The stock market knows something policymakers don’t: The era of oil stocks is dead.
Despite Administration efforts to embargo Iran and Venezuela, and despite fracking’s growing control over supply, the price of the U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil remains below where it was last fall. The global price, defined by Brent North Sea oil, dropped $7 per barrel in the month before May 23.
A decade that began with an “energy crisis” is ending in a global glut, just as U.S. production reaches a record 12 million barrels a day.
To keep production high, the Administration is giving the oil companies everything they always wanted. Rules on safety are being abolished. Government-owned lands are being opened for drilling. The Administration is trying to open Alaska to oil exploration.
Yet despite what had been the best quarter for prices in a decade and predictions from analysts of even-higher prices, stocks in the oil sector haven’t risen in five years. The U.S. Oil Fund (NYSEARCA:USO), an ETF tracking the oil sector, is down 68% over that time, while the S&P 500 is up 46%.
How is this possible? It’s possible because oil and gas no longer represent cheap energy. Renewable energy, not just efficiency but electricity produced without oil, gas or nuclear fuel, is becoming the cheap energy.
The lifetime cost of solar and wind installations, $63.20 per Megawatt-hour, is now below that of coal, and approaching that of natural gas. The solar power expansion that began early this decade in the Far West, spurred by favorable tax laws, has now spread to the heart of the U.S. oilpatch.
What should be a golden era in the oilpatch tastes like dust on Wall Street because it has come too late.
Exxon Mobil (XOM)
Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) stock reached its peak for the year in April, trading at over $83 per share. On May 23, it was trading below $74.
At that price, the stock yielded 4.33% in dividends, $3.48 per share, and had a price-to-earnings ratio of 17 … slightly below the market. In 2018, Exxon Mobil earned $4.88 per share, but for the first quarter, it earned only 55 cents per share fully diluted, below analyst estimates.
Exxon Mobil is the most diversified of the American oil majors. It produces oil around the world, refines it, and markets it through its own stations. Exxon blamed the first quarter on its refining segment. Its report highlighted a huge new oil find off the coast of Guyana, and a gas find off the coast of Cyprus. Its very diversification is hurting results.
The analyst verdict on Exxon Mobil is weakening, with four analysts taking down buy orders and entering the weaker “hold” camp in the last three months. Analysts are worried about Exxon Mobil’s ability to generate cash from operations. The best-run company in Houston has become the least-favorite major oil stock.
If Exxon Mobil, with its global reach, diversification, yield and $279 billion in 2018 revenue, up almost 20% from 2017, isn’t a great investment, what is?
Oil has become a technology business, and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) is its master.
Schlumberger technology makes it easier than ever to find oil, to drill for it, and to measure what’s going on inside a well. Schlumberger pays a 50-cent-per-share dividend that was yielding 4.69% at the May 23 price of about $37.50. It generated $5.7 billion in operating cash flow last year, on a market cap of $51.4 billion.
So, you think, business is great, and people are wonderful. Not so fast.
Over the last five years, Schlumberger has been a disastrous investment. The shares are down 64% in that time. The dividend hasn’t been increased since 2015. Profits have been falling over the last four quarters and are down 60% from their 2015 peak, when Schlumberger bought oil tools producer Cameron for $14.8 billion.
Capital spending has been declining in the oil patch, and Schlumberger is suffering. Commodity oversupply means better technology for reaching that commodity isn’t a good investment. Analysts, however, have yet to give up on the stock, with half keeping it on their buy lists.
Schlumberger management remains optimistic about international operations and there are still analysts pounding the table for it. But it’s generally “out of sight, out of mind,” a stock that’s seldom written about, where mid-decade it was one of the hottest stocks in the market.
Whiting Petroleum (WLL)
In 2014, Whiting Petroleum (NYSE:WLL) bought Kodiak Oil & Gas for $3.8 billion, becoming the largest producer in the Bakken oil field of North Dakota and Montana, a field opened up by fracking technology
I called Whiting the “King of the Bakken.” I also told investors to “sell while you can.”
Since then, the stock is down 88%; its market cap is down to $1.77 billion, half what it paid for Kodiak. Growing revenues, and even a $342 million profit in 2018, failed to attract buyers. Its March report slipped back into a loss of $69 million, and the shares have resumed their march toward zero.
Making things worse is that CEO Brad Holly, hired from Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) in 2017, was named in a sexual harassment scandal at his former employer. Holly vigorously denies the charges, but such charges have to be distracting.
There remain analysts pounding the table for Whiting, and the North Dakota oilpatch.
The problem is that all oil is not created equal. Transportation costs create a discount between the Bakken price and what Texas oil brings. Even if Whiting is paying $50 per barrel to bring oil up, it was only attracting $52 per barrel in February. The price for Bakken oil has been as high as $65/barrel in the last year, but as low as $38/barrel.
The market’s verdict is clear, and it seemed clear to me years ago. Get out of oil stocks while you can.
Dana Blankenhorn http://www.danablankenhorn.com is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family https://www.amazon.com/Reluctant-Detective-Finds-Her-Family-ebook/dp/B07FSRDR4Y/, available at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing, he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.