Industry Report - Energy - The Outlook for Energy Stocks Keeps Getting Better
Friday, July 2, 2021
Energy Industry Report
Where Is The Supply Response?
Michael Heim, CFA, Senior Research Analyst, Noble Capital Markets, Inc.
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- Stocks are responding. Energy stocks, as measured by the XLE Energy Index, have underperformed the overall market for many years but have started to show signs of a rebound. The XLE rose 10.7% in the June quarter versus an 8.4% rise in the S&P 500 Index. This marks the third consecutive quarter of outperformance and tracks the rise in oil prices that began last November.
- Oil prices are crossing new levels. Oil prices continued their upward trend in the first quarter with WTI prices crossing $75/bbl. at the end of the quarter. Oil prices have reached levels not seen since 2018 and show no signs of letting up. Brent prices are trading closer to $76/bbl. The spread between WTI and Brent prices has narrowed as U.S. producers have been slower to accelerate drilling than other parts of the world.
- Natural gas prices are starting to take off. Natural Gas prices have also been exceptionally strong in recent months climbing above $3.60/mcf. Recent heat waves across much of the country has meant that gas-fired turbines are running at full speed.
- Long-term trends favor renewable, nuclear and natural gas but oil is holding steady. Energy sources in the United States are undergoing a significant transformation away from carbon-based fuels. Coal consumption has been replaced by renewable, nuclear, and natural gas. Worth noting, petroleum consumption, which grew dramatically in the last 50 years, has maintained the levels reached at the end of the century.
- The next few quarters could be very good for energy companies. The rebound in oil and natural prices came faster than expected and is staying higher than we would have expected. Our near-term outlook for energy stocks remains positive.
Energy stocks, as measured by the XLE Energy Index, have underperformed the overall market for many years but have started to show signs of a rebound. The XLE rose 10.7% in the June quarter versus an 8.4% rise in the S&P 500 Index. This marks the third consecutive quarter of outperformance and tracks the rise in oil prices that began last November. The chart below shows that the performance of energy stocks in comparison to the S&P Composite Index over the last twelve months.
Source: Yahoo Finance
Oil prices continued their upward trend in the first quarter with WTI prices crossing $75/bbl. at the end of the quarter. Oil prices have reached levels not seen since 2018 and show no signs of letting up. Brent prices are trading closer to $76/bbl. The spread between WTI and Brent prices has narrowed as U.S. producers have been slower to accelerate drilling than other parts of the world. We would attribute the delays to transmission issues in the Permian Basin during extremely cold temperatures in Texas in February. The delay also reflects the impact that low oil prices in 2020 have had upon the health of smaller domestic producers.--
OPEC, which initiated supply reductions last year, has maintained those reductions through the first half of 2021 despite the improved demand outlook. A tentative agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia will gradually increase production by 2 million barrels/day over the rest of the year. We believe the increase will offset growing demand associated with post-pandemic global economic expansion and that it will not have an adverse impact on oil prices. The oil futures curve shows oil prices declining on the out months but staying above $70/bbl. through December.
Meanwhile, domestic producers have been slow to react to higher oil prices but have begun to accelerate drilling in recent months. There are 77% more than half the number of active oil rigs in the United States versus this time last year (470 verses 265). That said, there are only half the number of active rigs in the United States as compared to pre-pandemic levels. The figure below shows the contrast in rig count and oil prices over the last three years. The lack of a supply response to higher prices has meant, and will most likely continue to mean, that oil prices could stay at levels above what we consider to be the long-term normalized price for quite some time.
High oil prices, combined with improved operating efficiencies mean that production companies are facing very favorable returns on their investment. We look for companies to start reporting strong positive cash flow and to use cash flow to increase drilling and improve balance sheets. We do not expect companies to raise dividend payments given the cyclical nature of recent oil price trends but would not rule out share repurchases if stock prices do not rebound further.
Natural Gas Prices
Natural Gas prices have also been exceptionally strong in recent months climbing above $3.60/mcf. Recent heat waves across much of the country has meant that gas-fired turbines are running at full speed.
Storage levels, which exited the winter heating season below historical averages, have returned to normal levels. Drilling activity has started to pick up but remains well below pre-pandemic levels. There were 98 natural gas rigs drilling in the United States, up 30% from a year ago. As is the case with oil, we believe the lack of a supply response could mean that natural gas prices remain at elevated levels for several quarters. The gas futures curve is flat, dipping only a few cents into the fall months but then rising back above $3.60/mcf. during the winter months.
Longer-term energy trends
Energy sources in the United States are undergoing a significant transformation away from carbon-based fuels. While this should not be a surprise to anyone, it is worth taking a long-term view of energy consumption to highlight how the transformation has acerated in recent years. The chart below energy sources over the last 250 years. As one might expect, coal consumption has fallen sharply in the last ten years. Coal consumption has been replaced by renewable, nuclear, and natural gas. Worth noting, petroleum consumption, which grew dramatically in the last 50 years, has maintained the levels reached at the end of the century. We believe this trend will continue with petroleum providing a smaller portion of the overall energy picture, but not necessarily declining in absolute value.
The rebound in oil and natural prices came faster than expected and is staying higher than we would have expected. We have been adjusting our models to reflect higher prices but are maintaining our long-term oil price forecast of $50 per barrel and $2.50 per mcf. Energy companies should start reporting positive cash flow at these prices and increasing drilling budgets.
Our near-term outlook for energy stocks remains positive. We expect companies to report favorable results for the next few quarters. Longer-term, we have concern that oil demand will be constrained by power generation competition from renewable energy and decreased demand for gasoline and diesel due to a growth in electric vehicles. At the same time, increased supply from OPEC and continued drilling productivity will mean lower energy prices. We recommend investors stay focused on energy companies with solid balance sheets, low operating costs and protected prices.
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Senior Equity Analyst focusing on energy and utility stocks. 24 years of experience as an analyst. Chartered Financial Analyst©. MBA from Washington University in St. Louis and BA in Economics from Carleton College in Minnesota. Named WSJ 'Best on the Street' Analyst four times. Named Forbes/StarMine's "Best Brokerage Analyst" three times. FINRA licenses 7, 63, 86, 87.
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Report ID: 23804