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Which Energy Companies Being Added to US Global Funds in Anticipation of an Oil Rebalance?

Commodities / Oil Companies Jan 27, 2016 - 11:48 AM GMT

By: The_Energy_Report


There are still winners in the energy space, but you have to move quickly. In advance of the rebalance U.S. Global Investors CEO Frank Holmes is expecting toward the end of 2016, he and analyst Samuel Pelaez point to the sectors taking advantage of opportunities, including refiners, midstream MLPs, low-cost producers, airlines and chemical companies. In this interview with The Energy Report, they name their favorites and outline the fundamentals that will make 2016 look a lot different than the year that just ended.

The Energy Report: In a recent Frank Talk, you quoted BCA Research with a prediction that oil markets will rebalance in 2016. What is that based on?

Samuel Pelaez: This chart shows that the U.S. has come off its peak production quite a bit. We reached peak production in April at about 9.6 million barrels (9.6 MMbbl). We're about 400 thousand barrels (400 Mbbl) off from that level. This goes a long way to rebalancing the supply/demand dynamics globally. Even though the U.S. has been a major contributor to rebalancing the supply in the markets, we have not seen the supply come off to the levels we were initially expecting. We thought about 1.2 MMbbl could be curtailed, but only managed to get about 400 Mbbl.

One reason for the continued production is that banks are pressuring explorers and producers (E&Ps) to bring in cash flow. The only way for these companies to bring in more cash flow is to continue growing production, or at least maintaining production. On top of that, we've seen massive efficiency gains in shale productivity. So even though the rig count has fallen dramatically, the U.S. has been able to sustain production at a relatively good level, which actually bodes really well going forward, from a U.S. supply perspective.

Now, what really needs to change for a supply/demand rebalance is for OPEC's volumes to stabilize. Toward the end of the year we saw that even though the U.S. was cutting production, OPEC production grew. In November, during their last meeting of the year, they unofficially abandoned their quota system, which they had brought from 30.5 MMbbl all the way up to 31.5 MMbbl. We saw 700 Mbbl of increased production come in toward the end of the year, which more than offset the U.S. supply volume. So even though we think supply is going the right way and OPEC's boosted production may not be sustainable, we believe we're coming to that point where supply will continue to erode gradually as a result of low oil prices.

More interestingly, on the demand side of the equation, China, the largest oil consumer, actually imported a record amount of oil in December, a total of 7.8 MMbbl of oil equivalent a day. That's 16% growth month over month. It is clearly taking advantage of lower oil prices, and we expect that dynamic to continue going forward. The lower oil prices resulted in dramatic increases in gasoline consumption around the world. More importantly, China is expanding its strategic oil reserves to take advantage of this window of opportunity, which gives you a sense that it doesn't think it is sustainable going forward.

Purchasing Managers Indexes (PMIs) are the best leading indicator for commodity demand, especially in China. As of now, global PMIs—including China PMIs—are in a negative downtrend. That means that the one-month number is below the three-month trend. Until that changes, we don't expect a significant price recovery. However, as we go into the summer peak driving season and the peak oil demand season, we expect inventory draws. We've seen massive inventory build-ups. We may see that turnaround. That will make us more comfortable that prices have bottomed, supply growth will start outpacing demand growth and we will slowly and gradually move toward a rebalanced market toward the end of the year.

TER: Do your supply side calculations include Iran? What impact could that have when it starts shipping oil again?

SP: It's actually very hard to forecast OPEC supply. But we do expect to see Iran volumes increase since sanctions were lifted. Iran has said it is ready to increase production by about 500 Mbbl. We think that is realistic. It believes it can grow to 1 MMbbl, which essentially will take it to pre-sanction level. We don't expect it to go above that, considering the lack of investment over the past few years and that major significant investments will be required for Iran to be able to grow production back up to 4 MMbbl per day (4MMbbl/d). So yes, we do expect that to be a significant driver in terms of volumes earlier in the year; however, we don't expect that to fully materialize. There are both upsides and downsides to this because it's very hard to estimate what the market is pricing in, but we believe in Q1/16 and perhaps all the way until seasonal factors kick in during Q2/16 we'll continue to see pressure on the prices down.

