Unusually large recent trading volume in Gasfrac Energy Services Inc. shares has raised speculation the company, known for its unique oil and gas rock-fracturing technology, could be the target of an activist investor.
Gasfrac stock has languished. It is down 20 per cent from a peak of $2.07 at the start of the year as the company has struggled to sign up new customers for its fracking technology that involves the use of propane rather than water.
On Feb. 10, 1.8 million shares in the company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, which is unusually high volume for Gasfrac – since the end of January, the average daily volume has been just slightly under 200,000. There was also heavy trading on March 13, which saw 1.2 million shares change hands, and again the following day when 506,000 share were traded, according to Bloomberg data.
No single investor has disclosed a large position in Gasfrac to date.
Shareholder activism flared up in the Canadian oil patch recently, with Carl Icahn acquiring a stake of around 7 per cent in Talisman Energy Inc., and FrontFour Capital Group trying, though failing, to force a special meeting and win board seats at Renegade Petroleum .
Early this week, Gasfrac announced that James Hill plans to retire as chief executive at the end of 2014. It named no successor. Mr. Hill was not immediately available to comment on the speculation around trading in the company's shares.
Financial industry sources said an investor may have acquired a large position in preparation to try to force changes at the company, though an analyst said it is unlikely that the stock purchases are linked to Mr. Hill's retirement announcement.
In February, Gasfrac hired Jason Munro as president, who may eventually have the CEO title added, said Jason Sawatzky, an analyst at AltaCorp Capital. The company has said Mr. Munro is well-suited to the all-important task of getting energy companies to adopt Gasfrac's fracking technology.
Following some recent cost cuts, the company's focus is boosting sales beyond its main customer base, which includes Husky Energy Inc. in Canada and BlackBrush Oil & Gas LP in the United States, Mr. Sawatzky said.
"They've missed analyst estimates pretty consistently for the last year and a half, and the stock has just been crushed, obviously," he said. "But looking at the story today, it's looked better than it's ever looked. They've got the costs in line and they've actually done eight new trials in the last six months," Mr. Sawatzky said.