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  • Roger S. Conrad


The Name of the Game is High Grading

Unless there’s a monster rally in the last 10 days of March, oil prices are headed for their worst one-month performance in history. In fact, the decline so far is almost 17 percentage points greater than the previous record of -33 percent in October 2008.

Then as now, energy prices have been hammered by the growing likelihood of a global demand shock. That time around, the cause for concern was the Financial Crisis, which then had unknown dire consequences for economic growth. This time, it’s COVID-19 and its highly uncertain eventual impact on human health and the global economy.

Oil prices, however, simultaneously face a supply shock, as Saudi Arabia ramps up production even as demand comes under pressure. A similar move by the Saudis in 2015 was enough by itself to drive US prices down to $26 and change. This time around, combined with the demand shock, we now see a probability of oil prices in the mid-teens before there’s a hard bottom.

Our Best Foot Forward in a Shaky Market

When global markets shake, not much does well. That’s certainly been the case the past several weeks, as worries about the potential economic impact of COVID-19 have spread.

Energy stocks were just beginning a recovery earlier this year when Chinese authorities first indicated an elevated threat to public health. What’s happened since is a full-on retreat in major sector indexes, with both the Alerian MLP Index and S&P 500 Energy Sector Index taking out the lows of early 2016.

That’s extraordinary for the fact alone that benchmark oil prices are still more than $20 above their February 2016 low point of $26 per barrel and change. Even North American benchmark natural gas is trading 8 percent higher than its March 2016 nadir of $1.61 per thousand cubic foot.

When the Going Gets Tough, Tough Energy Companies Get Going

Roughly half the companies in our Energy and Income Advisor coverage universe have now reported Q4 results—and a more or less equal percentage of our Actively Managed Portfolio and High Yield Energy List stocks.

That still leaves a lot of news and numbers to come in a quarter where mountains of filing requirements tend to delay their release. But from what we’ve seen so far, it’s clear that quality is asserting itself in the energy sector.

Mainly, despite multiple headwinds, the best in class are still thriving as businesses. In contrast, companies with real weaknesses as businesses are imploding, and almost at the same rate they were in 2016 when the price of oil sank to just $26 and change.

In This Selloff Keep Your Eye on Earnings

Q4 earnings reporting season is moving into high gear. And so far, Energy and Income Advisor recommendations are holding their own despite volatile oil and gas prices, reduced industry-wide spending and generally hostile capital markets.

The bad news is with coronavirus fears pressuring global oil prices, the market isn’t paying much attention to the numbers. Nor do investors appear to be giving a lot of credence to management guidance for 2020 that’s considerably more conservative and therefore achievable, as fears of a global economic slide percolate.

Q4 Energy Numbers: Facing Down Low Expectations

A year ago, benchmark oil prices plunged from a high of $75 a barrel in early October to a late December low point of $42 and change. By contrast, Q4 2019 was relatively calm. The North American benchmark hugged the mid-50s before closing out the year in the low 60s.

Despite that relative steadiness, few Wall Street analysts expect favorable earnings comparisons for energy companies with year ago results. One reason is a flood of new associated natural gas supplies hitting the market in 2019, which resulted in Q4 benchmark prices falling to less than half where they traded in the year ago quarter.

But the larger worry weighing on the sector is the pronounced reduction in the national rig count that started in the second half of the year. We’ve commented early and often about North American shale producers’ ongoing conversion to the gospel of generating free cash flow, reversing their long-time practice of maximizing output at any cost.

Energy in 2020: By the Sectors

We’re coming to the end of 2019. The good news is, in stark contrast to a year ago, the wind is very much at our back for our energy stocks.

Performance of our Actively Managed Portfolio holdings wasn’t universally positive this year. But as we report in this issue’s Portfolio discussion, the winners appear to have more than offset the notable losers. And despite launching our High Yield Energy List with remarkably poor timing, even the most damaged companies over the year’s first 11 months appear to be finishing strong, with the expectation of better times in 2020.

