Will European Energy Stocks Outperform Their U.S. Rivals?

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As is the case with most sectors of the market, energy investors should focus on where the growth is going forward. It stands to reason that the best investments among the global energy majors over the next several years will be those companies that exhibit the best growth rates in production and cash flow. And, thanks to new research from Wood Mackenzie and Morgan Stanley, there's insight into which companies have the smoothest roads ahead of them.

Interestingly, U.S. majors including Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) are expected to underperform the industry, ceding ground to a few European majors that stand to benefit from more promising start-ups. As a result, while most investors are likely tempted to automatically default to the U.S. energy giants as candidates for investment, it may be wise to expand your horizons and consider European energy majors instead.

International majors may pump out greater profits
One stock considered to have a strong growth trajectory ahead of it is BP (NYSE: BP  ) . BP, according to research from Wood Mackenzie, is expected to accelerate production growth over the next several years, thanks to a focused and promising portfolio of project start-ups. In all, estimations for its production levels peg growth at 4.1% compounded annually between 2016 and 2019, placing BP ahead of its peers. Production expectations for the sector as a whole are for just 3.4% compound annual growth from 2016 to 2019.

Meanwhile, Italy-based Eni (NYSE: E  ) is projected to benefit hugely from a promising group of projects coming on-line now, which should boost profits down the road. Eni has one of the highest rates of fields in growth phase among the sector, and all told, is expected to generate production growth of 4.8% per year through 2016, well above average industry expectations. Moreover, analysts point to Eni's conservative management and low capital expenditures, relative to the sector as a whole, as reasons to expect strong profitability in the years ahead. Eni's 2013 budget of $18 billion to $19 billion in capital expenditures has remained unchanged since 2008.

At the same time, Chevron is struggling to overcome weak performance in several of its businesses. Refining has been a notorious problem for the company and was the major contributor behind Chevron's 26% drop in second-quarter profit. What's more, third-quarter profits aren't expected to improve on a quarter-to-quarter basis, and it's not hard to see why. Refining continues to be weak, but more broadly, Chevron is encountering snags in production. Through the first half of 2013 versus last year, upstream earnings are flat (at roughly $25 per barrel), and downstream earnings per barrel have actually declined (from $3 per barrel to $2 per barrel). Not surprisingly, this is expected to continue weighing on future profits.

Go overseas for huge yields
Not only are European oil majors such as BP and Eni expected to outperform on an operational basis, but their market-leading dividend yields already compare very favorably to their American peers. Whereas most U.S.-based oil companies, including Chevron, pay between 3% and 4% dividend yields, you can secure much higher distributions from international competitors.

It's true that BP's profits have been adversely affected by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. At the same time, BP has shed assets in preparation for this—divesting $38 billion in all—leaving the company with financial cushioning as well as a more focused, stronger set of assets. Divestments, in addition to increasing production growth over the next several years, will keep fueling the company's recent pattern of generous dividend increases.

BP has increased its payout at strong rates since it resumed dividend payments in 2011, and thanks to its suppressed share price, BP's yield is now 5.25%. Likewise, Eni pays a semi-annual dividend that amounts to a 5% yield at recent prices.

The Foolish takeaway
For investors interested in geographical diversification, high dividend yields, and more promising futures within the energy sector, European giants BP and Eni may be the best candidates and could provide the most compelling returns of their peers going forward.

While Chevron is a highly profitable blue-chip stock, and is likely to come out of its current struggles, the near term contains some serious bumps in the road that investors should carefully consider. For energy stocks with the smoothest paths ahead of them, BP and Eni may prove to be better bets.

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9/29/2016 1:16 PM
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E $28.90 Up +0.42 +1.47%
Eni CAPS Rating: ***