Energy Business

Is It Time to Be Cautious on Independent Refining Stocks?

Oil refiners enjoyed a solid run-up in share price beginning early in 2015 and lasting until about the end of the year. Since then, however, prices have trickled lower, with the big drop coming in early February on the first sign that crude prices would rise.

And rise they did, for about six weeks before bouncing lower, then higher again in the past week or so. Refiners’ stocks have tracked the recent moves in crude oil pretty closely with a couple of exceptions. One of those exceptions is Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO), which dropped 38% in the period between January 4 and February 5 of this year. The stock has come back sharply but remains more than 13% below its early January price.

Analysts at Credit Suisse on Monday cut their rating on Valero to Neutral and maintained their $68 price target on the stock. Recession risk is the main driver of the change:

The greatest reason to sell refiner holdings this summer, aside from the end of seasonal trade, is a rising likelihood of recession. We believe this is not a 2016 event. However, recession risks rise into 2017 and more so in 2018. As consumers get stronger, core inflation may rise. Headline inflation may be bolstered by a rise in oil prices. This may trigger rate increases and stress an overly indebted global economy.

Rising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards represent another headwind, according to the analysts:

Today, we are enjoying a cyclical rally in gasoline demand, driven by the rising wages of global consumers, both here and overseas, and helped by a collapse in pump prices. As these cyclical factors ebb, then auto efficiency gains may start to flatten gasoline demand later this decade or early in the next. Let’s be clear: we think gasoline demand and cracks will be strong next summer also, barring a recession. However, for some stocks this already looks reflected in valuation. Perversely, for all the pessimism on diesel today, we agree with [Exxon Mobil] that diesel demand could start to rise at a faster pace than gasoline over the next decade, driven by the need for heavy duty and marine transport to deliver goods to consumers.

The analysts downgraded Valero, but not because they expect the company to report weak numbers for the first quarter. That’s essentially a given for refiners and nearly every other company that trades publicly. Rather, Credit Suisse said, “On lowered numbers, [Valero] looks more fairly valued.”

Other refiners rated Neutral include HollyFrontier Corp. (NYSE: HFC) and Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX). Outperform ratings have been maintained on Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC), which the analysts describe as having “a quality asset footprint at a discount,” and Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO), which has a strong position in California, even with Exxon’s Torrance refinery set to come back online after more than a year of repairs following an explosion in February 2015.

Valero’s stock traded down about 2.2% in the mid-afternoon on Monday, at $61.66 in a 52-week range of $51.68 to $73.88. The consensus price target on the stock is $76.33.

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