TER: Do you agree, Frank?

Frank Holmes: I do. I think that the pivot point is going to be the Federal Reserve trying to mitigate financial-meltdown bank lending in the energy patch. That could change the guidelines for asset sales. I think what's going to happen is we're going to get a bottoming, we're going to see supply drop and we're going to see all future funding for a lot of these operations come to an end, which will fast track this contraction in the energy supply in the U.S.

I also think Iran is a real threat. Costs are so much lower there. In the short term, money can be made meeting Iran's technology needs. In fact, it needs Boeing Co. (BA:NYSE) planes. It needs parts. It needs all the necessary chemicals and upgraded drilling equipment for the energy space. So there will be many companies that are going to benefit, but that will still put pressure on energy prices.

TER: Another thing that's changing is that after years of restrictions, the ban on exporting oil from the U.S. has been lifted. How much of an impact could that have on oil prices?

FH: More supply. If energy is to spike, then America will make that trade-off very quickly from supplying domestic chemical companies to exporting to higher price markets.

SP: I think more than the overall impact to global oil prices, it achieves a more globally efficient allocation of the resources. That would benefit American producers because the U.S. has nearly doubled its oil production in the last five years, but most of it is in the ultralight condensate space. Those are volumes that refiners in the States don't need. But Mexico could use for its gasoline. This allows producers to sell product internationally without a discount. We had West Texas Intermediate (WTI) discounts for the longest time, I think up to $30 relative to Brent, and it was because of the abundance of this condensate and light crude oil in the US. It was great for refiners at the time. Now, producers will be able to get better international prices relative to Brent. That is why we saw that WTI-Brent spread collapse. Overall, I think it benefits everybody in the States.

I have heard some criticism about consumer gasoline prices rising as a result. That is simply not true because there has never been a ban on exports of gasoline, only on raw products. The U.S. has always had gasoline prices that are commensurate with international markets. In that regard, it doesn't change anything.

TER: When I interviewed Chen Lin recently, he was hoping for $20 a barrel ($20/bbl) oil because he said that would lead to a faster jump back up in price. We dipped below $30/bbl recently. How many oil and gas juniors can survive to see that upside if Chen is right?

SP: I absolutely agree with him. Although we don't hope for prices to continue to collapse, the lower prices go, the more pain is inflicted and the quicker the supply responds from swing producers, especially tight oil, which is the more expensive kind of oil.

The Wall Street Journal published a piece recently saying that E&Ps are losing $2 billion ($2B) a week at $30/bbl oil. That's just in the U.S. Even though marginal cost curves, which is something we look at frequently, are now pointing at about $25/bbl globally for that marginal barrel of oil, it ignores all the capex, the general and administrative (G&A) expense, the debt servicing, etc. So I struggle to believe that there are many companies making money at these prices. They can continue to pump out some production, the ones that have already been established, but there will be no new supply additions at these prices.

FH: The currency also impacts it. If you're an American producer, you're much more severely impacted by oil prices falling because your costs are in dollars. However, if you're in Canada, the currency has declined so much that you're still able to marginally stay in the game as a player. The same thing happens with Colombia. The currency declines have been so severe for some of these countries that companies operating there can survive even with these low energy prices.

TER: How many oil and gas juniors are still in your portfolio? How do you decide who to keep?

SP: We have reviewed the juniors in our portfolio and we remain committed to a narrow number of companies, specifically those with proven management that have been able to demonstrate their ability to be first movers into key growth areas.

One of those names is BNK Petroleum Inc. (BKX:TSX). It has one of the best assets in all of Oklahoma. It has continued to beat everybody's estimates in terms of the decline rates. It has been able to squeeze more oil out of every well in this play than anybody ever predicted. Those are the kinds of plays we like. We like those big growth opportunities with proven management. It also has come a long way in cutting costs. I think its G&A was cut by 50% year over year. We see great optionality for the ability to grow going forward. It will need a little bit of a better price just like everybody else, but we're comfortable holding it today because the cost adjustments it has been able to implement will allow it to survive this trough.

