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Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) has been dragged through the mud by the media thanks to the shenanigans of CEO and founder Aubrey McClendon. But in the wake of all of this, could the stock now be a great contrarian buy?
Last week I offered three good reasons why that's not the case and investors should think about selling. However, there is a case to be made that this is a good buy right now. Let's take a look at a few reasons why.
1. You can't ignore valuation
What we know is that Chesapeake's business has been battered by low natural gas prices. As the second-largest natural gas producer behind Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM ) , the cratering of gas prices has been a big downer for Chesapeake. The company has been shifting its business more towards liquids as oil prices continue to hold up better, but with more than 80% of its proved reserves volume being natural gas, this is still a company very hooked up to gas prices.
At the same time, Chesapeake has been getting a brutal reputation-battering as we find out ever more about the background dealings of McClendon. The most recent -- alleged collusion with Canadian energy player EnCana (NYSE: ECA ) -- could land the company in serious legal hot water.
But in the midst of all of this, Chesapeake's stock is trading at an eye-catching valuation. On the basis of price-to-profit measures like earnings and EBITDA, it's a little less noticeable because of the nat-gas price slump. Chesapeake's price-to-earnings and enterprise-value-to-EBITDA ratios of 7.8 and 6.1, respectively, are low, but not crazy-low in comparison to multiples from 2006 and 2007 when natural gas prices were much higher.
But on the basis of revenue and book value, it's unmistakable. Setting aside the valuations driven by the 2008/2009 market collapse, Chesapeake's stock hasn't traded at revenue or book value multiples like these since the market slump in 2002 -- and even then, price-to-book didn't get as low as it is now.
A low valuation doesn't always make a stock a good buy, but for value-oriented investors, it at least should inspire a closer look.
2. Carl Icahn and O. Mason Hawkins
The era of Aubrey McClendon being given the green light by his chummy board of directors to do basically whatever he wants appears to be over. That change took place thanks in part to the great work done by Reuters bringing McClendon's dealings to light, but it was Hawkins and Icahn that actually rolled up their sleeves to give Chesapeake's governance a big push in the right direction.
Icahn, the chairman of Icahn Enterprises, is a well-known activist investor notorious for getting his hands dirty and at least trying to bend management to his will. Icahn made a big splash with Chesapeake, buying a significant stake in the company and writing a very strongly-worded letter to the board.
O. Mason Hawkins, meanwhile, is one of the founders of Southeastern Asset Management. Hawkins is better known for his Buffett-style value approach rather than an activist bent, but with 13.6% ownership
of Chesapeake -- the single largest stake -- Hawkins swings a big stick in conversations. And following an SEC filing back in May, Hawkins has taken an activist stance in the Chesapeake shake-up.
With the help of an up-swelling among smaller investors, these two major shareholders have already achieved much in terms of pointing Chesapeake in a better, more shareholder-friendly direction. I think there's good reason to believe that this trend may continue.
3. Sharks circling?
Remember what I said about valuation above? Well, we're certainly not the only ones that can see that. There's little doubt that with Chesapeake's price depressed, the gears are turning for large energy companies that could be in a position to buy the company.
Who could be on that list? To some extent, that boils down to which companies could afford such an acquisition. Exxon has to be on that list and so does Chevron. ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) is an outside shot, but I wouldn't count it out since Conoco's former CEO and chairman, Archie Dunham, is now Chesapeake's chairman. From across the pond, Royal Dutch Shell is a possibility, as is France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) -- the latter created a joint venture with Chesapeake earlier this year. Miner BHP Billiton needs to be considered, too -- it spent nearly $5 billion buying shale assets from Chesapeake in 2011.
Whether these sharks are willing to bite and, more importantly, whether they're willing to pay a price that would make investors happy is still a big question. But both Icahn and Hawkins have been openly supportive of the idea of Chesapeake selling itself.
Others to consider
Even with these points in mind, Chesapeake still may not be your cup of tea. However, there are plenty of other stocks to consider in the energy industry. In our special report, "3 Stocks for $100 Oil," three of my fellow Fools present a stock that will thrive as oil prices rise. Click here for a free copy of that report.