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Issues

The Oil-Field-Service Industry Is A Battlefield

Each earnings season, we look forward to poring over quarterly results from the two largest oil-field-service companies–Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB) and Halliburton (NYSE: HAL).

These industry giants’ earnings calls–particularly the wide-ranging discussions hosted by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil-field services company–provide invaluable insights into other aspects of the energy patch.

Because of Halliburton’s strong presence in the US and Canada, its management team tends to take a more bullish view on the North American market than Schlumberger, which usually emphasizes international activity. Evaluating both companies’ results and commentary helps investors to form a complete picture of key energy markets.

The read-through from Schlumberger and the other major oil-field services companies’ earnings reports and subsequent conference calls are particularly useful because they occur before many other energy-related names announce quarterly results.

The Skinny On Drop-Down MLPs

The so-called drop-down transaction—where a sponsor sells an asset to its associated master limited partnership (MLP)—has a long history (dating back to 1983) as a strategy for energy companies to monetize their midstream (pipelines and processing) assets.

Not only does this approach unlock the value of midstream assets that a refiner or upstream operator may not have run for a profit, but the parent also retains control of this critical infrastructure and garners a growing stream of cash flow via their incentive distribution rights.

The number and total value of drop-down transactions announced surged in 2010 and continued to climb in subsequent years, peaking in 2015. Deal flow slowed considerably in 2016 but remained elevated relative to historical norms.

Although this overweight position worked for a time and these stocks held their value reasonably well during the down-cycle, MLPs that rely heavily on drop-down strategies have underperformed since the start of 2016.

We explore the factors driving this underperformance, explain why all drop-down stories aren’t created equal and make the case for some of our favorite names in the current environment.

Riding The Petrochemical Wave

Although the mainstream media tends to focus on natural gas and crude oil when discussing the energy sector, natural gas liquids (NGL) are an important, if often overlooked, part of North America’s energy landscape.

This group of hydrocarbons, which occur underground with natural gas (methane) and crude oil, comprises five distinct commodities: ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and natural gasoline.

Rising US ethane exports, coupled with the start-up of the first wave of large-scale ethane crackers on the Gulf Coast in 2017, could dramatically change the supply-demand dynamics in this part of the NGL market. We highlight the best ways for conservative and aggressive investors to profit from this trend.

 

Risk Avoidance

Our goal with Energy & Income Advisor is to identify the sector’s best total-return opportunities, a goal that underpins our recently completed list of our top energy stocks for 2017.

In addition to making judgments about what will do well in the current environment, we also keep in mind what names have a higher likelihood of underperforming to help our subscribers steer clear of potential value traps.

This issue of Energy & Income Advisor highlights eight energy stocks for investors to avoid in 2017, a year where equity selection will become increasingly important after successive waves of indiscriminate selling and buying in the sector.

Knowing which stocks not to buy becomes increasingly important after the recent rallies in oil and gas prices and OPEC’s agreement to reduce crude production improved investor sentiment toward the sector.

What to Buy Now and an International Update

International energy stocks have done extraordinarily well this year, juiced by a recovery in oil prices and stabilization in the value of the Canadian and Australian dollars—currencies that had come under significant pressure in recent years.

On a year-to-date basis, the 13 holdings in our International Portfolio’s conservative sleeve have gained an average of 20.5 percent. The seven stocks in our aggressive sleeve, which entail more exposure to commodity prices and absorbed a harder hit during the down-cycle, have generated an average total return of 55.9 percent.

As part of our background work for this issue, we’ve updated our comments and ratings for the more than 90 names in our International Coverage Universe. We discuss our key takeaways from this exhaustive (and frequently exhausting process) and highlight our best investment ideas in this universe.

Top of the Pops

With third-quarter earnings season in the bag for much of the energy patch, we take advantage of the sudden break in the action to assess where we stand today and highlight the names that offer the best risk-reward propositions over the next 12 months.

The bulk of these picks hail from the upstream (oil and gas production) and midstream (pipelines and processing) links in the energy value chain–the two areas that stand to benefit the most from a modest recovery in oil prices.

One of the major themes that we’ve highlighted over the past year focuses not on trends in overall US oil production, but rather the low-cost shale plays that stand to take market share in an environment where energy prices remain lower for longer.