FH: I know some oil companies that have cut their Houston office, but have added people in Calgary because their currency has declined so much. So the cost of intellectual capital, seismic research, etc. is a lot cheaper there for an international oil company. BNK originally came out of Calgary, so its cost structure has declined because of the Canadian dollar.

TER: How are the majors shifting their focus to take advantage of global opportunities? What role do they play in a diversified energy portfolio?

SP: By definition, the integrated majors are the best way to ride a storm. They've traditionally been the defensive names in the space, and they continue to be so. If you look at last year's performance, they massively outperformed the energy sector. That's even before you factor in the dividends, which are obviously much more sustainable. The role they play is critical, and it changes over time. But I think at this juncture, when we're expecting even lower equity returns, dividends and share repurchases become a big and important part of your returns.

We prefer American versus European majors. The U.S. majors have a much greater exposure to profitable downstream sectors. The U.S. downstream sector as a whole is more profitable than the European one, owing to greater gasoline demand, overall better crack spreads, better margins and overall profitability.

We look for majors that are focusing on extracting the most profitability out of their downstream space right now in order to continue to sustain their dividend growth. I think this is the big driver of the valuations of these companies. We look for those that have strong free cash flow yields, robust balance sheets, sustainable dividends and a focus on the downstream space.

We own Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:NYSE). The company has positioned itself as the best major to weather the storm. We see a number of major integrateds repositioning their portfolios in light of the price collapse, but we think Exxon was way ahead in doing this and the downstream exposure will allow it to weather the storm better than most of its peers. It will also become more active in the mergers and acquisitions space once it recovers.

TER: Are there still opportunities in the midstream space? Do they have less exposure to price risk?

SP: Absolutely. This is especially true after 2015. Master limited partnerships (MLPs) and midstream as a whole was the worst performing subsector in the energy space last year. That is because there's this investor view within the MLP space of "one size fits all." This couldn't be further from the truth. Investors argued that MLPs and midstreams will see falling dividend growth as a result of lower volumes and expected supply cuts. As we've seen, the supply cuts did materialize, but not to the extent that was initially thought. Also, the rate hike had a big effect on the underperformance of MLPs, but now we know that further rate hikes are not so clear in coming in the future. As I mentioned earlier, yields and dividends become a more important portion of your return this year. Building on that, I think within the MLP space we have a lot of pockets of value. I wouldn't recommend the sector as a whole, but I would recommend those MLPs whose toplines have the least correlation to oil prices. Some of them have great exposure to volumes from shale plays that continue to grow even at current prices. Those who participate in that specific space and have robust balance sheets will be able to sustain their payout rates, and those yields will become very important this year.

We particularly like a company called EQT Midstream Partners LP (EQM:NYSE). This is a midstream company with pipelines and storage capacities in the Marcellus. It has a very robust balance sheet and low debt relative to its peers. It has a top-tier growth profile, posting a 40% growth trailing 12 months. It also has one of the highest cash flow returns in invested capital in the space. We expect it to continue to grow, especially as it expands to the Utica Formation, and continue to pay about a 4% dividend yield, which is very sustainable considering it's only a 60% payout rate. More importantly, EQT is highly insulated from declines in volumes because it operates more like a utility in the sense that it contracts out its capacity ahead of time to producers, so it's not subject to the stock changes in volumes. This also provides greater visibility into its revenue, into its earnings and into the sustainability and eventual growth of its dividend.

TER: What are the prospects for the refiners in this scenario? What companies do you like in that space?

FH: It is important to ask who is going to benefit from cheaper gas besides the consumer at the gas pump. There are so many manufacturing companies that are experiencing expanding margins because their energy input is a big part of their costs. Refineries definitely benefit, but so do chemical companies.

