Energy Business

Are Oil and Energy Stocks Becoming Too Cheap?

Drilling rig
Source: Thinkstock
With West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil trading in the mid-$40s for February delivery, there is little doubt that oil is cheap today. But is it too cheap and, more important, are the companies that produce and sell the black stuff being sold too cheaply too?

The answer to that is, “It depends.” And what it depends on more than anything else is size. The bigger a company is, the less impact the 50% drop in crude price has had on the stock price.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) has dropped about 9% since July 1 of last year, and Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) has lost more than 17%. Exxon’s market cap has gone from around $423 billion to about $388 billion, and Chevron’s has dropped from around $238 billion to $203 billion.

A smaller firm like Pioneer Resources Inc. (NYSE: PXD), though, has been hit much harder by the drop in crude prices. Pioneer’s shares are down about a third, and the company’s market cap has dropped from around $29 billion to about $22 billion. The company is one of the five largest producers in the Permian Basin.

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It gets worse for even smaller companies. Shares of Whiting Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: WLL) are down 65%, and the company’s market cap has dropped from $5.42 billion to about $3.29 billion. Oasis Petroleum Inc. (NYSE: OAS) has lost 75% of its share price since July 1, and its market cap has gone from around $2.4 billion to $1.4 billion.

If we look at Whiting in a bit more detail, we see a company that is now the largest producer in North Dakota’s Bakken shale play and a company that boosted its proved reserves by 29% in 2014 to 780 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe), of which 83% is oil. Whiting’s problem is how to get that oil out of the ground and make a profit at a price of about $30 a barrel (Tuesday’s posted price from Plains Marketing). The company has said little about its capital spending plans for 2015, although the company did say it expected “moderate” production growth in 2015 and that it would seek to sell off $1 billion assets to reduce its debt and provide additional liquidity.

Short interest in Whiting totaled just over 8 million shares at the end of December. That’s 6.8% of the firm’s float, with about 1.2 day to cover. Short interest peaked at 9.7 million shares in the period ending November 14, and fell to a low of 6.2 million shares by December 15 before picking up again. Short sellers see more carnage ahead.

Oasis has already announced that it will cut capital spending by 44% in 2015, and that it expects its rig count to drop from 16 to six at the same time that production rises by 8% to around 43,000 boe per day. Short interest in Oasis has jumped to nearly 17 million shares, or 17.5% of the company’s float, with less than 2 days to cover.

At a price-to-book ratio of 0.79, a forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 9.69 and a share price about 75% off the 52-week high, Oasis stock is very cheap. But does it have enough cash to ride out further price cuts? At the end of September, the company reported $67.2 million in cash and equivalents, long-term debt of $2.55 billion and interest expenses of $107 million in the third quarter. The stock is cheap for a reason: the risk may not be worth the reward.

Whiting is not much better off, with $28 million in cash, long-term debt of $2.75 billion and interest expenses of about $40 million at the end of September. Whiting’s price-to-book ratio is 0.74 and its forward P/E is negative.

ALSO READ: The Bullish and Bearish Case for Exxon Mobil in 2015, Versus Chevron

Short interest in Pioneer is at a 12-month high of nearly 6 million shares, or 4.7% of the company’s float. Days to cover is about 2.5. The company had $550 million in cash and equivalents at the end of September and long-term debt of $2.66 billion. Interest expense totaled $46 million in the quarter. Pioneer has hedged 82,000 barrels a day of production at around $71 a barrel for this year, and that certainly will help it weather the current storm of collapsing prices. The company’s price-to-book ratio is a lofty 2.59 and its forward P/E is 54.82. It is safe to say that Pioneer’s stock is far from being cheap.

And the big boys? Exxon’s stock was upgraded Wednesday at Wells Fargo Securities from Market Perform to Outperform, but the analysts raised the valuation on the shares from a previous range of $88 to $96 to a new range of $96 to $106. The annual earnings per share forecast for 2014 is down less than 1% compared with the 2013, but it is forecast to drop by nearly 50% in the 2016 fiscal year.

For Chevron, Wells Fargo lowered its valuation from a prior range of $121 to $132 to a new range of $108 to $116 and cut its rating from Outperform to Market Perform. Short interest is near a 12-month high on Chevron stock, and how investors view the stock going forward will depend heavily on what the company has to say about spending and revenues in 2015.

So are the stocks too cheap? Given the uncertainty and volatility in the crude markets, smaller company stocks are cheap, but they have a greater risk of falling even further. Keeping production costs low enough to maintain interest payments on massive debt is a critical concern. Even buyouts may not save these small players because buyers will be driving hard bargains.

Companies of the size of Pioneer and the even larger players are not especially cheap yet, if you think that crude prices will fall further. The stocks are certainly cheaper than they were, but it is not too big a stretch to think that they will slide further.

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