Wednesday, January 04, 2023
Michael Heim, CFA, Senior Research Analyst, Noble Capital Markets, Inc.
Refer to the bottom of the report for important disclosures
Energy Stocks Were Strong. Energy stocks rose 21.5% in the fourth quarter far outpacing a 7.1% rise for the S&P 500 Index. For the year, energy stocks were up an impressive 57% versus a 20% decline in the overall market. The strength can largely be attributed to rising energy prices, although we would note that energy prices have largely leveled out after a strong first half of the year.
Oil prices are near $80. Near month oil future contracts are now almost $80 per barrel, below peak prices but significantly higher than historic prices. At $80 per barrel, most energy companies are very profitable and generating significant excess free cash flow. Despite the favorable economics, energy companies have been slow to drill new wells, and modest production increases have come mainly from improved efficiencies. In addition, there is a growing belief that OPEC’s spare capacity is declining questioning its ability to meet demand increases. As time passes, $80 oil is starting to feel like the new equilibrium level with $40-$60 oil prices a thing of the past.
Gas prices are rising even more than oil prices. Natural gas prices have risen steadily over the last two years even as production levels have been steady. Storage levels, which were running below historical levels, have improved in recent months.
Energy industry fundamentals remain strong. Oil and gas prices are near historical highs and above the levels assumed in our financial and valuation models. Energy company cash flow generation is high, and companies are facing the envious position of trying to decide what to do with the cash. Debt levels have been pared down and managements have been raising dividend levels and repurchasing shares. Drilling is increasing but at a controllable pace that doesn’t seem likely to put prices into a downcycle. We believe the case for smaller cap energy stocks is especially strong. If our belief that a world-wide recession is already factored into energy prices is correct, small cap energy companies will be in the best position to take advantage of any price increase.
Energy stocks, as measured by the XLE Energy Index, rose sharply in the most recent quarter after logging in a flat third quarter. In the fourth quarter, energy stocks rose 21.5% far outpacing a 7.1% rise for the S&P 500 Index. For the year, energy stocks were up an impressive 57% versus a 20% decline in the overall market. This year’s strong performance comes after last year’s 50% rise. The strength can largely be attributed to rising energy prices, although we would note that energy prices have largely leveled out after a strong first half of the year.
Oil prices rose steadily over a two-year period beginning the spring of 2020. WTI prices peaked at $120 per barrel in the first week of June. Prices declined in the third quarter but seem to have leveled off in recent months. Near month oil future contracts are now almost $80 per barrel, below peak prices but significantly higher than historic prices. At $80 per barrel, most energy companies are very profitable and generating significant excess free cash flow. As time passes, $80 oil is starting to feel like the new equilibrium level with $40-$60 oil prices a thing of the past.
Despite the favorable economics, energy companies have been slow to drill new wells. U.S. rig count, as reported by Baker Hughes, crept up to 779 rigs by the end of the year. This compares to a peak level of 1,600 in 2014. The disparity between increased profitability and increased capital expenditures is shown in the chart below. Operating cash flow has soared over the last two years, but capital expenditures have barely increased. The result has been a large increase in dividend payments, share repurchases and debt reduction.
While capital expenditures have not increased in line with cash flow, it would be unfair to say that oil production has not increased. Indeed, current production levels are above that during peak drilling periods in 2014. The implication is that drilling has become more productive. While drilling advances such as the use of horizontal drill and fracking in shale deposits may be old hat, it is worth noting that drillers have been refining drilling techniques for individual drilling locations. Drillers continue to perfect the ideal number of fracking targets and the materials used to frack. In addition, as we discussed in our September quarter comments, there has been a sharp increase in the number of well recompletions, which are less expensive to complete but not a long-term solution.
Meanwhile, OPEC has been increasing production in recent years after making sharp reductions during the COVID years. However, there are growing concerns that OPEC’s overall capacity is declining and that its spare capacity has consequentially declined. If this is indeed true, OPEC’s ability to fulfill increased demand for oil may be limited. This would bode well, not only for oil prices, but for the role domestic producers will have in meeting demand.
Natural Gas Prices
The chart below shows natural gas prices against production levels. As the chart shows, natural gas prices have risen steadily over the last two years even as production levels have remained steady. To that extent, natural gas prices are acting like oil prices. Natural gas prices tend to track oil prices but with a few distinctions. Natural gas demand and supply is less global than oil. Imports (and now exports) of liquefied natural gas represent a small portion of domestic supply and demand. Secondly, natural gas is used primarily for space heating. That means demand is more seasonal. It also means demand can be affected by weather conditions. On the other hand, natural gas demand is less affected by general economic conditions than oil.
Storage levels, which were running below historical levels, have improved in recent months. We would note that the most recent storage numbers do not reflect the cold snap across the country during the last week of the year. Cold temperatures may send storage levels lower than is reflected in the chart below.
Energy industry fundamentals remain strong. Oil and gas prices are near historical highs and above the levels assumed in our financial and valuation models. Energy company cash flow generation is high, and companies are facing the envious position of trying to decide what to do with the cash. Debt levels have been pared down and managements have been raising dividend levels and repurchasing shares. Drilling is increasing but at a controllable pace that doesn’t seem likely to put prices into a downcycle.
We believe the case for smaller cap energy stocks is strong. Major oil companies are facing increasing pressure to focus on renewable energy instead of producing more carbon-based fuel. Smaller cap energy companies are less tethered and often able to acquire and exploit properties being ignored by the majors. If our belief that a world-wide recession is already factored into energy prices is correct, small cap energy companies will be in the best position to take advantage of any price increase.
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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.”
FINRA licenses 7, 24, 63, 87
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