This is the second of three issues this month highlighting our outlook for what we believe will be a very strong year for energy in 2020. The focus of the first was on the macro, under the title “Oil: Our 2020 Outlook.

We strongly encourage everyone to read that feature article first, as it explains what we see happening for the commodity and thereby sets the table for what comes next. The feature piece this time is in a discussion format where we highlight our sector-by-sector view for energy stocks, from producers and midstreams to service companies and refiners.

The final issue of this year focuses on individual recommendations and our portfolio strategy. It’s our “game plan” for taking advantage of what we believe will be a strong year for energy stocks in general, but with timing of rallies likely to vary sharply by sector.

Oil: Reviewing 2019 and Previewing 2020

One of the best things about commodity markets – and any sort of “real” asset – is that ultimately prices are based on supply and demand.

If the price of oil is “too high,” there’s a market response – rising production and falling demand – that pushes prices back into line over time.

Of course, oil prices can rise or fall in the short-run due to speculative flows in futures markets; in fact, that’s something we watch closely in Energy & Income Advisor over time.

However, ultimately, the price of oil doesn’t rise because people are excited about buying oil — crude rallies when demand for the commodity rises faster than supply.

It really is that simple.

Inflection points in the supply demand equation for oil are rare. In the period from 1998 through 2002, for example, rising demand for crude from emerging markets including China and India shifted the oil market from a period of glut to an era of scarcity. Ultimately that sent crude from lows in the teens in the late 90’s to highs around $150/bbl in 2008.

We believe we’ll look back on 2019 as the year we reached another major inflection point for oil. Specifically, the Saudi -led pump-at-will strategy initiated five years ago has finally had the desired effect – the recent era of persistent glut and shale oversupply is giving way to a new period of tightening supply and demand conditions.

As we approach the end of 2019, it’s time for a detailed assessment and audit of our outlook for energy prices, stocks and our portfolio recommendations.

Energy: Solid Earnings But Investors Fear the Future

Q3 results and guidance updates are all in for the Actively Managed Portfolio and High Yield Energy List, as well as for most of our coverage universes.

We’re still assessing how results affect our company-by-company outlook for the rest of the year and into 2020. But there are already a few clear takeaways.

First, our recommendations’ Q3 numbers were quite solid, including companies whose shares have taken hard hits lately. And they support guidance for capital spending, distribution policies and balance sheet strength.

That’s by no means true of every energy company we track, and there are plenty of disaster stories shaping up in our coverage universes. But our long-standing thesis is still very much intact: This is a much more sustainable and resilient industry than it was five years ago at the start of the decline.

Oilfield Services, Oil and Value

Just under half the energy stocks in the S&P 500 have reported Q3 2019 results so far including Schlumberger and Halliburton, the world’s two diversified services majors.

What’s emerged is a clear divergence in performance – growth in international markets and continued pressure on profit margins and growth in North American shale. The international spending upturn is now well underway, which is particularly encouraging when you consider the historic drop in international oilfield spending between 2014 and 2018.

And despite the shale services bust in Q3, we’re seeing some reasons for optimism in North America including industry capacity rationalizations and a change in the way producers contract for services.

In this issue, we’ll take a deeper dive into the services business and some of the comments from both Schlumberger and Halliburton on their Q3 2019 conference calls. We’ll also examine one of the most powerful but overlooked potential upside catalysts for energy stocks in the year ahead.

Expect Q3 Results to Confirm Sector Values

Earnings season in the energy sector is about to get under way. And wherever companies reside on the value chain, we expect to hear a lot about investment discipline.

Halliburton Co (NYSE: HAL) will be one of the first to release numbers and update guidance on October 21. But management of the energy services giant has already signaled there will likely be a more cautious tenor to its comments, after announcing the layoff of 650 workers across the Rockies region this week.

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    Elliott and Roger on Feb. 25, 2021

  • 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.


    • 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