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Has Chesapeake's Luster Returned?

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Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) is preparing to step to the plate to announce its results for the third quarter of this year. It's been a rough and rocky road for the company, and numerous questions remain about its future. So the combination of information contained in its earnings release and on its post-release conference call will be especially important for investors who might be seeking a bargain in the once-heralded company.

The third quarter, while an eventful one, clearly wasn't a record-setter at Chesapeake, which ranks second to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) in U.S. natural gas production. Analysts who follow the company have arrived at a consensus for its per-share-earnings line of about $0.10, a precipitous slide from $0.72 per share for the third quarter of 2011. Revenues are expected to reach about $2.43 billion, down from $3.98 billion a year ago, when the company was operating more assets and consciously producing more natural gas, which remains its forte.

As we move toward the results recitation, the 34 analysts who have posted ratings on Chesapeake generally aren't enthralled by the company. A total of 12 of the Wall Streeters rate the company a "Buy" or a "Strong Buy," while 21 others are perched on "Hold" ratings. One lone individual has the company pegged as an "Underperform."

One thing after another
As you likely know, the first half of 2012 was a traumatic period for Chesapeake, its shareholders, and almost certainly its employees. Most of the turmoil swirled around the company's flamboyant co-founder and CEO, Aubrey McClendon, who disclosed that he had taken down $1.33 billion in personal loans from EIG Global Energy Partners using his stakes in then undrilled Chesapeake wells as collateral. The primary rub there was that EIG was simultaneously arranging financing for the company.

Further, it was announced that McClendon and Chesapeake's other co-founder, Tom Ward, now CEO of SandRidge Energy (NYSE: SD  ) , had jointly run a $200 million hedge fund between 2004 and 2008. That venture was hardly part of either man's Chesapeake duties, and may have constituted a conflict of interest.

All aboard
As the second quarter reached its conclusion, because of an obvious lack of board of directors' oversight at the company, a reconstituted board was appointed, including five new members of the nine-person contingent. Archie W. Dunham, a former chairman of ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) replaced McClendon as the board's chairman. The third quarter, then, was the first full period under the direction of the new group.

During the same period, Chesapeake's financial status also was in clear need of attention. Through the years the company had compiled easily the most impressive portfolio of properties on the U.S. unconventional energy scene. But the price was a balance sheet that groaned under a veritable mountain of debt. As a result, the most recent quarter has been characterized by sales of several assets, with the resulting remuneration being applied to debt reduction.

Ringing up the sales
For instance, as the third quarter began, the company completed the sale to Global Infrastructure Partners of Chesapeake's ownership interests in Chesapeake Midstream Partners for $2.0 billion. The sale resulted in a pre-tax gain to Chesapeake of about $1 billion.

Last week Chesapeake completed the sale of assets packages in the Permian Basin. One portion went to a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) , another was sold to a unit of Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , and a third became the property of Houston-based EnerVest. Together the properties, which produced about 21,000 barrels of liquids and 90 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, resulted in net proceeds to Chesapeake of approximately $3.3 billion. About $2.8 billion was received at closing, with the remainder subject to some remaining title and environmental contingencies.

Chesapeake shares have improved by about 48% since the May zenith of the turmoil within the company. To date, from the close of the second quarter, the those shares have risen by approximately 8.5%. I must note, however, that, despite its efforts to increase the percentage of liquids in its production mix, Chesapeake remains largely a natural gas company. That, however, may not be all bad: As you likely have noted, U.S. gas prices have risen relatively steadily since their low early in the summer. Indeed, they're now within striking distance of $4.00.

On that basis, I'd urge Fools to carefully add Chesapeake to My Watchlist, and, if possible, to listen to the company's post-release call on Thursday.

David Lee Smith has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool has the following options: long JAN 2013 $16.00 calls on Chesapeake Energy, short JAN 2014 $15.00 puts on Chesapeake Energy, long JAN 2014 $20.00 calls on Chesapeake Energy, and long JAN 2014 $30.00 calls on Chesapeake Energy. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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