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Energy Industry Report – Energy Stocks Fell Alongside Energy Prices But Remain Attractive Investments

Energy
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Friday, January 5, 2024

Michael Heim, CFA, Senior Research Analyst, Noble Capital Markets, Inc.

Refer to the bottom of the report for important disclosures

Energy stocks declined in the fourth quarter in response to falling energy prices. Energy stocks declined 7.2% during the 2023 fourth quarter. The movement of the XLE is similar to that of near-month oil future prices.

Oil prices declined sharply in the fourth quarter after a runup in the third quarter. West Texas Intermediate oil prices declined 21.1% in the fourth quarter to $71.65 per barrel. Domestic oil production continues to grow (up 7% year over year through October) even as the number of domestic oil rigs has decreased 20% since this time last year. Natural gas prices declined 14.2% during the quarter to $2.51 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) of gas. Weather was 13% warmer than normal in the December quarter. As a result, natural gas storage levels are at five-year seasonally high levels as they have been for the last twelve months. 

Merger Activity is heating up. More than $100 billion in acquisitions were announced in the last three months as APA, Exxon Mobil and Chevron all announced transactions. The acquisitions come as major energy companies seek to expand production during a period when production growth from technological improvements seems to be slowing. 

Energy Companies continue to generate high cash levels at current energy prices. Despite the drop in energy prices, operating netbacks (revenues less royalties and operating costs) remain high. With debt levels low, energy managements have raised capital budgets, increased dividends, and repurchased shares. 

Valuations remain attractive. With the decline in energy company stock values, many companies are trading at enterprise values that are less than five times free cash flow. Given our belief that energy prices are entering a period of relative stability (oil prices trade in a range of $60-$10/bbl) and that stock prices have already reacted to energy price declines to the lower end of this range, we see limited downside to investing in energy stocks and large upside should energy prices rise.

Energy stocks declined in the fourth quarter in response to falling energy prices.

Energy stocks, as measured by the Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLE) declined 7.2% during the 2023 fourth quarter. The decline stands in sharp contrast to an 11.2% increase in the S&P Composite index. The decline in the XLE began early with the index dropping almost 10% in the first week of the quarter before regaining its losses in the next two weeks. After peaking on October 18th, the index fell sharply over the next two months and never recovered from its losses. The movement of the XLE is similar to that of near-month oil future prices.

Oil prices declined sharply in the fourth quarter after a runup in the third quarter.

West Texas Intermediate oil prices declined 21.1% in the fourth quarter to $71.65 per barrel, offsetting a 30.0% increase in the third quarter. For the year, WTI declined 10%. The oil price spikes of 2022 that sent prices above $120 per barrel shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine seem a distant memory. Energy production disruptions and political sanctions have changed the direction of the flow of energy but not the overall global demand and supply of energy. We are keeping an eye on political developments in the Red Sea, but to date there has been little impact on oil prices. Domestic oil production continues to grow (up 7% year over year through October) even as the number of domestic oil rigs has decreased 20% since this time last year. The biggest decline has been in the Permian Basin. Almost all wells being drilled are now horizontal wells.

The decline in natural gas prices was not as sharp and was largely explained by warm weather.

Natural gas prices declined 14.2% during the quarter to $2.51 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) of gas. After sharp spikes in 2022, natural gas prices have settled into a narrow range between $2.00/mcf and $3.00/mcf. Weather was 13% warmer than normal on a population-weighted basis in the December quarter. As a result, natural gas storage levels are at five-year seasonally high levels as they have been for the last twelve months. Gas production continues to increase steadily, mainly to feed an increased demand for natural gas for power generation.

Merger Activity is heating up.

On January 4, 2024, APA Corporation, parent of Apache Corporation, agreed to acquire Callon Petroleum for approximately $4.5 billion in a stock-swap deal. The acquisition follows Exxon Mobil’s $59.5 billion agreement to buy Pioneer Natural Resources and Chevron’s $53 billion deal to buy Hess Corporation in October 2023. The acquisitions come as major energy companies seek to expand production during a period when production growth from technological improvements seems to be slowing. The acquisitions, while all three stock transactions, may also represent improved balance sheets and cash flow. As we have discussed in the past, energy companies have used recent energy price upcycles to pay down debt and repurchase shares as opposed to previous cycles when management expanded drilling efforts that eventually drove down energy prices. The result has been more muted energy price cycles that extend for longer periods of time.

Energy Companies continue to generate high cash levels at current energy prices.

Despite the drop in energy prices, operating netbacks (revenues less royalties and operating costs) remain high. With debt levels low, energy management have raised capital budgets, increased dividends, and repurchased shares. Management is always reluctant to raise dividends to levels that are unsustainable in a down cycle. As a result several energy companies have begun to institute special dividends. We expect manage to continue to invest in growth and reward shareholders even at current energy levels. Should energy prices rise, these activities should accelerate.

Valuations remain attractive.

With the decline in energy company stock values, many companies are trading at enterprise values that are less than five times free cash flow. We view this multiple as unsustainable given an increased use of cash flow to repurchase shares. This is especially true of companies with slow production decline curves such as the companies we follow in western Canada. Given our belief that energy prices are entering a period of relative stability (oil prices trade in a range of $60-$10/bbl) and that stock prices have already reacted to energy price declines to the lower end of this range, we see limited downside to investing in energy stocks and large upside should energy prices rise. We believe this is especially true for smaller cap energy stocks that have ample drilling opportunities and that could be takeover targets for larger energy companies that do not.


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ANALYST CREDENTIALS, PROFESSIONAL DESIGNATIONS, AND EXPERIENCE

Senior Equity Analyst focusing on Basic Materials & Mining. 20 years of experience in equity research. BA in Business Administration from Westminster College. MBA with a Finance concentration from the University of Missouri. MA in International Affairs from Washington University in St. Louis.
Named WSJ ‘Best on the Street’ Analyst and Forbes/StarMine’s “Best Brokerage Analyst.”
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