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Bye-Bye McClendon, Hello Chesapeake Takeover?

January 30, 2013 2:24 pm
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Raise a glass to activist shareholders. Whether it was at the behest of Southeastern Asset Management, famed financier Carl Icahn or a combination of the two, Aubrey McClendon is departing as chief executive officer of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK), the company he founded.

Investors like the news. Shares of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake, the second-largest U.S. natural gas producer, are up about seven percent today on volume that is already quadruple the daily average. It is easy to see why Chesapeake investors, particularly those that have held the shares for a long time, are happy to bid adieu to McClendon. Before Wednesday’s seven percent gain, the shares had tumbled almost 36 percent in the past two years.

With McClendon’s departure, a significant obstacle to possible takeover of Chesapeake has been removed. Only Southeastern and Icahn themselves can confirm if their intent in acquiring Chesapeake shares was to angle for a sale of the company and it is worth noting that Chairman Archie Dunham assured employees Chesapeake is not for sale, according to Forbes.

The biggest obstacle to a sale of Chesapeake is not Dunham’s desire to keep the company independent. It is the suffocating $13 billion debt burden the company has to contend with, one that has forced tens of billions of dollars worth of asset sales in the past two years. That debt burden also significantly reduces the pool of potential Chesapeake suitors. As Forbes reported, with an enterprise value of $35 billion, the cost to acquire Chesapeake could be as high as $40 billion. Here are a few companies that could entertain a full acquisition of Chesapeake.

BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP)
Because it is the world’s largest mining company, often overlooked is the fact that BHP Billiton is also the world’s seventh-largest independent oil and gas producer. For baffling reasons, BHP has rarely been mentioned as a legitimate as a possible suitor for Chesapeake, though some astute sources called attention to possibility early last year.

Drilling down on the matter a bit more actually shows BHP is arguably the most credible of suitors for Chesapeake. The reality is Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) needs no more gas exposure, so rule that company out as a Chesapeake buyer right away. Chevron (NYSE: CVX), like Exxon, would be better served making a play for an oilier company such as Anadarko (NYSE: APC).

Back to BHP. The company bought $4.75 billion in Chesapeake shale assets two years ago and a deal to buy Chesapeake could be seen would be seen as a logical way of BHP building on its $12.1 billion buy of Petrohawk Energy. Not to mention, the Australian mining giant has the cash and strong credit rating to finance a mega deal.

BHP CEO Marius Kloppers has failed several times in the past to execute major acquisitions. A move on Chesapeake could provide his redemption.

Total (NYSE: TOT)
Europe’s third-largest oil company has previously been a buyer of Chesapeake shale acreage as well and like BHP, France-based Total does not present the potential political headache that a Chinese buyer would bring to the table in a bid for Chesapeake.

As of the second quarter of 2012, Total had over $19.1 billion in cash on hand, but there are questions regarding just how much the French company wants to boost its natural gas profile. According to its own corporate website, Total is already the fourth-largest publicly traded natural gas producer in the world.

Still, it is worth noting that the two companies signed a deal to partner in the oil-rich Utica Shale last year. As a major global integrated oil company, Total does business in some volatile locations such as Angola, Nigeria and Yemen. Further investing in more cost-efficient onshore plays in the less politically risky U.S. makes sense for any energy company. And yes, Total has previously been mentioned as a possible Chesapeake suitor.

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