Last week, Punxsutawney Phil reportedly failed to encounter his own shadow on Groundhog Day, indicating an early end to the current -- and recently intensified -- ravages of winter. That news likely warmed the cockles of the hearts of Minnesotans, Chicagoans, New Englanders, and others who have watched the mercury plummet after an early-winter spate of balminess.
And in a slide that lasted through much of January, crude oil prices reached nearly $50 per barrel, only to bounce back to near $60 in the past 10 days or so of trading. What's afoot here?
Probably several things. Obviously, weather gets the market's attention more quickly and noticeably than anything else, and the cold snap that's made its way across much of the nation has played an obvious role in at least nudging crude and natural gas prices higher. At the same time, there remains the specter of OPEC production curtailments as a means of preventing crude prices from again sliding to $50 or even lower.
In the latter context, most energy-interested eyes have been lately riveted on Saudi Arabia -- and its powerful oil minister, Ali Naimi -- for indications of the kingdom's stance on the optimum level for crude prices. Saudi signals have been inconclusive, however, although some observers believe that the world's largest producer actually welcomes lower prices as a means of keeping the cartel's second-largest producer, recalcitrant Iran, in line.
But if the aforementioned Pennsylvania-based groundhog really doesn't have a profound influence on U.S. weather, and if OPEC remains as incapable of adhering strictly to planned production cuts as its past record indicates, the price bounces of the past month may be so much sound and fury that really signify nothing.
Indeed, the energy commodity markets appear to have cavalierly ignored the longer-term factors in the price equations. By "longer-term," I mean the inherent geopolitical instability that characterizes many of the OPEC nations; demand growth in much of the developing world (which, for instance, is inducing increases in automobile usage of about 35% annually in China); and a forecast in an American Petroleum Institute ad, airing now, to the effect that the world's petroleum demand is expected to increase by 50% by 2030. That forecast is in line with those of other prognosticators, such as the Energy Information Administration and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) .
All this can be confusing, of course, even for the most astute Fools. I continue to recommend that you strive to be represented in energy through shares in the stronger international players. On the exploration side, I'd consider ExxonMobil and Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) . Among the service companies, I'm attracted to Schlumberger's (NYSE: SLB ) range of products and services, along with its international scope, and I continue to believe that deep-water drillers Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) and Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO ) are solid entities.
My other Foolish energy investment advice involves a buy-and-ignore approach, where possible. Obviously, you'll want to monitor your energy names, just as you do all the companies in your portfolio. But given the inherent volatility of the sector, excessively frequent attention to your energy names likely will do little for your mental health.
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Fool contributor David Lee Smith owns shares of Schlumberger, but doesn't hold any of the other companies mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.