Opening Your Energy Mailbag

The last time we opened our Energy Mailbag, the price of crude was above $90, a level that impressed us at the time. But that was small potatoes. Oil prices kissed $102 for the first time this week, a rather lofty level that compares to less than $60 a barrel at this time a year ago. Doesn't seem possible.

The latest price run-up clearly relates to a variety of factors, including weather, continued softness in the U.S. dollar, and concerns about instability within several of the producing nations, most notably Nigeria. These factors have combined to push prices in a direction precisely opposite of what you'd expect, given the mounting evidence of a slowing U.S. economy.

But as you might anticipate, the commodity's movement has resulted in higher prices for such energy names as producers ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , and Devon (NYSE: DVN  ) , along with the two twins of deepwater drilling, Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) and Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO  ) . Indeed, the last two names cause us to return to a much earlier theme: why the market is so willing place a greater premium on the future earnings of an atrophying New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) than for the two drillers.

Still on the drillers
You may recall that several months ago I asked Fools to email me with their thoughts about the "why" behind this seeming oddity. I was deluged with thoughtful responses to what remains a fascinating conundrum. Indeed, I'm still receiving analyses on the subject from my Foolish friends:

As Bruce recently noted in an email:

I know I'm late in responding, but here's my take on why the drillers have such low P/E's: 1) The past bust periods in the sector, 2) the sector's voracious appetite for capital, and 3) the overall market not truly understanding the potential for the sustained huge profits in the sector.

As he continued:

... if one believes -- as I do -- that oil isn't going back to $30 a barrel, I think (the first) issue will clear itself up over the long run, and valuations will expand.

Issue No. 2 is more of a challenge. Some of the drillers are literally printing cash right now, but very few of them pay dividends, and the ones that do pay a very low yield. All the cash gets plowed right back into the business, as it should when demand for rigs is high.

Issue No. 3 will work itself out if the first two issues are resolved. If oil and gas demand stays strong, and the drillers can begin to show that some of their cash flows are either passed through to shareholders or fund more new rigs versus repairs, then we may see increased valuations.

I generally agree with Bruce's analysis. I would point out, however, that Diamond Offshore is paying special dividends to its shareholders, thereby pushing its trailing annual dividend yield to 2.5%, while its forward yield is just 0.4%. Nevertheless, both drillers trade at forward P/Es about half that of Times. Go figure.

Oil headed for $400?
In response to a Foolish article I wrote, in which I maintained that, because most OPEC nations -- the obvious exception being Saudi Arabia -- are producing all out, the cartel has been somewhat neutered vis-a-vis its effect on crude prices, Mike wrote:

Just because OPEC production is declining in some of the leading members, they still ... are in the catbird seat as oil moves toward $200 a barrel in 2010. They are by no means 'neutered'.

The U.S., its government, and its citizens are totally unprepared for the exponential increase in the price of oil going forward...even the CAFE fuel-economy standards won't take place until 2020. Are you kidding me? Oil will be at $400 a barrel by 2020.

Just get moving
Finally, a reader who didn't supply his or her name apparently thinks I have more clout than I do, and would like me to spring into action to solve our nation's worsening energy circumstances:

If you continue to sit on the fence, oil prices probably will continue to climb and drag economies down the drain. What I mean is I think you and others who can blog or write columns anywhere have a patriotic duty to encourage readers to carpool, for instance ...

So, there you have it, thoughts from our readers. Mike's absolute price levels for oil may be a bit high, but he could be dead right in terms of the direction of prices during the next decade.

For that and a host of other reasons, I urge Fools to pay special attention to the energy components of their investment portfolios. I also think it's more important than ever that we keep an energy dialogue flowing within The Motley Fool. On that basis, I encourage you to share your thoughts about the vital energy area with other Fools by emailing them to me for inclusion in future mailbags.

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