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Oil boom fuelled by junk debt faces US$19 billion wave of defaults

[NEW YORK] Investors are facing US$19 billion in energy defaults as the worst oil crash in a generation leaves drillers struggling to stay afloat.

The wave could begin within days if Energy XXI Ltd, SandRidge Energy Inc. and Goodrich Petroleum Corp. fail to reach agreements with creditors and shareholders. Those are three of at least eight oil and gas producers that have announced missed debt payments, triggering a countdown to default.

"Shale was a hot growth area and companies made the mistake of borrowing too much," said George Schultze, founder and chief investment officer of Schultze Asset Management in New York, which has been betting against several distressed energy companies.

"It's amazing that so many people were willing to lend them money. Many are going to file for bankruptcy, and bondholders and equity are going to get wiped out en masse."

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Bondholders are paying dearly for backing a shale boom that was built on high-yield credit. Since the start of 2015, 48 oil and gas producers have gone bankrupt owing more than US$17 billion, according to law firm Haynes and Boone. Fitch Ratings Ltd predicts US$70 billion of energy, metal and mining defaults this year, and notes that US$77 billion of energy bonds are bid below 50 cents, according to a note Thursday.

A representative at Energy XXI declined to comment. Representatives for SandRidge and Goodrich didn't respond to requests seeking comment.

"Absent a material improvement in oil and gas prices or a refinancing or some restructuring of our debt obligations or other improvement in liquidity, we may seek bankruptcy protection," Energy XXI said in a March 7 public filing.

Goodrich Petroleum is asking shareholders and bond investors to approve a restructuring deal that would convert its unsecured debt and preferred shares into common stock. For the plan to work, shareholders must approve it at a March 14 meeting and enough bondholders need to participate by the March 16 exchange deadline.

"Absent a successful completion of the recapitalisation plan, the company will have no alternatives other than to seek protection through the bankruptcy courts," Walter Goodrich, chairman and chief executive officer, said on a March 9 conference call.

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