Are Natural Gas Stocks Ripe for Investment?

Natural gas is gaining importance among the U.S. energy mix, and the companies engaged in the discovery and production of natural gas are seeing business conditions firm. After several quarters of disappointing results over the past few years, natural gas players are on the comeback trail. And, for interested investors, there are publicly traded stocks involved in all stages of natural gas production. That means that there's a viable choice for growth or income investors alike.

Ride the natural gas boom
Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN  ) struggled throughout last year under the weight of significant asset impairments and an inability to control costs. Thankfully for investors, the company's turnaround efforts have materialized, and Devon has made significant progress on many fronts.

In all, Devon booked a $151 million profit over the first three quarters of the year, reversing the $227 million loss from the same period last year. Devon primarily benefited from better cost controls as well as increased production from many of the company's key areas.

Devon delivered 38% production growth in its U.S. oil operations, thanks to the hugely successful Permian Basin. Of course, natural gas and natural gas liquids represent key segments for Devon as well, and total production of oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids averaged 691,000 barrels of oil equivalents per day in the third quarter. This figure handily exceeded the midpoint of the company's previously issued production guidance, and increasing production going forward will provide plenty of profits to Devon.

As far as turnaround efforts within the natural gas space are concerned, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) certainly fits the bill. Chesapeake has aggressively sold assets over the past year to bolster its debt-heavy balance sheet as well as place it in a better position to take advantage of more promising projects. Chesapeake divested $1 billion worth of assets in the Northern Eagle Ford and Haynesville Shales earlier this year, and through the first six months, shed $3.6 billion in assets.

Chesapeake plans to use these proceeds to pay down debt and shore up its overall financial position, but the market is clearly concerned this will come at the direct expense of future growth. Shares of Chesapeake declined after earnings, when it was revealed that capital spending has fallen 48% this year and will likely fall again next year. However, Chesapeake's earnings per share more than quadrupled, so it may be premature to write off the company's turnaround efforts as a failure.

A midstream MLP for income seekers
For investors who prefer to receive hefty yields from their investments, Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE: ETP  ) may be the answer within the natural gas industry. Energy Transfer Partners is engaged in midstream natural gas activities, which include processing, storing, and transporting natural gas and natural gas liquids.

Energy Transfer Partners ramped up investments last year to put itself in prime position once the boom in natural gas production took hold, and it's now reaping the benefits. Distributable cash flow over the first nine months of the year totaled $1.37 billion, up $414 million from the same period last year. As the company notes, the bulk of this increase was due to its 2012 acquisition of Sunoco, and in all, Energy Transfer Partners has put into place $2.1 billion of growth projects that are now coming on-line and are clearly paying off.

Even better, since the company is classified as a master limited partnership, it's required to distribute the bulk of its cash flow through to investors. That means that investors are paid a handsome 6.8% yield, which includes a distribution increase in the most recent quarter.

Plenty for investors to choose from in natural gas
No matter if you're a growth or income investor, there's a natural gas stock to suit your preferences. Growth investors probably see a lot to like from both Devon and Chesapeake, whose turnaround efforts are gaining traction.

By contrast, Energy Transfer Partners represents a great choice for income investors, as it's placing new projects into service and funneling a great deal of the resulting cash flow through to investors. As a result, natural gas appears to be gaining momentum in the United States, and interested investors should give Devon, Chesapeake, and Energy Transfer Partners due consideration.

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