SP: The fundamentals for refiners are very basic. Input costs are coming down as crude prices come down whereas their output, which is mainly gasoline and distillates, is priced off of a mix of demand and cost. So they're insulated on the cost side, and actually gasoline demand posted a record last year. This results in fatter margins, which drives profitability, dividend payouts, share buyback programs and overall great stock performance.

Record gasoline demand in 2015 is expected to continue into 2016, resulting in strong double-digit crack spreads in January, one of the weakest seasonal periods. This is incredibly favorable for refiner markets. Ironically, the refiners sold off into the first two weeks of the year, kind of mimicking what they did last year when the seasonality kicked in, but that only set them up for 2015 when they were the best performing sector within the energy space.

A few companies are poised to profit from the upcoming spring turnaround season and are better able to profit from this tightening in the supply, leading into the best oil and gasoline demand season, which is the summer.

In light of that, we like Valero Energy Corp. (VLO:NYSE), here in San Antonio. It has the best free cash flow yield in the sector at 9%. That's 50% above the average for its peers. This is a result of its complex system that allows it to take multiple kinds of crude. It can go out and shop for the cheapest and extract very good products out of pretty much any of them. It also has a large scale, and most of the exposure is in the Gulf, which offers more access to cheaper product and, thus, expanded margins. We expect it to continue to grow its dividend and the share repurchase programs. We have this as one of the core holdings in our portfolio. [Editor's note: Valero raised its dividend by 20% on Thursday after the interview was conducted.]

We also like Marathon Petroleum Corp. (MPC:NYSE). It has one of the strongest growth rates in the industry. Although it has significant capital commitments, we've seen in the past that the cash flow return on invested capital is one of the highest in the energy space. That speaks to the capital discipline. It's actually a great time to be building something because the energy sector is in a downturn, meaning there is a lot of labor available, a lot of contracting equipment and a lot of willingness to see these things through. It is exposed to this cyclical tailwind.

We also like Tesoro Corp. (TSO:NYSE). Even though it is not in the Gulf, we're still comfortable sacrificing some of that exposure as a trade-off to the present profitability and growth that it's been able to get out of the California refineries. California is the biggest gasoline consumer in the U.S. Tesoro has a prime location to benefit from that.

On the chemicals side, input costs for Dow Chemical Co. (DOW:NYSE), LyondellBasell Industries NV (LYB:NYSE) and other diversified chemical companies are directly priced off of crude. So you normally see them selling off with the whole energy space when in fact what's selling off is their input. Their output is sold to consumers, packagers, paint companies and a bunch of other industries that use their chemicals. But this plays to the same dynamic that we like in the refiners and in the integrateds. It's that further downstream exposure, being closer to the consumer and a little bit more distant from the prime commodity where we've seen much of the carnage. That's the reason we like the chemicals, too.

TER: So there are some winners still in the space.

FH: Yes, and a big part is how fast you move to see if there are tipping points for energy prices that trigger bankruptcies. I think you're going to get a lot of bankruptcies this quarter and writedowns of reserves. It's another reason why there will be a drop in supply as the industry goes through this contraction. Any time you've had a commodity down for 36 months, it will trigger a resetting of reserves and impact loan repayment.

The airline industry is another industry that's had a big windfall from dropping energy prices to the tune of expansion that this past year was $20B of additional free cash flow. With oil at $30/bbl, this industry will probably push close to $35B of free cash flow this year.

TER: Our readers are used to investing in junior mining companies that can have really big wins. How can they get that same bang for their buck in companies as large as the airlines?

FH: The airlines are pretty volatile. In fact, they have the same DNA of volatility as junior mining stocks. They are going to go through a rerating soon. Everyone expected them to undercut each other, and they didn't. Instead, they started buying back their stock. I think that these airlines will benefit from that.

TER: What final words of advice do you have for investors looking at their portfolios in the wake of a volatile first few weeks of the year and a rough three years?

