The first to go will be companies with weak or ineffective management, or without a solid project with near-term production and significant company-making potential.
So-called lifestyle companies can no longer just raise funds and disappear as so many explorers do during the boom times, and the so-called “bottom-feeders” are now all too obvious among the penny dreadful stocks by their high levels of directors’ fees and administration budgets and record of over-promising and under-delivering since the boom started in 2008.
Explorers need to be active, because retail investors or institutions don't want their money parked in an inactive junior explorer, they want the thrill of a drill, and if juniors aren’t going to offer that they’re going to go elsewhere.
The hard truth is, juniors without strong balance sheets are unlikely to make it towards the end of the year or into 2016 unless they are well capitalised now, or have a project of such astounding value that someone will be willing to take a bet on it.
Sadly, plenty of companies with cash are not even being valued at cash backing, which shows just how anaemic the average punter’s interest is in speculative stocks.
If there is a positive it is that the resulting shake-up should sort the wheat from the chaff, removing companies from the market with no prospect of ever developing a project, no burning desire to advance prospects to drilling, or no real strategy beyond the next long lunch over a few carafes of the house red at Romany.
This “new broom approach” could see the re-release of areas and projects that, with the right management, funding and new ideas, could shape up into winners.
Buru Energy is doing something like that in the Canning Basin, and Carnarvon Petroleum and Finder Exploration have done just that in the Bedout Sub-basin, because now is the time to push ahead with new ideas given exploration costs have come down an average of 20% from their peak, and drilling rigs are now becoming available.
How to fund that? There’s the rub.
Brokers are now telling junior explorers there’s no money around, and there’s more value in using the sell in the IT or healthcare spaces. And, as the markets have shown, money is being thrown at all manner of unusual ideas in scenes similar to the dot-com bubble of 2000.
You can no longer go off to the US or Canada, secure some leases and wait for the big Americans to drill out unconventional plays in your direction, and nor can you block out huge swathes of the advanced Australian basins, complete some G&G work and bank on a farminee funding your well.
Juniors need to be attractive to retail investors and smaller and mid-sized funds in a market now dominated by daytraders.
Twenty years ago, large investors would make longer-term decisions, but an increasing complaint in the modern market is that the spivs and speculators are in charge and they, and are looking for quick returns, while the hedge funds and the high frequency traders have distorted the reality of commodity trading.
It remains to be seen if equity investors will come out of the woodwork, looking for bargains in the resources sector given the strong fundamentals still offered by long term growth in markets such as China and India, despite the temporary oil and gas glut.
Because, as sure as night follows day or winter rolls into summer, busts are always followed by booms.
In the meantime, it is important for juniors to keep swimming in tough times.
Explorers need to grow or go, and there is no shortage of wild and whacky “disruptive technologies” in the latest IT boom that will happily take investors’ money for, say, a chance to sell candy based on a popular web app game.
There is no point complaining about the state of the market, especially now the junior sector’s performance is less of an extrapolation of past boom and bust cycles.
It is a time to plan ahead, and prepare for the next upswing.
The days of just banging together a quick IPO and running off and doing something will probably come again, they usually do, but in the meantime less traditional means of funding: bookbuilds, private funding and even bond raisings may be the best method of riding out the next two years of low oil prices.
It’s time to note promising plays and in form management teams and watch what they do.
Of course, extending the Commonwealth’s exploration incentive scheme from the minerals to the oil patch would also help, because with the oil price in the doldrums no one is going to bet on drilling in many of Australia’s untapped basins with any great vigour.