Speculating on a BP Bankruptcy With LEAP Puts

| About: BP p.l.c. (BP)

2012 BP (NYSE:BP) puts offer some interesting possibilities. I’m using them as a speculative bet on a worst-case Gulf scenario, but they could also make a nice hedge for longs.

Jan ’12 BP LEAP puts expire 566 days from today (7/14/2010). That’s a lot of time for something to go wrong.

For example, there will be two hurricane seasons between then and now. Just one poorly-placed hurricane could push millions of gallons of crude further into sensitive areas along the Gulf Coast, multiplying the eventual bill for BP. Warm water conditions mean NOAA is forecasting an abnormally high 13-23 named storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Potential Profit from BP Puts

Let’s use Jan ’12 $2.50 BP puts as an example. They closed with an ask price of $0.16 today. One hundred contracts at that price would cost $1600 + commission. Each put gives its holder the right to sell 100 shares of BP stock at $2.50 on date of expiration (Jan 21 2012 in this case).

If BP shares are wiped out, the maximum potential profit on 100 $2.50 puts would be $23,138 (assuming a $.02 share price at option expiration). Max loss is the initial cost of the puts, $1600 plus commission.

So the max ROI would be 1446%, or around 14x the initial investment. BP filing for bankruptcy is still a highly hypothetical scenario, but I think the risk/reward ratio is good here.

The fact that you can make 14x your money on these options means investors are essentially betting on a 1 in 14 chance of BP going bust by the expiration date, Jan 21 2012. I think there’s more like 1 in 4 chance of bankruptcy, hence the bet.

Buying the $2.50 puts is an aggressive strategy. It’s betting on total disaster. A more conservative strategy use puts closer to the money ($15, $25, etc). The potential upside would be less, but it’s a little bit safer. I own a few different 2012 strikes, including some $2.50s.

BP is an international giant with deep pockets and political clout to match. But its risks are high too. The litigation costs alone will be staggering. Other potential potholes include legislation, reputation, well casing degradation, environmental devastation, and other “ations” we have yet to fully grasp.

On the legislation front, today the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed an amendment which could effectively ban BP from future offshore drilling leases. More on that over at Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

For BP, it all adds up to unknown liabilities, slower growth, and higher drilling costs going forward (no more shortcuts, hopefully). That’s why I think that even a behemoth like BP could buckle under the weight of this mess.

Bankruptcy Scenario

One big question that would emerge from a BP bankruptcy is how claim seniority is handled. Would bondholders and other creditors retain seniority over economic and environmental claims?

I’m guessing common shareholders would be wiped. But a Bear Stearns-esque buyout, with Exxon (NYSE:XOM) or Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) reprising the role of J.P. Morgan (NYSE:JPM) and U.K. gov’t subbing in for the Yanks is certainly possible. We won’t know until the situation plays out and the full extent of the damage is known.

Further harm to BP investors would be unfortunate. It’s a staple of retirement funds and the demise would have widespread financial impact. However, if it comes down to a lack of funds at some point, it would be an even greater tragedy to punish innocent parties adversely affected by the spill, and shortchange cleanup efforts in favor of investors. An investment comes with risks, always. If someone has to suffer, it’s gotta be stakeholders of the at-fault party.

But that probably won’t happen based on what I’ve read. In the fallout from asbestos/mesothelioma bankruptcies, creditors were placed above victims in most cases (as I understand it). More on that here.

Disclosure: Long BP puts including Jan 2012 $2.50s