Last year started out with such promise for Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE:CHK). With a new CEO driving a different vision, the company was expected to turn the corner and begin to drive real value for investors. Instead, the stock dropped just over 22% as plunging oil prices upended what had been a pretty good year. Here are a few things the company should do in order to avoid a repeat of the stock's poor performance in 2015.
Make good on the stock buy back
At the very end of last year, Chesapeake Energy unloaded its southern Marcellus and Utica shale assets in a nearly $5 billion cash deal. With that cash, the company announced that its board authorized it to buy back $1 billion worth of its stock. While corporate America has a pretty poor track record of buying back stock, I still think Chesapeake Energy should make good on its promise and complete the buyback as soon as possible.
It's hard to argue with the logic of this buyback, as the stock is now more than 35% off of its 52-week high and 71% off of its all-time high. A billion dollars would go a long way, as the company could reduce its outstanding share count by nearly 8%, which is pretty meaningful. What I'd be concerned with is that the company waits too long to buy back shares and doesn't get them at the current discount.
Do something with the rest of its cash windfall
The reason I don't think Chesapeake should be cautious with its buyback is because it has plenty of cash at the moment as it has yet to announce plans for the other $4 billion it received from selling its Southern Marcellus and Utica shale assets.
In fact, the company has about $9 billion in total liquidity that it can use to enhance shareholder value. That's a lot of capital it can put to use as it could be a buyer in what should be a very compelling buyers' market this year. This was hinted at by CEO Doug Lawler in the press release announcing the closing of the deal; he said the company will "be focused on additional strategic growth opportunities to enhance our asset portfolio and continue to improve our ability to deliver top quartile growth metrics and shareholder returns." This suggests the company is on the lookout for acquisitions to bolster its opportunities in the year ahead.
I'd like to see the company take advantage of the weakness of its rivals to buy assets at fire sale prices. With so many of its highly levered peers heading for trouble, Chesapeake Energy could really go on the offensive thanks to its very robust liquidity. This would be a reversal of fortunes for the company as its assets were pilfered when natural gas prices plunged.
Only drill what's necessary
We've seen most shale-focused drillers slash capex by 50%, or more. However, most are still pursuing production growth by spending all of their cash flow to drill new wells. I'd like to see Chesapeake Energy refrain from drilling just to drill, and instead only drill its most profitable opportunities in order to keep production roughly flat. There's simply no reason to grow production when the market doesn't need any more oil and gas at the moment.
Because shale wells decline so fast, the company is better off keeping the oil and gas in the ground until prices pick up. By holding on to its cash, it can easily accelerate drilling later in the year should commodity prices rebound. Further, it's a widely held view that oil-field service prices will come down over the course of the year, so it can get more bang for its buck if it simply defers its growth for the time being.
Chesapeake Energy entered 2015 in a strong position, which provides it the opportunity to exit even stronger. It can do so if it buys back stock and then focuses on acquiring cheap growth rather than drilling for it. By focusing on these three things, the company could really position itself to create a lot of long-term value for its investors that can be harvested once commodity prices improve.