Aubrey McClendon Should Find His Own SandRidge To Play In
CHK has had a variety of public ethical and governance failings and this is not the first time Mr. McClendon's personal affairs have impacted the company. In 2008 he was forced to liquidate his holdings in CHK equity because the stock price plunged in the financial crisis and Mr. McClendon had been using margin debt to accumulate shares. In 2009, he sold his antique map collection to CHK for several million dollars (and realized a gain). For many years he has been allowed to buy a 2.5% stake in every well CHK drills, unique among public oil and gas companies. The list goes on and on. Despite repeated shareholder calls for better governance and a more activist board of directors, very little has been done to clean the place up. After shareholder lawsuits settled in 2011, the board agreed to appoint a lead independent director, hire a compensation consultant, and make some other minor changes. Clearly this has not solved the problem. Consequently, the market appears to be assigning a significant governance or "McClendon" discount compared with peers.
What is especially frustrating to a value investor like me about the heavy discount this company carries is that CHK is actually a collection of jewel assets that would be worth much more under another management team. CHK is currently the number two producer of natural gas in the US and is rapidly climbing the ranks of the nation's top oil producers. Even better, CHK has so many unexploited drilling opportunities just waiting to be tapped that the company is literally struggling to fund all of the extremely attractive wells it could have running. Oil majors (Exxon, Total, Statoil, etc.) simply do not have the ability to organically increase reserves and production the way CHK can. The majors struggle to replace the reserves that they use up by producing oil and gas every year, which is why you periodically see them go out and buy a medium sized exploration and production company with lots of untapped reserves. This is also the reason Exxon acquired XTO Energy in 2010 (XTO at the time was a large oil and gas producer with ample untapped reserves). The assets CHK is sitting on would be a treasure trove to an oil major which has more cash than good drilling opportunities. Yet with Mr. McClendon and his muzzled board of directors in place, CHK continues to plod along, creating long term value but universally hated by investors.
The latest scandal and the resulting plunge in CHK's stock price is yet another ndicator that the company needs to be cleaned up. If it cannot or will not do so, this collection of jewel assets should be managed by someone else, most likely via a sale of the company. We saw a brief glimpse of a possible clean-up or sale in late 2010 when Carl Icahn began acquiring a material stake in the company. Mr. Icahn is well known as an activist investor and the shares began rising as investors anticipated some action. For reasons which are not clear, Mr. Icahn sold his interest in the company in the first half of 2011, which took a lot of pressure for change off CHK's management and board.
It high time that CHK be cleaned up. The institutional investors who own large stakes need to make it clear that this sort of behavior is unacceptable. If Mr. McClendon and his pet board of directors cannot or will not change, they need to be ousted and the company sold to the highest bidder. Mr. McClendon has been an innovator in this industry, but he obviously does not understand how to run a major US public company. I would recommend that he follow his former partner's lead. Mr. Ward left CHK a few years ago and started SandRidge (SD), a growth oriented exploration and production company on a far smaller scale than CHK. Mr. McClendon should find his own SandRidge to play in and stop milking public shareholders at CHK.
Do I hear an opening bid?
As always, do your own due diligence, consult your advisors, do not construe anything here as investment advice, and BE CAREFUL. There are an inifinite number of ways to lose money.
Disclosure: I am long CHK equity and options.