The next milestone in the energy-lender saga is approaching fast, and it could be crucial in separating the winners from the losers.

That was one of the takeaways from a presentation Wednesday by BOK Financial in Tulsa, Okla., which sought to reassure investors that it has matters under control even though energy loans make up about 19% of its loan book.

Banks reassess the borrowing capacity of oil exploration and production companies twice a year. The spring round of energy loan redeterminations is scheduled to begin in April, and those reviews could give BOK a chance to pull back some of its exposure, said Stacy Kymes, head of corporate banking at the $31.5 billion-asset BOK.

The reason is that those kinds of borrowers tend to have substantial collateral that can be reassessed, banks such as BOK and BB&T have argued lately. Lenders can take steps such as reining in credit lines.

"We'll get to revalue that collateral, and that's a big part of [why] this area has been more secure," Kymes told attendees of a conference sponsored by RBC Capital Markets.

BOK has a much safer energy portfolio than many of its Gulf Coast rivals, Kymes said, because over the past few years it has avoided lending to small companies that provide ancillary drilling services, Kymes said.

Instead, it has focused on larger, investment-grade producers. It is an important — and often overlooked — distinction, Kymes said. If oil prices continue to stay low, banks with loans to services companies will be the first ones to suffer.

"Within energy, not all exposure is created equal," Kymes said. Services companies have been more sensitive to oil-price declines in previous cycles, he said.

Kelly King, the chief executive of the $210 billion-asset BB&T in Winston-Salem, N.C., has made similar comments about services firms.

"Those people get crushed," King told American Banker in a recent interview. Service providers — such as pickup truck operators — tend to be less capitalized than producers, King added.

"That's where the risk is," King said.

Additionally, exploration and production companies typically have access to different sources of funding. Many of them have "backup" financing from private-equity firms and hedge funds, King said.

Nevertheless, BB&T said Tuesday that it plans to set aside up to $40 million for bad energy loans — boosting its reserve level to about 8%.

At BOK, about 82% of energy loans are focused on exploration and production companies, while 10% of loans are for services, Kymes said.

Kymes' comments come as BOK and its competitors in the South are under intense scrutiny following the crash in oil prices that began more than a year ago. Like most oil lenders, BOK has boosted its oil reserves in recent months, in preparation for the future losses.

During his presentation, Kymes also addressed the growing concern about credit-line draw-downs.

He said BOK has not noticed an uptick in draw-downs, even as some of the bank's energy clients come under stress. But that could change in the coming months.

"We probably will [see draw-downs] at some point," Kymes said, adding that, as a practical matter, "there's not much you can do to prevent that."

Financial advisers often direct energy clients to draw down their credit lines as they approach bankruptcy, Kymes said.

Still, as the energy market shakes out and prices stabilize, BOK will be in a better position than other energy lenders in the market, he argued.

"The different segments within energy will have a different loss content when all is said and done," Kymes said.

Paul Davis contributed to this article.

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