Run a list of new one-year NYSE highs lately, and chances are you’ll come across Ecopetrol (NYSE:EC), a company that’s currently little known outside its native country but is quickly making a big name for itself.
One of the top recommendations of my model since early January, Ecopetrol may not be a household name here in the U.S., but it’s the largest company in Colombia and is one of the primary petroleum providers in all of Latin America.
It’s not just an oil producer. Ecopetrol owns nearly 5,000 miles of pipeline throughout Colombia, which is a huge country. Although it has oil-producing fields in every corner of the nation, it also owns two refineries and ports for fuel exports and imports on both coasts.
This makes Ecopetrol an energy conglomerate in every sense of the word. It explores and produces raw crude oil, refines it, transports it and even sells refined products like gasoline, diesel and natural gas to the end market.
The company, and its predecessors, were state-owned at the start, but in 2003 the structure was modified to allow Ecopetrol to be more transparent and competitive with its international peers. It was released from a lot of the ancillary state functions of being the administrator of all Colombian oil sources. The country formed a National Hydrocarbons Agency, and Ecopetrol was freed to operate as a free-market company competing on the world oil market.
Although oil production in Colombia began as early as 1922, a couple of significant discoveries in the 1980s nearly quadrupled the country’s energy output. It currently produces over 800 thousand barrels of oil per day, has 2 billion barrels of proven reserves and is the 20th largest oil producer in the world
Crude oil has until recently overshadowed the country’s significant natural gas potential. With 4.4 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, and over 1 billion cubic feet per day of production, Colombia is the fourth-largest energy player in the Latin American market.
Colombia’s energy sector is still comparatively young, so it’s still in a huge growth period. The exploration area has increased eight-fold since 2003, jumping from 12.5 million hectares to over 100 million in 2011.
This growth has largely been spearheaded by Ecopetrol, which now controls 40% of the exploration land and 54% of the proven energy reserves in Colombia. Additionally, Ecopetrol produces two thirds of the country’s crude oil output and owns three-fourths of the pipeline capacity.
The company has been incredibly aggressive, having increased capital spending the last three years by nearly 400%, which has resulted in 15 oil and gas discoveries during that time.
Despite the growth in its home country, Ecopetrol has also expanded its reach, now operating subsidiaries in the U.S., Peru and Brazil, generating 60% of its total revenues from outside the country.
Shares are up 20% in the last three months, and because Ecopetrol is a foreign company, we hold American depository receipts that trade like shares at a specified ratio to the actual shares.
A survey of analysts by Thomson Reuters estimates 2012 earnings will hit $4.19 a share, which values Ecopetrol at an 11.5x multiple. Add in a dividend yield of nearly 3%, and Ecopetrol is easily the best way to take advantage of the tremendous growth prospects of the energy sector in Colombia. This one looks like a keeper.