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Issues

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.

 

A New Portfolio Holding and Revisiting Old Friends

Our International Portfolio has fared quite well this year, with our conservative allocation generating a total return of 28 percent in US dollars. All 13 of these stocks have hiked their dividends over the past 12 months, rewarding investors with an average increase of more than 8 percent.

The Portfolio’s aggressive sleeve, which took a harder hit during last year’s selloff, has rallied hard in 2016, generating an average total return of 39.6 percent in US dollars.

After poring over second-quarter results, we’ve updated our comments on the more than 80 Canadian and Australian energy stocks in our International Coverage Universe. Here are some of our key takeaways from this process. We also exit one of our hedges and add a new upstream name to the International Coverage Universe.

During our most recent Live Chat, we received a number of questions about liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shipping companies that specialize in transporting this commodity. All signs point toward the global LNG market remaining oversupplied for at least the next four to five years, which should help to encourage demand growth.

Midstream MLPs: Second-Quarter Earnings in Review

The Alerian MLP Index, a capitalization-weighted basket of 50 prominent master limited partnerships (MLP), has delivered a total return of almost 16 percent this year, topping the 6.9 percent gain posted by the Philadelphia Oil Service Sector Index and the 28 percent loss posted by the Bloomberg North American Refining and Marketing Index.

However, MLPs have lagged the Bloomberg North American Independent E&P Index, which has rallied 34.13 percent and includes only a minimal contribution from dividends.

After successive waves of indiscriminate selling and buying, the easy money has been made in the MLP space; going forward, investors must have a firm grasp on underlying fundamentals to achieve differentiated returns.

We scrutinized second-quarter results and earnings calls from every midstream MLP; this issue highlights our key takeaways from this exhaustive (and exhausting process) as well as our updated takes and buy targets for all of these names.

Key Takeaways from Second-Quarter Earnings

After Halliburton (NYSE: HAL) and Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB) reported earnings in late July, the financial media published innumerable articles screaming that the oil-field services giants had called a bottom for the recent down-cycle.

The headlines contain a kernel of truth. Halliburton’s management team indicated that the second quarter would mark the trough for some of its core businesses in the North American onshore market—namely pressure pumping and other service and product line related to hydraulic fracturing.

Schlumberger’s management team was less sanguine about the prospects for the North American market, but indicated that the company should be able to claw back some pricing concessions and improve profitability by bundling service offerings and introducing higher-margin technologies.

We agree with Halliburton and Schlumberger’s assessment. However, calling the cycle’s bottom misses the point. At this juncture, investors should be more concerned about the likely speed and slope of the recovery after the trough.

Many oil-field service stocks—especially Helmerich & Payne (NYSE: HP) and other onshore contract drillers—have priced in a rapid rebound in profit margins and earnings. However, the recovery more than likely will prove to be W- or bathtub-shaped instead of V-shaped.

Positioning for the Future

The Alerian MLP Index suffered a Minsky moment last fall and winter, when plummeting oil prices sparked a wave of indiscriminate selling that was intensified by forced liquidations at funds hit with redemption requests.

But this basket of 50 prominent master limited partnerships (MLP) has rallied by almost 60 percent since the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil bottomed on Feb. 11, 2011, making the group the top performer on a year-to-date basis among the upstream, downstream and services indexes that we track in Energy & Income Advisor.

After successive waves of indiscriminate selling and buying, the easy money has been made in the MLP space; going forward, investors must have a firm grasp on underlying fundamentals to achieve differentiated returns.

We revisit some of the headwinds buffeting midstream operators, including volumetric declines in some basins, the general lull in demand for incremental takeaway after the recent construction boom and the debt hangover from this period of rapid growth.

But we also highlight a handful of growth themes for MLP investors to consider as they position their portfolios for the next few years.

E&P Playbook

In the short term, oil prices appear to near the top of their range, having rallied too far, too fast off their February low. At these levels, US shale producers will start to ramp up drilling and completion activity and hedge their expected output for 2017, though decline rates could accelerate in the back half of the year.

Despite the sharp drop in oil prices last year and the recent recovery, rebalancing the market will take time; years will pass before oil prices top $60 per barrel for an extended period. As a result of over-exuberant investors piling into the sector in recent weeks, many energy stocks have rallied to valuations that have outstripped reasonable expectations for fundamentals, setting the stage for a pullback.

