By Simon Lack
Chesapeake (CHK) has long been the flag bearer for the natural gas industry. Aubrey McClendon has been front and center in making the case for shale drilling and the abundant natural gas reserves it is revealing. To many this is a game changer for U.S. energy consumption.
Aubrey McClendon has also shown a tendency to get over his skis in terms of his own risk profile, most notably in 2008 when personal loans he had taken out to buy CHK stock almost bankrupted him. In 2008 he was the highest paid CEO, earning $112MM which was intended to offset somewhat the $1.9BN he lost on leveraged holdings of CHK stock as it sank from $74 to $16.52 where he sold most of it to meet a margin call. For this reason, while we are bullish on certain natural gas E&P names, we long ago concluded that Mr. McClendon risk appetite wasn't the same as ours.
There's little doubt he's a big believer in natural gas. But Aubrey's not content with owning 3.25 million shares of stock; he also has an unusual deal that allows him to personally invest in individual wells that the company drills. It now turns out that he has taken out $1BN in personal loans top pay for these stakes. This is described by their general counsel as "aligning his interests with those of other investors" according to an article in the FT. Well, I guess so, but why not use that cash to buy more shares in CHK? By cherry picking amongst the assets CHK owns, he creates at least the potential for a conflict of interest and certainly the appearance of one.
It reflects on Mr. McClendon's tendency to push risk to its limits. The fact that the company didn't reveal the loans necessary to finance his purchases until reported by Reuters doesn't help, and is contributing to today's 5% drop in the stick price. But there are plenty of other companies to choose from that are run by less accident-prone managements. If CHK stock doubles because of positive developments in natural gas, other names in the sector will do well too. But CHK investors bear additional risks specific to the company for which they're not obviously rewarded. Why provide capital to CHK by investing in their stock when their CEO shows such questionable judgment?
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.