(Bloomberg) -- For U.S. shale drillers, the crash in oil prices came with a $26 billion safety net. That’s how much they stand to get paid on insurance they bought to protect themselves against a bear market -- as long as prices stay low.
The flipside is that those who sold the price hedges now have to make good. At the top of the list are the same Wall Street banks that financed the biggest energy boom in U.S. history, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co.
While it’s standard practice for them to sell some of that risk to third parties, it’s nearly impossible to identify who exactly is on the hook because there are no rules requiring disclosure of all transactions. The buyers come from groups like hedge funds, airlines, refiners and utilities.
“The folks who were willing to sell it were left holding the bag when prices moved,” said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, an energy hedge fund in New York.
The swift decline in U.S. oil prices -- $107.26 on June 20, $46.39 seven months later -- caught market participants by surprise. Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of Continental Resources Inc., cashed out his company’s protection in October, betting on a rebound. Instead, crude kept falling.
West Texas Intermediate oil futures rose $1.12 to $51.54 a barrel in New York at 9:41 a.m. London time. Prices are down 3.3 percent this year after plunging almost 50 percent in 2014.
Other companies purchased insurance. The fair value of hedges held by 57 U.S. companies in the Bloomberg Intelligence North America Independent Explorers and Producers index rose to $26 billion as of Dec. 31, a fivefold increase from the end of September, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Though it’s difficult to determine who will ultimately lose money on the trades and how much, a handful of drillers do reveal the names of their counterparties, offering a glimpse of how the risk of falling oil prices moved through the financial system. More than a dozen energy companies say they buy hedges from their lenders, including JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.
Danielle Romero-Apsilos, a Citigroup spokeswoman, said the bank actively hedges and manages its risk. Representatives of JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America declined to comment.
At the end of 2014, JPMorgan had about $671.5 million worth of derivatives exposure to five energy companies, including Pioneer Natural Resources Co., Concho Resources Inc., PDC Energy Inc. and Antero Resources Corp., according to company records. That’s the amount JPMorgan would have owed if the contracts were settled Dec. 31, not including any offsetting trades the bank made.
It’s a similar story for Wells Fargo, which was on the hook for $460.9 million worth of oil and natural gas derivatives for companies including Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc., Pioneer, Antero, Concho and PDC, according to regulatory filings.
These aren’t, of course, the kind of figures that would trigger any sort of systemic-risk concerns. Commodities are generally smaller parts of banks’ businesses compared with lending and underwriting, and banks hedge their oil-price risk.
New York-based JPMorgan had $2.57 trillion in assets at the end of last year compared with net liabilities for commodity derivatives of $2.3 billion, not including cash from settled trades and physical commodity assets, according to regulatory filings. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo had $1.69 trillion in total assets compared with net commodity liabilities of $241 million.
Still, $26 billion is $26 billion.
U.S. oil companies already netted at least $2.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2014 on their hedges, according to data compiled on 57 U.S. companies in the Bloomberg Intelligence index.
Oil companies would rather be losing money on the trades and making money selling crude at higher prices, Kilduff said.
“It’s like homeowners’ insurance,” he said. “You don’t buy it hoping the house burns down.”
The $26 billion of protection won’t last forever. Most hedging contracts expire this year, according to company reports. Buying new insurance today means locking in prices below $60 a barrel. The alternative is following Hamm’s example and having no cushion if crude keeps falling.
Financial institutions act as a go-between, selling oil derivatives to one company and buying from another while pocketing fees and profiting on the spread, said Charles Peabody, an analyst at Portales Partners LLC in New York. The question is whether the banks were able to adequately offset their risk when the market took a nosedive, he said.
“The banks always tell us that they try to lay off the risk,” Peabody said. “I know from history and practice that it’s great in concept, but it’s hard to do in reality.”
With assistance from Jake Rudnitsky in Moscow.
To contact the reporters on this story: Asjylyn Loder in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; Dakin Campbell in New York at email@example.com. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bob Ivry at firstname.lastname@example.org; Peter Eichenbaum at email@example.com Bruce Stanley, James Herron.
Copyright 2016 Bloomberg News.
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