We remain bullish on exploration and production companies with franchise assets, low production costs, strong balance sheets and high-quality management teams; these names stand to take market share in an environment where energy prices struggle to break out of their trading range.

Thanks to efficiency gains and price concessions on basic services, America’s best independent exploration and production companies can generate a solid return on investment in their core acreage even if oil prices range between $40 and $60 per barrel in coming years.

To identify the best-positioned producers, we considered a handful of basic criteria. First, we focused on companies that can reduce their capital expenditures and live within (or close to) their annual cash flow without suffering a major decline in production.

Companies that fit this bill won’t need to borrow significant sums or issue a ton of equity to fund their planned expenditures for 2016 and can continue to grow their output. These names will benefit disproportionately when oil prices rally to the high end of our range and hold up better and take market share when the commodity slips to the lower end of our forecast.

 

Focusing on the Bigger Picture

In the short term, oil prices appear to near the top of their range, having rallied too far, too fast off their February low. At these levels, US shale producers will start to ramp up drilling and completion activity and hedge their expected output for 2017.

Despite the sharp drop in oil prices last year and the recent recovery, rebalancing the market will take time; years will pass before oil prices top $60 per barrel for an extended period.

As a result of over-exuberant investors piling into the sector in recent weeks, many energy stocks have rallied to valuations that have outstripped reasonable expectations for fundamentals, setting the stage for a pullback.

Nevertheless, energy stocks appear to have bottomed; investors should focus on upstream and midstream names with the best prospects to grow their production and throughput volumes in an environment where oil prices remain lower for longer.

Instead of aiming to time the cycle’s nadir, investors should remember that buying energy stocks near the bottom historically has produced impressive gains over a two- to three-year holding period.

The easy money has already been made during the wave of indiscriminate selling that occurred late last year and in early 2016 and the indiscriminate buying (and short covering) that took place in recent months. Going forward, stock selection will become more important to outperforming in the energy sector.

MLP Musings: Earnings Takeaways and Conference Prep

Master limited partnerships (MLP) and exploration and production companies have been among the biggest winners in the sharp rally that has occurred since oil prices bottomed on Feb. 12, with the Alerian MLP Index gaining 35 percent and the Bloomberg North American Exploration & Production Index surging almost 55 percent.

The Bloomberg North American Independent Refining & Marketing Index has also underperformed significantly this year, validating our lack of exposure to this corner of the energy market.

In the MLP universe, the most downtrodden midstream names have outperformed; since oil prices bottomed on Feb. 12, the Yorkville High-Income Infrastructure Index has returned almost 60 percent, while the Alerian MLP Index has gained about 44 percent.

This sharp snapback has narrowed our losses on some of the names in our MLP Portfolio’s aggressive sleeve, though hindsight reminds us that we should have been more proactive about adding positions when valuations reached ludicrously low levels.

Nevertheless, investors who bought our favorite MLPs at dream prices should sit on solid gains. After the recent rally in midstream equities and bonds, investors should continue to focus on high-quality MLPs with superior costs of capital and exposure to low-cost basins that should take market share over the long haul.

Investors who fear that they’ve missed out on the opportunity to buy these MLPs should keep their eyes peeled for the inevitable dips to add to their positions.

 

Facing the Fear of Missing Out

The recent rally in the energy sector has lifted all boats, including the worm-ridden ones; investors should take advantage of this opportunity to exit any of the Sell-rated names in our coverage universe.

In fact, many of the weakest energy stocks have posted the biggest gains, suckering in momentum-seeking investors with a fear of missing out. These companies, many of which were raised on $100 per barrel oil, lack the balance sheet and franchise assets to survive in an environment where West Texas Intermediate ranges between $40 and $60 per barrel.

Investors must also stay disciplined. Most of our Portfolio holdings trade above our dream prices, and some have rallied beyond our value-based buy targets.

As such, investors should consider taking a partial profit off the table in any of their big winners and reserve this cash for future pullbacks.

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  • Live Chat with

    Elliott and Roger on Sep. 26, 2016

  • 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