Chesapeake Energy – What a basket case

Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) is the second largest natural gas producer in the USA.

It has a few claims to fame. The most positive and negative aspects of the company seem to be directly related to its CEO, Aubrey McClendon. Concentrating on the negative side of the story, is that McClendon formerly owned about 5% of the company, got liquidated out on a huge margin call in the 2008 economic crisis. He was forced to liquidate his stake in the company at very adverse market prices. This would be a pretty good signal to anybody that the main person at the top is one tremendous risk-taker, but that risk is a double edged sword.

The corporation’s board of directors are directly in McClendon’s pocket as they subsequently awarded him a $75 million bonus in deferred compensation relating to well drillings and other such matters, but this presumably related to rubbing a salve on the huge financial wound that was incurred back in 2008.

His financial troubles have recently re-emerged when it was revealed that he had partial ownership stakes in natural gas wells that were also jointly owned by the corporation and this created a conflict of interest with respect to liquidation. Basically the conflict is that McClendon was in a position to front-run his own company or otherwise receive preferential treatment. Compounding the matter was the rumour that he apparently has a billion dollars that he loaned to take such an interest in these wells.

It is not helping the company that natural gas prices have reached record lows, which will be depressing the company’s profit margins.

So why the heck would anybody want to invest in this basket case? The only rationale is that investors would have to believe that the board of directors would be overturned and they would be able to no longer be in the back pocket of management.

Perhaps the way out for the company is an outright buyout, but this is assuming there are no other lingering financial matters within a corporation that has management that does not exactly seem to be aligned with shareholders’ interests.

I haven’t had time to do a more rigorous financial analysis on the firm, but it appears to be another oil-and-gas type company that is blowing more money out on the capital expenditure side than receiving in operating cash flow, and with the decrease of natural gas prices, those capital expenditures will have to slow down quite quickly.

Despite all of these internal struggles, the bond market appears to be somewhat calm with the credit-worthiness of the company – an example would be their bonds maturing in 2020, trading from a yield to maturity of about 6% to about 7.25% in recent times over the past three months. Preferred shares are also trading at around the 6% level, which is odd to say the least.