To say that 2017 has proved a challenging year for energy stocks would be an understatement.
The ebullience that reigned in the aftermath of OPEC’s November 2016 agreement with Russia and other major oil-producing countries has dissipated, thanks in part to the rapid recovery in US onshore drilling activity and output, persistently elevated inventories and oil prices that have slipped below $50 per barrel.
Upstream-related subsectors have borne the brunt of this pain, with the Bloomberg North American Independent E&P Index giving up almost 36 percent of its value this year and the Philadelphia Oil Service Sector Index plummeting 35 percent.
With WTI hovering around $45 per barrel, the market doesn’t appear to price in much risk that lower prices could lead to a moderation in onshore activity levels and production growth. As expected, the handful of upstream spending cuts announced during second-quarter earnings season primarily came from operators focused on marginal areas or burdened with strained balance sheets.
Meanwhile, the US oil-directed rig count also appears to have peaked and has started to trend lower, suggesting that upstream operators have responded to the decline in WTI and creating the potential for supply growth to moderate down the line.
Against this backdrop, we continue to favor midstream master limited partnerships (MLP) for their above-average yields and exposure to what we regard as a multiyear volumetric growth story where short-cycle US oil and gas production takes market share. In particular, basins that contain multiple hydrocarbon-bearing formations appear best-positioned for the long haul because of their superior economics.
Although our outlook for oil prices and the US energy patch favors an overweight position in core midstream holdings, nimble investors can generate alpha in upstream names by buying when oil prices retreat to the low end of their range and taking some profits off the table when they recover. Timing and stock selection—easier said than done with shorter cycle times—will be critical to producing differentiated returns.
We also continue to explore investment ideas related to energy efficiency, renewable energy and demand-side related opportunities, a process that we began with our recent issue on the petrochemical complex. Expect more in coming issues.
Massive distribution cuts from the likes of Plains All-American Pipeline LP have severely damaged midstream master limited partnerships' (MLP) reputation among income investors. But our favorite MLPs trade at favorable valuations and offer exposure to compelling volumetric growth stories.
The divergent performance between Noble Midstream Partners LP and Hess Midstream Partners LP since their initial public offerings demonstrates what investors value in an environment where energy prices remain lower for longer.
Break-even rates continue to fall across the board in US shale plays, but the efficiency gains that come from exploiting multiple oil-bearing formations with the same infrastructure give the Permian Basin an edge in the battle for market share.
Over the past 12 months, the difference between the top and bottom performers in the Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index amounted to about 60 percentage points. Capturing this upside requires on-the-ground intelligence, which is why we attend the MLPA Association's annual investor conference every year.
Expansions to the Gulf Coast refinery complex will translate into higher ethane demand in the US, creating opportunities for short-term trades and longer-term wealth building.
The challenging energy market has taken its toll on our Focus List, with our poorly timed picks from the upstream segment and oil-field services absorbing the hardest hits. Our lesson from these missteps: We need to remain disciplined and adhere to our own advice about trading these cyclical industries more adeptly, buying when oversold and paring exposure when valuations and sentiment reach the top of their range. These tactical errors are inexcusable and particularly grating when our skepticism toward oil prices at the outset of the year was spot-on.
Within the upstream space, we continue to focus on names with low costs, solid balance sheets, high-quality acreage in the STACK and Permian Basin, and the flexibility to monetize noncore assets or retain cash flow through captive midstream MLPs. Although our outlook for oil prices and the US energy patch favors an overweight position in core midstream holdings, nimble investors can generate alpha in upstream names by buying when oil prices retreat to the low end of their range and taking some profits off the table when they recover. Timing and stock selection—easier said than done with shorter cycle times—will be critical to producing differentiated returns. Adhering to our Dream Prices can help in this regard.
We review our investment strategy and second-quarter results from the names on our Focus List.
With the ethylene and polyethylene up-cycle winding down, investors should shift their attention further down the petrochemical value chain.
Technical factors suggest that energy stocks could fare better in the back of the year.
Elliott and Roger on Aug. 29, 2017
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