As I review the financials of one of the largest shale producers in the United States, Whiting Petroleum (WLL), I can’t help but notice the parallels to the .COM era of 1999 which, to some extent, has already returned to the technology and biotech sectors of today. Back then, the faster you burned cash to capture customers regardless of earnings to drive your topline, the higher your valuation. The theory was that after capturing the customers (in energy today, it is the wells) spending would slow and so would customer additions allowing companies to generate cash. By the way, a classic recent case is none other than Netflix (NFLX) which, in the past was exposed for accounting gimmicks that continue even today. It is still following this path of burning cash for the sake of customer additions, while never generating any cash in its entire existence.
Cash was plentiful in 1999 so it could always be raised as the Federal Reserve began its easy money era creating a series of bubbles for the next 15 years. Does this sound familiar to what is occurring now? It will end the same way and that process has already started as currency wars heat up and our economy grinds to a halt proving QE does not, in fact, create wealth (temporary yes for the 1%, short term, until POP) but instead it destroys it by distorting asset prices, misallocating investments, and ultimately creating an equity crash.
We just witnessed this in energy, as all the economic stats that distorted the real underlying economic weakness in the economy led energy producers to overproduce while easy money fueled it and expanded speculation in the futures market. Back in 1999 did the internet companies adapt their business models? Some which still survive today did, but most went bankrupt. The parallels here with energy are simply stunning as most E&P companies need to spend well over their operational cash flow in order to not only grow but to replace the wells that are producing tied to depletion. Money is free right? Well we are witnessing the first stages now and it may not last, as junk bond investors in energy can attest.