After Leading the S&P 500 and the energy sector for the past two years, and into the first quarter of this year, the U.S. refining sector hit a rough patch in March. A narrowing of spreads between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude, and some good old-fashioned profit taking, seem to be the main culprits for the sell-off in these stocks. A new report out from Oppenheimer stresses that U.S. refiners are the only group in the energy sector with more than 10% average free cash flow yield, based on 2013 and 2014 consensus estimates, which should enable them to grow dividends and buy back stock.
In their report, the energy team at Oppenheimer point to four specific reasons that may allow the refining stocks to recover from the recent sell-off, and continue their market leadership.
- The continued wide differential between WTI and Brent pricing: Analysts also expect new heavy oil refining capacity expansions to reduce WTI demand and depress its price relative to Brent, leading to wider discounts.
- Continued cheap natural gas: Even with a pullback in oil prices and a surge in natural gas prices, they expect the gas-oil discount to remain significantly above historical levels.
- Growing diesel and gasoline imports: For the first time last year, the United States became a net exporter of gasoline and diesel, and given U.S. refiners’ cost advantages and higher export margins, this trend is expected to grow materially in the next few years.
- Declining environmental spending: While environmental spending is expected to continue, its share of capital expenditures (CAPEX) has steadily declined as most of the key milestones of the Clean Air Act legislation have been achieved. CAPEX as a percentage of cash flow is the lowest for the refiners in decades.
Here are the five U.S. refining stocks that investors may want to buy now.
HollyFrontier Corp. (NYSE: HFC) leads off the Oppenheimer list. It has the highest unit profit per barrel of refining capacity in the industry, and a 39% interest in Holly Energy Partners. L.P. (NYSE: HEP). The stock trades at under six times earnings. The Thomson/First Call estimate is at $60.50. HollyFrontier also pays shareholders a 2.50% dividend.
Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC) is one of the largest petroleum product refiners, marketers and transporters in the United States. The Wall St. consensus price target for the stock is $93.50. Investors receive a 1.70% dividend.
Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) makes the stocks to buy list. Spun off from former parent company ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), Phillips 66 has 15 refineries with a net crude oil capacity of 2.2 millions barrels per day, 10,000 branded marketing outlets and 15,000 miles of pipeline systems. The consensus price target is $69. Shareholders receive a 1.90% dividend.
Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO) was another popular name caught up in the refining stock sell-off. Its retail-marketing system includes more than 1,375 branded service stations, of which more than 590 are company operated under the Tesoro, Shell and USA Gasoline brands. The consensus price target for the stock is $59. Investors receive a 1.50% dividend.
Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO) made Jim Cramer’s lightning round this week as a stock to buy. The company is expected to receive $1.05 billion in cash and incur a $260 million tax liability as a result of the separation of is retail segment next month. The new company, CST Brands (CST on the NYSE) will have 1,032 sites in the U.S., 81% owned, and 61% in Texas, with attractive demographics for convenience stores. Valero is also the world’s largest independent refining company. The consensus price target for the stock is $48.50. Investors are paid a 1.90% dividend.
With all of these market leading refining stocks trading at least 10% below their 52-week highs, now may be the time for investors to add them to their portfolios. Growing earnings and dividends is usually a positive combination in any industry, and refining is no exception.