Industry Report - Energy - Where Is The Supply Response?
Monday, April 5, 2021
Energy Industry Report
Where Is The Supply Response?
Michael Heim, CFA, Senior Research Analyst, Noble Capital Markets, Inc.
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- Oil prices continued their upward trend in the first quarter with WTI prices reaching mid-sixties in early March before closing the quarter closer to $60/bbl. The oil future curve is flat with longer-term pricing just below $60/bbl. Meanwhile, domestic producers have been slow to react to higher oil prices. There are slightly more than half the number of active oil rigs in the United States versus this time last year (324 verses 624) and only 25% of the rigs operating at peak (1600).
- Natural gas prices followed oil prices up in January and February due to much-publicized cold fronts across the Midwest. The May contract peaked at $3.22/mcf on February 16th. However, prices fell in March when warmer weather took over. The recent decline in natural gas prices mirrors what can be seen in the natural gas storage numbers. Storage began the winter near full capacity but has fallen sharply in January and February due to cold weather.
- Energy stocks, as measured by the XLE Energy Index, rose alongside oil prices climbing 32% during the quarter. The rebound in oil prices came faster than expected and is staying higher than we would have expected. 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.
Oil prices continued their upward trend in the first quarter with WTI prices reaching mid-sixties in early March before closing the quarter closer to $60/bbl. Brent oil prices are trading approximately 5% above WTI prices. Improving global economic trends have improved the outlook for oil demand. OPEC, which initiated supply reductions last year, has maintained those reductions despite the improved demand outlook. Near-term, temporary events such as cold weather and the blockage of the SUEZ canal have helped keep spot prices high. The oil future curve is flat with longer-term pricing just below $60/bbl.
Meanwhile, domestic producers have been slow to react to higher oil prices. There are slightly more than half the number of active oil rigs in the United States versus this time last year (324 verses 624) and only 25% of the rigs operating at peak (1600). Note in the graph below how WTI oil prices began rising in the fall of 2020, but the rig count barely responded. International rig counts show a similar story. We are somewhat at a loss to explain the slow supply reaction to higher prices. Perhaps COVID issues are making it difficult to man the crews needed to run rigs. Perhaps producers are wary of supply bottlenecks that pushed oil prices into negative levels last fall. Perhaps producers believe OPEC will punish U.S. producers that expand when prices cross $50/bbl. by opening up supply and driving prices back down below $40/bbl. Whatever the reason, the lack of a supply response has the effect of keeping oil prices above the levels we believe would occur when supply and demand are in balance.
Natural Gas Prices
Natural gas prices followed oil prices up in January and February due to much-publicized cold fronts across the Midwest. The May contract peaked at $3.22/mcf on February 16th. However, prices fell in March when warmer weather took over. Current prices are near $2.60/mcf, close to where they began the quarter. Natural gas futures rise modestly as they stretch into the fall approaching $2.75/mcf. There were 92 gas drilling rigs in operation as of March 26th down from 102 rigs a year ago.
The recent decline in natural gas prices mirrors what can be seen in the natural gas storage numbers. Storage began the winter near full capacity but has fallen sharply in January and February due to cold weather. At current levels, storage is near 5-year averages. As we enter the end of the heating season, there is little chance that levels will move away from average levels.
Energy stocks, as measured by the XLE Energy Index, rose alongside oil prices climbing 32% during the quarter. The chart below shows that the performance of energy stocks in comparison to the S&P Composite Index.
The rebound in oil 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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