Greece's economy is on life support. Spain, Portugal, and Italy could be next, and the prospect of more spillover to the Eurozone looms. The U.S. is dealing with one of the worst environmental disasters in its history. In short,you're not totally crazy for contemplating the world's end.
Mayan calendar prophecies aside, these events spell hard times for oil services companies. The prospect of Eurozone contagion means declining economic activity and lower oil consumption. And the BP (NYSE: BP ) spill carries the prospect of increased regulation, restrictions on drilling, and higher costs.
We don't know the exact magnitude of the risk. But we do know the world's not ending, and our addiction to oil is not going away. That makes Oil Services HOLDRs (AMEX: OIH ) , an exchange-traded fund comprising the sector's biggest and brightest, a compelling contrarian opportunity.
Let the world worry about the near term. Given a chance to invest in the cream of the crop -- 25% off 52-week highs, at 22 times cyclically depressed earnings -- I'll be sleeping well.
Surveying the opportunity
Oil Services HOLDRs is basically a way to play oil and natural gas. Its components make a living contracting oil rigs, providing intelligence used to extract oil (or natural gas) from the ground, building parts for rigs, and other "services." Think of them as very technologically advanced picks and shovels.
It's cheap because the underlying components -- Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) , Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) , Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO ) , and National Oilwell Varco (NYSE: NOV ) , to name a few -- face concerns over the economy, regulation, and the resulting impact in the oil patch.
Let's be fair: Drilling activity may temporarily decline. Deepwater drilling will almost certainly face increased regulation. And oil consumption might slip, at least temporarily. Transocean will almost certainly face some legal liability from the BP oil spill. But I take the long view.
Does it matter?
We're hooked on that grimy black stuff. The world's not quitting oil, long-term consumption's unlikely to decline, drilling's not getting cheaper, and taking a barrel from the ground isn't easier. No oil spill will change that.
Additionally, big oil's increasingly looking to the offshore deepwater to meet demand for new oil. The Energy Information Administration anticipates U.S. offshore production will grow from 1.4 million barrels per day in 2006 to 2.7 million in 2030. To pursue these opportunities, oil companies must contend with higher costs, increasing complexity, and harsh drilling conditions. This means more cash for oil services companies.
As for the Eurozone crisis, don't assume economic tumult will gut oil demand. From 2007 to 2009, the span of the U.S. credit crisis, worldwide daily petroleum consumption declined only 2.5% . That doesn't look catastrophic.
Unless the world economy's permanently declining -- and I don't think it is -- long-term demand is headed up. Emerging economies are hungry for oil: Asian countries' daily oil consumption increased 23% from 1999 to 2009. That may sound like a lot, but there's still growth here. Sixty percent of the world's population lives in Asia, but it represents only 30% of worldwide oil consumption.
Put it in context
These companies are priced at about 22 times earnings, telling us the market expects low-double-digit earnings growth. That's a reasonable long-term expectation, but it doesn't reveal the whole story.
I think those earnings, and the multiple, are depressed to an unsustainably low threshold. These companies' earnings plummeted in 2008 and the early part of 2009, as the U.S. suffered the credit crisis' ravages and oil prices tanked. Still, remember that the world needs oil. To support its thirst, these companies need to get back to work.
I'm not the only one advancing this thesis. The guys at Motley Fool Pro recommended Vanguard Energy (NYSE: VDE ) a while back, recognizing an inexorable trend toward more oil consumption, and irrationally priced energy markets. They're up 22%. Today, the opportunity's more concentrated, but the thesis is eerily similar -- irrationally priced oil-services shares. Oil consumption is just not going away. You might as well profit from it.
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