Obviously there are few companies in the US less popular than BP right
now. They may even have overtaken GS as the least well regarded big
company there. Listening to the talk in the US media, and from US
politicians, bankruptcy is on the cards, along with seizure of all
assets and perhaps public lynchings for all senior executives.
Looking beyond the media storm though, BP is now dropping to a
support level that has held for many years:
In the bankruptcy talk there also seems to be an assumption that BP is a
single monolithic entity, which it isn't. The US operation owning the
well is BP America Production, which is a fully owned and limited
liability subsidiary of BP Company North America Inc, which is the same
in turn to BP Corporation North America Inc, which is the same to BP
America Inc, which is the same to BP Holdings North America Ltd, which
is the same to the overall parent company BP Plc.
That is a lot of layers of limited liability, and while anti-Brit
sentiment in the US, and therefore the US courts, is running high, the
top two companies in the chain would fall under the jurisdiction of the
British courts, where anti-Brit sentiment is at a low ebb.
Here's the BP corporate structure with the affected BP subsidiaries
Looking around for info on the web, the view seems to be that the whole
operation in the US has assets of $50bn, against BP assets of $160bn
Estimates of potential liability are hard while the leak is ongoing, but
the highest consensus view seems to be up to $50bn, for a company
generating over $20bn a year worldwide. That liability may in any case be shared with other companies involved with the well, including Transocean, the rig owner, Halliburton, Mitsui and Anadarko, among others.
Liability on these offshore wells is capped in US law to $75m, not
including class action and other lawsuits I think. US politicians are
looking at changing that retrospectively, but these sorts of targeted
retrospective law changes, while perfectly normal in (say) Russia or
Venezuela, have been traditionally regarded with hostility by both US
and international courts, and with good reason as they are a direct
attack on the rule of law.
However BP has been offering to effectively ignore this cap, which may
in any case be stripped away in the event that BP America Production is
found guilty of gross negligence. If gross negligence is demonstrated
(and that would be in a US court) then BP America Production and its
subsidiaries may well be bankrupted and liquidated, but the question
then becomes whether this would spread further up the line.
That seems unlikely, as unless it could be demonstrated that BP
America Production and its parent companies were effectively being
operated as one company, then the limited liability will stand legally,
and any attempt to strip it away by legislators is much less likely to
be supported in the courts than a retrospective change to the liability
cap would be, as limited liability is a legal cornerstone of US
capitalism in a way that doesn't really allow for exceptions made at
the whim of politicians.
All-in-all I don't believe BP US as a whole is going to go under, and
if it does then bankruptcy in the US wouldn't seem to threaten more
than 40% at most of BP's global assets in any case. BP's share price has
fallen 50% since the leak started, so bankruptcy in the US looks more
than priced in already.
I don't think that there's any realistic chance that BP worldwide could
be liquidated as a result of this mess, and any attempt to do so by US
legislators would be unlikely to achieve anything more than irritate the
British government, whose people are already doubtful about the UK's
very close alignment with the US in recent years, and not at all
impressed about Obama's habitually anti-Brit attitude in any case.
Support for BP at $27 may not hold, but at the least BP looks an
interesting speculative long there as it is the key major support level
for BP in the last fifteen years.
I thought that these articles were interesting, among others: