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(Wall Street Journal) A truck used to carry sand for fracking is washed in a truck stop on February 4, 2015 in Odessa, Texas. … Debt from U.S. shale companies has held its ground even as oil prices have beat a fast retreat, a sign the firms may have adapted to an era of cheaper crude and could remain key suppliers to the market.

A build-up in stockpiles of oil has renewed downward pressure on prices: U.S. crude is now at roughly $42 the barrel, 14% below where it was at the beginning of June, when it appeared to be rallying.

Energy companies have taken a beating since oil started nosediving two years ago, which has often led global markets to move in lockstep with whatever crude was doing. This time, however, something might be different, because smaller U.S. energy companies appear to be mostly shrugging it off.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s index of U.S. high-yield energy corporate bonds has actually gone up 3% since the start of June. High-yield bonds are those issued by companies considered more likely to default and offer heftier returns as compensation.

In the energy sector, this category is mostly made up of shale-oil companies. Unlike the traditional oil majors, these firms are smaller operations sustained by shakier financing, which means short-term moves in the price of oil are critical for their survival and profitability.

This is why the price of their debt had, until recently, almost perfectly mirrored oil prices, whereas the credit worthiness of the broader energy sector reacted to it in a much milder manner. That those two prices have decoupled for shale firms of late suggests that the fortunes of the companies may no longer depend as much on expensive crude.

David Riley, head of credit strategy at BlueBay Asset Management, believes this could be a sign of U.S. shale producers slashing costs and adapting to the new reality.

“Oil-related companies (and countries) have had nearly two years since the slump in global oil prices and started to adjust,” Mr. Riley said.

Virendra Chauhan, analyst at Energy Aspects, said that shale debt investors are now mostly focused on debt-reduction, which […]