More Ultra Performance From Ultra Petroleum

It's hard to believe, but there was actually a time when Ultra Petroleum (AMEX: UPL  ) was a small and generally unknown energy player with some promising assets in the Rockies. Now it's bigger than Newfield (NYSE: NFX  ) and Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE: PXD  ) .

I'd hardly say there's any secret to what has made Ultra so successful; you see it again in this quarter's earnings report. Revenue was up 17% on 10% higher production, while pre-tax income rose 14%. Perhaps that doesn't sound too impressive on the surface, but relative to Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN  ) or Canadian Natural (NYSE: CNQ  ) (just to name two), it's pretty respectable. I'm also impressed with the pace of costs at Ultra -- while it's not necessarily true that "gas is gas," it is still true that low-cost producers win in the end.

It also seems that Ultra might be working to diversify its asset base in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania. While it has plenty of natural gas under the ground in the Rockies, as well as a stake in China's Bohai Bay, it doesn't hurt to have more productive assets. Moreover, ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , Anadarko, and EOG have shown some interest in this area as well, and where there's smoke, there may be fire.

My concern with high-quality operators ranging from Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK  ) to Ultra isn't the quality of the business(es), nor the long-term outlook for energy demand. Instead, it's the market's behavior with respect to energy prices. Whether hedged or not, low-cost or not, growing production or not, investors often seem to just lump all these companies together, then move the stocks up or down in time with natural-gas spot prices. I expect individual company quality to matter at some point, but it can be frustrating to see a stock's trading price so divorced from its underlying fundamentals (which don't change nearly so quickly).

In the short run, nobody knows what will happen with natural gas prices. See a hurricane in the Gulf, and prices will jump up. See mild weather, and high storage inventories and prices will fall. My best advice, then, is for potential new owners to wait for another bout of pessimism, while current owners may do well to just try to plug their ears and forget about the day-to-day or week-to-week gyrations.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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