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When investors think of "secular growth," the pictures that comes to mind often include tech companies, big biotechs, and new, regional chain restaurants ready to go national. Rarely do we view oil and gas producers as secular growers, primarily because the oil and gas business tends to be so darn cyclical.
However, to think so narrowly, in this time period at least, means missing out on one of the greatest growth stories of our time: the growth of shale oil production right here in the U.S.
Here is how I define a good 'secular growth' name: First and foremost, a secular growth name must have double-digit top-line growth and a long 'runway' for that growth. In other words, the growth trend must last for multiple years, ideally for a decade or more. However, it's more than just growth per se. Profitability is just as important as raw growth.
Today's blue-chip companies often started out with incredible growth, but they put all of the capital they earned right back into their companies in order to fuel continued growth. At some point, I like to see cash flow rapidly overcome capital spending needs. This way, companies can reward their shareholders in a variety of ways.
One oil producer that clearly meets all these criteria is EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG ) . EOG was a very early mover in America's two biggest shale plays; the Eagle Ford and the Bakken. EOG now has a massive, 632,000-acre position in the Eagle Ford. Thanks to shale oil, EOG is now the biggest crude oil producer in Texas, surpassing traditional West Texas heavyweights Chevron and Occidental (NYSE: OXY ) . EOG is now also the biggest crude producer in the U.S.
EOG exclusively focuses on crude oil. Condensate and gas, both wet and dry, are all secondary at EOG. Since 2009, EOG has grown its crude oil production at a compound annual rate of 38%. To be sure, that rate is slowing, but it remains very impressive. For example, in 2014, management expects to grow production by another 27%. Best of all, this growth has quite a runway: Management sees at least fifteen years' worth of drilling inventory on its acreage.
This chart shows us EOG's steadily improving return on capital employed and return on equity. As it refines its operations and improves upon best practices, EOG continues to increase its return on capital here in the shale.
As EOG produces more oil and its drilling expenditures level off, its operational cash flow has, for the first time in five years, exceeded its capital expenditure. As this trend continues, EOG's cash flow should at least grow in tandem with its oil production.
This chart gives us a 'bigger picture' view. As production has grown profitably, EOG has strengthened its balance sheet. After free cash flow finally sprouted positive, EOG boosted its dividend by 33%. Expect more dividend growth from EOG. After all, the company can only discover and develop so much new acreage. In fact, many believe there are but a couple of shale plays left to discover in North America, if any. If that is true, where will EOG spend all of its future cash flow? The answer is, apparently, dividends. EOG is a dividend growth play.
If you're looking for a solid, secular growth play, EOG Resources qualifies. The company has fifteen years worth of drilling potential. This year, EOG will grow its oil production by 27%. The company has a proven track record of constant process improvements and as a result its returns have consistently improved. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, its operational cash flow has continued to grow along with its production while its exploration and development have already hit an inflection point. Its management seems committed to converting free cash flow into dividends.
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