FH: We have always been advocates of 5% bullion and 5% actively managed gold mining companies like our World Precious Minerals Fund. When we come to individual names, we've always stuck with Franco-Nevada Corp. (FNV:TSX; FNV:NYSE) because it's a high-margin business and it invests in a lot of juniors, so you get that portfolio.

Roger Gibson, a pension fund consult, advocated back in 1997 that investors keep 25% in resources and rebalance each year. He lost a lot of his customers, but they all came back in 2003 after the tech collapse because they recognized his wisdom. I agree with his advice, but you need smart people like Sam on active management to take advantage of a changing market like this.

SP: Even in the current price environment, there are numerous opportunities to profit within the energy space. We discussed a number of downstream exposure opportunities. They're all beneficiaries within the further energy complex of lower crude prices. We feel like some investors are apprehensive to take on some of these opportunities because some of them played out last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean they can't play out again this year. We look for a confluence of factors in terms of supply and demand to tell us the market has changed, and we have not yet gotten to that point. We want to see supply curtailments materializing, whether it's in the U.S. or OPEC. We also want to see demand growth from China and the rest of the world that is confirmed by PMIs crossing one month above the three-month, so that we can feel confident that the trend has changed. Until that happens, we feel confident in recommending the downstream exposure.

TER: Thank you both for your time.

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer at U.S. Global Investors Inc., which manages a diversified family of mutual funds and hedge funds specializing in natural resources, emerging markets and gold and precious metals. Holmes purchased a controlling interest in U.S. Global Investors in 1989 and became the firm's chief investment officer in 1999. Under his guidance, the company's funds have received numerous awards and honors including more than two dozen Lipper Fund Awards and certificates. In 2006, Holmes was selected mining fund manager of the year by the Mining Journal. He is also the co-author of "The Goldwatcher: Demystifying Gold Investing." He is also a regular commentator on the financial television networks CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business, and has been profiled by Fortune, Barron's, The Financial Times and other publications.

Samuel Pelaez is an investment analyst covering global resources. He joined Galileo Global Equity Advisors in 2015 after having worked as an investment analyst at U.S. Global Investors, a boutique U.S.-based investment management firm. Samuel graduated from the University of Cambridge in the UK with a Masters in Finance, having previously graduated from the Schulich School of Business (with Distinction) in Toronto, Canada. Samuel has passed all three levels of the CFA program and will be eligible for award of the CFA charter upon completion of the required work experience.

Want to read more Energy Report interviews like this? Sign up for our free e-newsletter, and you'll learn when new articles have been published. To see a list of recent interviews with industry analysts and commentators, visit our Interviews page.

1) JT Long conducted this interview for Streetwise Reports LLC, publisher of The Gold Report, The Energy Report and The Life Sciences Report, and provides services to Streetwise Reports as an employee. She owns, or her family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: none.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of Streetwise Reports: BNK Petroleum Inc. Franco-Nevada Corp. is not affiliated with Streetwise Reports. The companies mentioned in this interview were not involved in any aspect of the interview preparation or post-interview editing so the expert could speak independently about the sector. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for its services.
3) Frank Holmes: I own, or my family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None outside the portfolio. I personally am, or my family is, paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. My company has a financial relationship with the following companies mentioned in this interview: USGI held these names in one or more funds as of 12/31/15: BNK Petroleum Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp, Tesoro Corp, Marathon Petroleum Corp, Valero Energy Corp. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview. Comments and opinions expressed are my own comments and opinions. I determined and had final say over which companies would be included in the interview based on my research, understanding of the sector and interview theme. I had the opportunity to review the interview for accuracy as of the date of the interview and am responsible for the content of the interview.
4) Samuel Pelaez: I own, or my family owns, shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None outside the portfolio. I personally am, or my family is, paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. My company has a financial relationship with the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview. Comments and opinions expressed are my own comments and opinions. I determined and had final say over which companies would be included in the interview based on my research, understanding of the sector and interview theme. I had the opportunity to review the interview for accuracy as of the date of the interview and am responsible for the content of the interview.
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