The stock market continued to lose ground on Thursday, with investors taking no solace from efforts to stem the economic impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Even extraordinary measures like an infusion of liquidity from the Federal Reserve wasn't enough to produce more than a momentary recovery for major market benchmarks, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI), S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC), and Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) are all now squarely in bear market territory after losing another 9% to 10% today.

Today's stock market

Index

Percentage Change

Point Change

Dow

(9.99%)

(2,353)

S&P 500

(9.51%)

(261)

Nasdaq Composite

(9.43%)

(750)

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Energy stocks have been front and center all week as the plunge in oil prices has created new disruptions to the global economy. Surprisingly, Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) was a rare winner in the stock market today, due to interest from a well-known investor. Meanwhile, Marathon Petroleum (NYSE:MPC) was among the hardest-hit companies in the sector, with shareholders fearing that an announced sale of assets comes at the worst possible time and signals a desperate need for the company to raise capital to maintain its debt.

Icahn makes a move

Occidental Petroleum saw its shares rise about 1%, bucking the downtrend that sent most other energy stocks sharply lower. The integrated oil company has seen its stock fall plenty in past sessions, but it apparently was cheap enough to draw interest from one of its past critics.

Pipeline complex, with a worker in blue overalls and a hat looking from a walkway.

Image source: Occidental Petroleum.

Activist investor Carl Icahn disclosed that he had boosted his stake in Occidental to almost 10%, almost quadrupling his position as of the end of 2019. The move, which was included in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, indicated that Icahn spent more than $2.2 billion to purchase 88.6 million shares.

Yet Occidental shareholders shouldn't take the move as a vote of confidence from Icahn. The activist investor is still angry that Occidental made a pricy purchase of fellow energy producer Anadarko Petroleum at what basically proved to be the top of the market. Icahn is calling for the replacement of the board of directors, with the implication that a new board would also choose to hold CEO Vicki Hollub responsible for what he characterized as a financial disaster.

If oil prices can recover, then Occidental's acquisition might still turn out OK. But with huge amounts of debt outstanding, the clock is ticking for energy markets to bounce back in time to give Occidental the cash flow it needs to improve its balance sheet.

Marathon hits the wall

Elsewhere in energy, shares of Marathon Petroleum plunged 27%. The refiner and gas station marketing company is apparently looking at a potential sale of assets, but investors worry that selling off core pipeline assets at a particularly inopportune time could cause irrevocable damage to its business model.

Marathon Petroleum is looking at selling off assets from its MPLX master limited partnership subsidiary, with the hope of raising $15 billion, according to a report from Reuters. The move responds to criticism from activist investors, who argued that the company needed to sell off some non-core assets in order to reduce its debt levels and provide better value for investors.

Yet investors seem skeptical about a deal getting done. That's understandable, given the disappointment that resulted last week when Marathon's plans to sell off its Speedway retail gas station business to the company controlling 7-Eleven locations fell through.

Like many energy companies, Marathon Petroleum has a lot of debt outstanding. It's unclear just how pressing the need is to raise cash, but at least today, shareholders think that the company isn't doing what it needs to do in order to prove that it can withstand the huge pressures that plunging crude oil prices are putting on the entire industry.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.