The squeeze in the once-thriving oil and gas industry has led to a wave of bankruptcies that is now rivaling previous record busts. According to Reuters, citing the law Firm Hayes & Boon, bankruptcydata.com and its own data, 59 oil and gas companies have now filed for bankruptcy. (See also: 5 Energy Companies Crushed by Low Oil in 2016.)
The previous wave of bankruptcies to afflict a particular industry, the 2002-2003 telecom bust, saw 68. Charles Gibbs, restructuring partner at Akin Gump, told Reuters that the oil and gas industry may not be even halfway through the rout. After spiking above $100 as recently as the summer of 2014, oil prices began a sustained decline, falling to around $27 this past February.
Shale drillers, riding a wave of excitement at the successful deployment of a relatively new technology, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," took on massive debt loads when times were good, and perhaps ironically, they contributed to the supply glut that has driven prices down.
In a reversal of the once-prevailing wisdom, lower oil prices began to drag on market sentiment, and equity indices fell in line with a barrel of crude. That correlation has called into question the previous assumption, that low prices would put money in consumers' pockets, helping companies' sales and driving stock prices up.
Instead, low prices have led to worries that indebted companies would default, perhaps hurting the banks who lent to them. Bank stocks led the market decline in the early part of the year, but so far the more dire scenarios involving their oil-patch lending have not come to pass.
Acording to Reuters' data, U.S. oil and gas companies sold $350.7 billion in bonds between 2010 and 2014, with over 50% of the debt comprising high yield, or "junk" bonds. Compare that to the $177.1 billion telecoms companies borrowed from 1998 to 2002 – 10% of which was junk – and Gibbs' assertion that the bankruptcies aren't over seems plausible.
The most recent bankruptcies came this week, as Midstates Petroleum and Ultra Petroleum threw in the towel.