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  • Roger S. Conrad


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.

Oil Prices Back Off But We’re Not

It’s been roughly two weeks since the September 14 attacks on Saudi oilfields took about 5 percent of global oil production temporarily offline. And the North American benchmark price per barrel has already retreated to its long-held mid-50s trading range.

This is the clearest indication yet of how the rise of US shale production has dramatically shifted the global oil market. And it’s why, as we pointed out last issue, energy investors need to rise above the noise of geopolitics.

When it comes to energy prices that means focusing on supply and demand. And it’s why energy companies we own must be able to prosper in the same lower-for-longer price environment that’s existed since mid-decade.

Positioning Today for Tomorrow’s Energy Prices

Through much of August and early September, benchmark US oil prices continued to defy conventional wisdom of an impending decline, hanging in the same mid-50s per barrel trading range they’ve held since late January. Meanwhile, natural gas has rebounded more than 20 percent from early August lows, squeezing the elevated ranks of short sellers.

Energy prices’ resiliency this summer hasn’t convinced too many investors to jump back into sector stocks. But a number of producers, midstream operators, service companies and even MLPs have now made noticeable bounces off last month’s nadir even before last weekend’s drone strike on Saudi Arabia.

Sector Fear Takes a Breather, Quality Still Key

The fear factor appears to have lessened a bit since our previous Energy and Income Advisor issue. But with all eyes still on the global economy, these still aren’t especially good times for energy stocks, many of which are pricing in a big future drop in oil.

The Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index, for example, is lower by more than 10 percent in barely a month. That’s despite the generally robust second quarter results of most index components, as well as multiple dividend increases.

For readers interested in betting on a rebound through mutual funds or ETFs, we suggest taking a look at closed-end funds like Kayne Anderson MLP Midstream (NYSE: KYN). Not only are its top holdings arguably over-discounted to otherwise solid prospects but it trades at a discount to net asset value of more than 10 percent. That’s double leverage to a recovery in MLPs, though there’s risk as well: The fund cut its monthly payout by 20 percent at the start of 2019.

When Emotions are High Expect a Reversal

Once again, fear has the energy sector in its talons. Benchmark WTI Cushing oil has yet to break its mid-June low. But the S&P 500 Energy Index has already dropped by nearly 9 percent this month alone.

The Alerian MLP Infrastructure Index is down more than 11 percent. Worst hit of all have been mid-sized independent producers and the midstream companies and MLPs that serve them.

For example, Antero Midstream Corp (NYSE: AM) and Antero Resources (NYSE: AR) are off by 14.5 percent and 19 percent so far this month, respectively. Oasis Petroleum (NYSE: OAS) and Oasis Midstream Partners (NYSE: OMP) are lower by 49 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively.

Services: International Growth, Shale Changes

The rapid growth in US shale fields like the Permian Basin has dramatically altered the outlook for global oil supply and demand.

It’s also forever changed the industry’s competitive landscape at all levels including upstream (producers), downstream (refiners) and midstream (pipelines and storage).

However, arguably the industry to see the largest impact is oilfield services – these companies are in the business of supplying mission-critical services and equipment to global oil producers related to the exploration and development of oilfields.

Some five years ago, we warned that these changes would not be kind to erstwhile high-flyers like deepwater driller Seadrill and sand miner Hi-Crush Partners.

However, the selling pressure has extended far beyond these shaky names to include some of the industry’s largest and most enduring franchises. In this issue we take a closer look at some of the trends and changes underway in the global oil industry and how to play it.

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  • Live Chat with

    Elliott and Roger on Dec. 30, 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