While we can debate about which adjective to use, 2015 was an abysmal year for LINN Energy (NASDAQOTH:LINEQ) investors. Like most of its peers, the company was caught flat footed by the steep slide in crude prices. It wasn't hedged well enough heading into the downturn, which led to much weaker-than-expected cash flow. That caused concern that the company's hefty debt load would sink it into bankruptcy if commodity prices don't begin to recover. Those concerns led to a lot of bad headlines for the company. Here's a look back at some of the worst from the year.
1. "Linn Energy LLC Caves to Pressure From Plunging Oil Prices" -- The Motley Fool
LINN Energy to the year started off on the wrong foot after it was forced to slash its capex and distribution by more than 50% in response to the deepening downturn in the oil market. This was the first ever payout reduction for LINN and it was in response to the fact that the company's cash flow wouldn't cover its projected cash outflows for distributions, capex and, interest payments based on the company's commodity price expectations for $60 oil and $3.50 for natural gas. In slashing the payout the company expected to not only be able to fully cover all its cash needs, but it expected to produce excess cash flow, which would be used to bolster its weak balance sheet.
LINN was far from the only upstream MLP to lower its distribution this year. Vanguard Natural Resources (NASDAQOTH:VNRSQ) actually followed LINN's lead by reducing its distribution roughly 50% a month later. Vanguard Natural Resources noted that the new rate was much better supported by its projected cash flows for the year. That said, Vanguard Natural Resources did reduce its payout again just recently after commodity prices continued to weaken.
2. "Linn Energy: There Goes the Dividend" -- Barron's
Like Vanguard, LINN Energy thought that it was being conservative in its commodity price assumptions for the year. However, it turns out that both companies, like most of the rest of the industry, underestimated the potential for commodity prices to continue to weaken. As a result of this continued weakness, LINN chose to suspend its distribution in July in a move that it expected would save it roughly $450 million per year, which was cash it planned to use to repair its balance sheet.
3. "Linn Energy CFO exits for 'other opportunities'" -- Reuters
Shortly after suspending its distribution, LINN Energy announced that its longtime CFO Kolja Rockov had left the company to "pursue other opportunities." It was a curious time for the embattled CFO to leave, after rumors surfaced that he was having financial troubles. In fact, the Wall Street Journal had reported earlier in the year that he received a margin call forcing him to sell half his units at a steeply discounted price. Those financial troubles aside, it wasn't exactly a surprise to see him leave given that he was the financial architect behind LINN Energy and therefore he played a big role in its deepening financial troubles.
While no one could have predicted how steeply oil prices would fall this year, LINN Energy clearly bet too heavily that oil prices wouldn't crash. That's why, under the financial leadership of Rockov, the company took on a boatload of debt and didn't fully hedge its production. Those decisions turned out to be the wrong ones in hindsight and fueled this year's crash in the unit price. Only time will tell if irreparable damage has been done to the company, with it really needing some help from higher oil and gas prices to lift it out of its deep hole.