This analysis has informed our positioning in the upstream segment, with the high-quality exploration and production companies that we added to our model portfolio in January 2016 up an average of 80 percent over the subsequent months.

Our selection process targeted names with strong balance sheets, low production costs, a history of solid execution and franchise assets that can deliver output growth in a challenging environment. With oil prices a point of pain or profit for all upstream operators, names that can deliver on a volumetric growth story and take market share should outperform.

We continue to like our picks from earlier this year as solid holdings for 2017. But all three trade above our buy targets, while a handful of names that the market perceives as being a notch lower on the quality scale could offer superior upside potential in the new year.

Although the market continues to throw capital at any upstream name with significant exposure to the red-hot Delaware Basin, some midstream names that play in this field and the emerging STACK play offer high yields and significant upside potential.

Filtering the Earnings Deluge

Third-quarter earnings season is in full swing for the energy sector, providing a deluge of data and information to sort through and analyze.

As always, we approach this quarterly exercise with an eye toward identifying emerging opportunities where the risk-reward balance skews in our favor and checking up on the existing holdings in our Model Portfolios to make sure our investment theses remain on track.

Let’s Make a Deal

Merger and acquisition activity involving oil and gas companies has declined by about 19 percent from year-ago levels, based on the total value of the deals announced thus far in 2016.

North America remains the most active market, with about 61 percent of the targets and 69 percent of the buyers calling the region home.

With all the upheaval in the global energy patch, many oil and gas industries are ripe for consolidation, especially the hardest-hit portions of the value chain.

However, our long-standing rule of thumb when playing potential takeover targets is to focus on names that offer exposure to a compelling upside story; even if a deal never materializes, our position should appreciate in value.

Naturally Volatile

Much of the recent upside in natural-gas prices reflects the unusually hot summer weather, expectations for a cold winter and modest supply growth, as oil and gas producers have curbed their drilling and completion activity in prolific US shale plays. However, our intermediate- to long-term outlooks for gas supply and demand remain unchanged–nor has our investment strategy.

We prefer to buy shares of high-quality producers that have strong balance sheets and high-quality acreage in leading basins–names that will take market share over the long term.

However, timing is a critical component of our strategy.

Investors should buy when gas prices inevitably tumble because of excess production and an unusually warm winter–a confluence of events that has occurred on several occasions over the past decade. You might also consider taking smaller positions in some higher-beta names that we wouldn’t regard as the best long-term holdings.

It’s equally important to take some profits off the table when natural-gas prices rip higher. The time for such a move is imminent.

Investors should also maintain exposure to well-positioned midstream operators that stand to benefit from accelerating production growth in low-cost basins. With natural-gas demand expect to climb in coming years and the US boasting a world-class resource base, the potential volumetric growth is truly impressive.

Planning for a Pullback

An environment where oil prices remain lower for longer favors US independent exploration and production companies that own high-quality assets in the lowest-cost shale plays.

The best upstream operators continue to reduce their per barrel production costs through efficiency gains and enhanced drilling and completion techniques that boost per-well output. Some of the strongest names can generate a decent return on capital with oil prices in the mid-$30s per barrel.

Despite significant volatility, crude-oil prices have trended lower since the beginning of June. Our near-term outlook calls for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) to tumble into the $30s per barrel over the next one to three months, a period of seasonally weak demand.

This weakness could create another opportunity to buy our favorite exploration and production names.

 

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  • Live Chat with

    Elliott and Roger on Feb. 28, 2017

  • Portfolios & Ratings

    • Model Portfolios

      Balanced portfolios of energy stocks for aggressive and conservative investors.

    • Coverage Universe

      Our take on more than 50 energy-related equities, from upstream to downstream and everything in between.

    • MLP Ratings

      Our assessment of every energy-related master limited partnership.

    • International Coverage Universe

      Roger Conrad’s coverage of more than 70 dividend-paying energy names.

    Experts

    • Roger S. Conrad

      Founder and Chief Analyst: Capitalist Times and Energy & Income Advisor

    • Elliott H. Gue

      Founder and Chief Analyst: Capitalist Times and Energy & Income Advisor

    • Peter Staas

      Managing Editor: Capitalist Times and Energy & Income Advisor