Merrill Lynch Defensive on Oil and Gas, With 6 Key Stocks to Buy

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With oil plummeting below the $50 mark, the question is where it stops. $40, $30, perhaps even lower? The fact of the matter is that investors are perhaps being presented the greatest energy buying opportunity this century. One thing is for sure, while demand may have dropped and while there is perhaps a temporary glut, demand has not dropped 50% like the price has. Lower prices even encourage more gasoline consumption.

A new report from Merrill Lynch stresses that a demand catalyst is needed to firm up pricing and that may not come until the third quarter of this year. The firm recommends clients stay defensive on oil stocks and become more positive on the natural gas names. Here are the six stocks that the Merrill Lynch team mentions in the report for investors to look at now. Two oil stocks and four natural gas stocks are highlighted.

Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY) is a top oil stock to buy and is on the Merrill Lynch US1 list. The company announced last year it will continue to grow dividends and expects to begin buying back more shares this year, a double plus for shareholders. The company finally rewarded activist investors last year when it spun off its California assets into a separate company. Occidental had faced calls from Wall Street and activist investors for years to split its U.S. business from its international operations, with analysts valuing the assets at a range of between $19 billion to $22 billion. Wall Street applauded the action, and the stock has held up better than most.

Occidental shareholders are paid a solid 3.75% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target for this very defensive top energy play is $105. The Thomson/First Call consensus price target is $90.66. The stock closed Tuesday at $77.

ALSO READ: With Utilities Fully Priced, the Only 4 Stocks to Buy in 2015

Hess Corp. (NYSE: HES) is another stock on the Merrill Lynch US1 list. The company has been has been the subject of takeover speculation in the past and some of that chatter recently reemerged. With a market capitalization falling to just under $21 billion, the company could fall prey to larger integrated as a quick bolt-on acquisition to boost growth. At the company’s analysts day, executives said Hess is increasing its Bakken shale net peak production guidance to approximately 175,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2020, adding an additional 1,000 well locations to a total of more than 4,000, and increasing its net estimated ultimate recovery to more than 1.4 BBOE. Strong numbers for a suitor looking to expand. The lower Hess goes in price, the more attractive the company may become to a large integrated.

Hess shareholders are paid a 1.5% dividend. Merrill Lynch keeps the price target at $105, and the consensus target is $91.56. Shares closed down Tuesday at $69.46.

Range Resources Corp. (NYSE: RRC) is a top stock to buy for possible gains in natural gas, especially with the possibility of a continued wretched winter. The company holds interests in developed and undeveloped natural gas and oil leases in the Appalachian and Southwestern regions of the United States. Range Resources owns 4,637 net producing wells, as well as approximately 1.6 million gross acres under lease in the Appalachian region. It also owns 1,536 net producing wells and approximately 811,000 gross acres under lease in Southwestern region.

Shares have been walloped to the tune of almost 50% this year. Range Resources investors are paid a small 0.3% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target is $92, and the consensus figure is at $80.72. Range closed trading Tuesday at $50.59.

ALSO READ: 5 Top Dividend Yielding Stocks on UBS’s First 2015 Equity Focus List

Southwestern Energy Co. (NYSE: SWN) surprised analysts when it actually raised its capital expenditure budget for 2015, and it remains bullish on a rise in natural gas prices in 2015. The company’s exploration and production business has operations in the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas, the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, as well as other plays in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The Merrill Lynch price target is posted at $49, and the consensus target is $39.32. Shares closed trading on Tuesday at $24.71.

Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DVN) is expected to have 48% or more of its total 2015 production in natural gas. The company is an independent driller primarily active in the United States. More than 70% of Devon’s U.S. reserves are in natural gas, with most of that lying in Texas’ Barnett shale. The company plans to invest a total of more than $1.1 billion in the Eagle Ford shale and drill more than 200 wells. Daily production is just under 2 billion cubic feet. This is a pure-play natural gas stock that investors can feel very comfortable holding for a long time.

Devon investors are paid a 1.8% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target is a whopping $91. The consensus target is much lower at $73.52. Devon closed Tuesday at $57.50.

Memorial Resource Development Corp. (NASDAQ: MRD) is another top stock weighted to natural gas production that the Merrill Lynch team likes now. The company is a smaller independent natural gas and oil company engaged in the acquisition, exploration and development of natural gas and oil properties primarily in North Louisiana and East Texas. Company executives announced in December a very shareholder friendly stock buyback plan. The company has authorized the repurchase of up to $50 million of Memorial’s common stock starting this year.

The Merrill Lynch price target for the stock was not listed. The consensus price target is $29.30, and the stock closed trading Tuesday at $17.86.

ALSO READ: J.P. Morgan’s Top Alternative Energy and Smart Grid Stocks for 2015

Needless to say it takes some guts to buy energy into the teeth of the worst sell-off since 2008. With that in mind, look back at the huge rebound in prices from that time period. While there is no guarantee that energy pricing returns to the levels from this past summer, even a 50% move back up should give a substantial boost to these top stocks to buy.