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Appetite for Energy M&A Still Limited, Says Deloitte

Uncertainty about the length and impact of the oil price collapse over the past 18 months has led to an atmosphere of price disparity between buyers and sellers, which contributed to low levels of merger activity in 2015, Deloitte LLP experts said this week.

With no one sure when and how prices will rise, merger and acquisition (M&A) activity could remain low this year until influencing factors such as lender pressures or commodity pricing narrow the bid/ask spread for transactions, according to the firm's year-end 2015 report, Waiting for a Rebound, which was compiled by the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions. The report was spearheaded by Vice Chairman John England, U.S. oil and gas leader.

By Deloitte's calculations, M&A volumes last year were lower than during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. Deal count declined by more than half (53%) to 379 from 709 in 2014. Deal values also fell, down 20% year/year.

Exploration and production (E&P) was the busiest for dealmaking,  representing close to two-thirds of the number  and about half of total valuations in aggregate. North America led the way.

A lot of forecasters expected M&A activity to hit new heights last year, but those assumptions never proved to be accurate.

"Companies faced with a distressing time financially, were able to find other avenues of cost-cutting rather than selling assets or being acquired," Deloitte noted. "Lending agencies provided cost-cutting initiatives, such as settling hedge contracts and providing new equity, which caused potential sellers to not be as desperate to sell as buyers would have liked."

In addition, the "intense fluctuation" of activity hit a catalyst in 2014 as oil prices began to dive and cost containment became necessary for businesses to survive.

The "unfortunate combination" of sellers wanting to postpone selling assets, and buyers refusing to wait for the industry to continue to decline, led M&A activity to fluctuate last year.

In the upstream, the E&P sector faced the lowest year since 2012 for transactions and deal values. Globally, conventional assets made up 60% of total transactions, but unconventional assets garnered the focus of mostly the United States.

"E&P companies continued to make low-risk development decisions, as most deals in 2015 were acquisitions of producing fields at 123 compared to mergers at 43," researchers noted.

This year, M&A activity among E&Ps should become more active as hedging contracts expire and lenders close their doors to further equity.

"Some financially stronger producers could acquire tier one assets from distressed sales, but other deals will likely be curtailed as cash is conserved and debt is kept to a minimum as remaining hedge contracts at economic commodity pricing levels are settled," Deloitte noted.

The oilfield services (OFS) sector also recorded a big decline in dealmaking from 2014 to 2015, with values falling 64% and transactions off 70%. North America again is the biggest player,  taking two-thirds (67%) of total value in transactions last year. Meanwhile, niche service providers are expected to continue exiting the sector, while larger OFS operators position themselves for the upturn in prices. However, Deloitte expects to see "limited" M&A opportunities across the sector.

There could be OFS deals "if exceptionally low prices entice buyers to enter the market or pending mergers of two of the largest players spur action by mid-tier players interested in growing offerings or enhancing economies of scale," researchers noted. Still awaiting final regulatory approvals are the Halliburton Co. and Baker Hughes Inc. tie-up and the takeover of Cameron International Inc. by Schlumberger Ltd.

Midstream deals remained fairly constant last year from 2014 at 50, while values ran slightly above at about $96 billion. Again, it was all about North America, with nearly all -- 90% -- of the transactions taking place in the region.

"Natural gas and oil storage facilities, as well as the gathering and processing business, saw a number of small transactions and saw the most activity in 2015," Deloitte noted. Master limited partnerships (MLP) also are drawing less interest.

The midstream sector "has a more complex environment to navigate in the coming year," said Deloitte. " The MLP model could become less attractive to investors as expansion opportunities diminish, potentially prompting managers to reconsider the MLP structure. "Gathering and processing subsectors followed shale gas producers into the Marcellus and other expanding shale frontiers, but 2016 may find those midstream businesses continuing to consolidate as a substitute for organic growth -- a common strategy during industry contraction."

Against a backdrop of depressed prices and heightened market uncertainty, several strategies extended funding availability last year. But can it continue? Deloitte researchers aren't sure.

"A crucial question going into 2016 is whether and when market conditions will evolve sufficiently to diminish the barriers to M&A and unlock a more sustained deal flow."

UK-based consultant Mergermarket recently issued its 2015 Energy, Mining & Utilities Trend Report as well, covering global trends last year and going forward.

"While overall global M&A activity reached an all-time high during 2015, energy, mining and utilities fell 5.3% short of 2014 deal value, registering 1,331 deals worth $637.7 billion, down from 1,703 deals worth $673.7 billion in 2014," researchers said.

Energy was hit the hardest across the sub-sectors, with an estimated 957 total deals worth $547.7 billion announced, a 6.8% decrease by value compared with 2014 (1,314 deals, $587.5 billion) as well as 357 fewer deals."

One bright spot for deal activity this year could be in energy storage.

"Usage of energy storage systems is expected to explode in the coming year, driving an increase in M&A in the space," said Mergermarket researchers. "Government mandates for storage, attempts to make renewable energy a baseload power source, and efforts to shape the demand curves of large commercial and industrial power customers will set the stage for M&A."

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