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  • Roger S. Conrad

Issues

Of Earnings and Elections

Ok, we’ll admit it. Keeping up with the current daily news feed of election results is far more exciting than scouring companies’ Q3 earnings for clues on their business health. And if you’re a media outlet, Elections 2020 has been the gift that keeping on giving.

But when it comes to positioning for an energy sector comeback in 2021, your time is going to be much better spent focusing on key numbers and management guidance. In fact, we doubt results of this election will wind up mattering much if at all when it comes to investor returns for the stocks we recommend here in Energy and Income Advisor.

In Energy It’s Economics over Politics

At first glance, this may seem to be the US oil and gas industry’s darkest hour. The S&P 500 Energy Index’ -46.8 percent year to date return is a stark contrast to the broad S&P 500’s 8.7 percent. The first sector companies to report Q3 numbers have delivered a rather somber outlook. And just days before November elections, the presidential candidate ahead in opinion polls appears to have endorsed phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

It probably won’t surprise you that we see things a bit differently at Energy and Income Advisor. Running down our three coverage universes—“MLPs and Midstream,” “E&P and Services” and “Canada and Australia”—it’s hard not to notice prices and yields for stocks that reflect a worst case scenario of many more dividend cuts and even bankruptcies. And the clear takeaway is that investors are expecting the worst.

We’ve pointed out in the past that negative sentiment is usually at its most extreme at market bottoms. But equally, recovery requires the facts behind the gloom to change enough to bring back buyers.

A Rebirth of Energy M&A

Low cost capital, compelling valuations and building evidence on the ground that a bottom is in, or at least very close: Those are the necessary conditions for a resurgence of mergers and acquisitions activity in the energy sector.

At this point, cost of equity capital is high even for best in class companies. Debt capital, however, is a far different story. Model Portfolio member’s ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) bonds of April 2051 yield just 2.9 percent to maturity, while Williams Companies’ (NYSE: WMB) May 2050 bonds yield less than 3.7 percent. And private capital has rarely if ever been this flush.

NatGas: Another Winter of Disappointment

Record-setting heat across the western US has sparked a surge in cooling demand and threatened large-scale power blackouts in California for the first time in 20 years.

Meanwhile the US Gulf Coast has been hit by significant hurricane activity this year, interrupting natural gas production from the Gulf of Mexico as well as liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

Those forces have helped spark a near-doubling in US natural gas prices from multi-year lows in June, a surge that’s understandably caught many investors’ attention. And, there are some longer-term developments, such as the recent decline in associated gas supply due to an historic decline in drilling activity, that could help finally put a floor under this long-suffering market.

The Summer of Growth

There’s no doubt it’s been a disappointing summer for energy stocks.

Energy stocks were the best-performing group in the S&P 500 from the March 23rd lows through the June 8th peak, soaring 96.5%. However, from June 8th through the present date, energy reversed course, falling about 22.9% compared to a return of just under 9% in the S&P 500.

And that’s despite the fact that oil prices have continued a steady drift higher all summer from around $38 in early June to approximately $43 today while natural gas prices have climbed steadily from a June 25th low under $1.50/MMBtu to above $2.60/MMBtu.

Resilience and Green Shoots

Natural gas never managed to break $2 per thousand cubic foot and oil prices actually went negative. So Q2 results for energy companies were never going to be pretty. And with Covid-19 uncertainty still a threat up and down the value chain, it’s little surprise second half 2020 guidance has remained cautious.

Nonetheless, we’re seeing unmistakable signs of resilience, as well as the green shoots of recovery. And both are good reasons to buy best in class energy stocks, which continue to offer their most attractive yields in memory.

One of the green shoots is what appears to be the first monthly rise in North American hydraulic fracturing activity in months, with the final count returning to levels not seen since April. July activity has been particularly robust in the Permian Basin. But there are some signs of improvement elsewhere also, including the Anadarko (Oklahoma), Bakken, Eagle Ford (Texas) and Niobrara (Colorado) regions.

Energy’s Best are Often its Biggest

This week, frac sand MLP-turned-C-Corp Hi-Crush Inc (OTC: HCRSQ) opened a new chapter in its long slide, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It’s been literally years since this company was an Energy and Income Advisor recommendation—or since we’ve rated shares anything but a strong sell. But Hi-Crush’s now total demise does offer us several key lessons, as we build positions in best in class companies to capitalize on an energy sector recovery.

First, this bankruptcy is yet another demonstration that C-Corp conversions of MLPs are no antidote to financial and operating pressures.

This Pullback is Bullish for Strong Companies

Since the previous issue of Energy and Income Advisor, energy stocks have backed off a bit more from their June 8 recovery high. The S&P 500 Energy Sector Index finished last week down -21 percent from that level, though it’s still 60.7 percent above the March 18 low.

Super majors-focused NYSE Arca Oil Index (NYSE: XOI) has given back -20.4 percent and is now up 71.6 percent from mid-March. And the midstream-heavy JP Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (NYSE: AMJ) has retreated -23 percent to a point 113.2 percent above the recent bottom.

Pullbacks like this one come with the territory when a market has risen as far and fast as energy stocks have since March. If it does extend, we’ll consider it an improved opportunity to buy best in class companies at better prices, with an eye on our Dream Buy levels.

Dumping the Weak, Adding to the Strong

The rally in energy stocks from mid-March has taken a breather. On June 8, the S&P 500 Energy Sector Index reached its highest point since early February, up 97 percent from its March 18 low. A few days later, it was down more than 17 percent.

Other indexes have followed the same pattern. Super majors-focused NYSE Arca Oil Index (NYSE: XOI) returned better than 105 percent from mid-March to June 8, only to give back roughly 17 percent. And the midstream-heavy JP Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (NYSE: AMJ) retreated 16 percent, after running higher by 152 percent.

Quality is Still King in the Energy World

Energy stocks have rallied hard in the month of May. The S&P 500 Energy Sector Index is now up more than 70 percent from its March 18 low. The super majors-focused NYSE Arca Oil Index (NYSE: XOI) is higher by 82 percent plus. And the midstream-heavy JP Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (NYSE: AMJ) is now better by 140 percent.

None of these indexes is as yet anywhere close to where it started the year. The S&P Energy Index is 60 percent under its all-time high in mid-2014, the last time oil sold for more than $100 a barrel.

True, benchmark WTI Cushing crude will run you about one-third of that now. The same is true for natural gas at Henry Hub, and prices are lower still at hubs in Appalachia and Canada. Unlike oil, gas has not rebounded appreciably from the March low.

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  • Live Chat with

    Elliott and Roger on Oct. 29, 2020

  • Portfolios & Ratings

    • Model Portfolios

      Balanced portfolios of energy stocks for aggressive and conservative investors.

    • Producers and Drillers

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

    • MLPs and Midstream

      Our assessment of every energy-related master limited partnership.

    • International Coverage

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

    Experts

    • Elliott H. Gue

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

    • Roger S. Conrad

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