies owe a collective $353 billion in debt, much of that used to finance drilling campaigns, according to The Journal. Even though oil prices have plummeted, the firms have no choice but to keep producing to pay their debts.
That doesn’t bode well for ending the glut that triggered oil’s slide.
Dismukes said it appears the current low oil prices are going to be around for a while. The forward contracts prices for crude — the marketplace that sets the price for future delivery — don’t have oil at $40 until January 2017, he said. The price isn’t expected to reach $50 before 2020.
While that’s good for consumers — low oil prices mean lower gasoline prices — it’s not so good for Louisiana. Over a year, the state loses about $12 million in mineral revenue for every $1 drop in the price of oil.
The long-term price of oil will depend in large part on China’s economy, Dismukes said.
China is the world’s second-largest economy. The country’s slowdown has meant less demand for oil, which is adding to the pressure on prices.
The question is whether one believes China is going to be down for years, Dismukes said, because that’s what a long-term bet on low oil prices amounts to.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.