While the oil market appeared to bottom out last spring, it hasn't bounced back as quickly as everyone expected. Crude prices rammed into a ceiling in the mid-$50s after shale drillers quickly ramped back up and unleashed a torrent of new production, causing oil to recoil backward. Because of that, many oil stocks are still selling at bargain-basement prices as the market meanders along the bottom.
That said, given that oil is a cyclical industry, at some point, it will bounce back, which could fuel big profits for investors who buy at today's prices. Three stocks that we think could deliver exceptional returns when that happens are Helmerich & Payne (NYSE:HP), Core Laboratories (NYSE:CLB), and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM).
Management is too good to fret about market cycles
Tyler Crowe (Helmerich & Payne): Every company in a cyclical market will feel the effects of the market swings regardless of their position in the market. For us investors, our job is to identify the ones that do a better job allocating capital and managing the market cycle. If I had to pick a management team to whom I needed to attach my wagon through the ups and downs of the market, I would have a hard time picking someone other than land rig owner Helmerich & Payne's management team.
Helmerich & Payne doesn't have the benefit of being in one of those businesses where cash flows are protected through vertical integration or long term contracts. You could even argue that land rigs is one of the most volatile sub-sectors of the oil & gas industry. Despite the challenges that this industry faces, Helmerich & Payne's management team has maintained a financial discipline that has allowed it to raise its dividend every year for the past 44 years in a row.
The U.S. land rig market has been growing like a weed lately, but Helmerich & Payne and others haven't seen the benefits because of pricing pressure from idle rigs and the high cost of activating rigs for field work. As a result, H&P's stock trades at a price to tangible book value of just 1.2 times and has a dividend yield of 6.1%.
As more rigs get utilized, pricing power should shift back to rig owners and activation costs should subside. In the meantime, investors can collect hefty dividend checks and let one of the best management teams in the business work through this challenging market.
The "V" might be a "W" but this important company is still a buy
Jason Hall (Core Laboratories N.V.): For the past couple of years, executives at Core Lab have been steadfast in their expectations of a "V-shaped recovery, meaning that crude oversupply will shift to a shortfall more quickly than the market expects, sending oil prices surging.
But as my colleague Matt pointed out recently, the "V" could be turning into a "W" as American shale producers crank up production. But either way, Core Lab is one of the best stocks to buy during the low point of the cycle. With shares recently hitting their lowest price in over a year, now looks like an excellent time to buy.
Core's strength is in its high-tech focus on using data and proprietary capabilities to help producers recover more oil and gas, more cheaply and more efficiently. This is important in both high and low oil environments, but as oil and gas prices rise and producers race to increase output, Core's services become more in-demand.
If we do see a "V" shaped recovery, Core is positioned for big returns, and potentially very soon. If it's a "W" shaped recovery, we could see its results cool off for a quarter or two before the "real" recovery kicks in. Either way, we're clearly still in or near the trough, and Core's a company to buy before the recovery has fully kicked in.
The best of big oil for a bargain basement price
Matt DiLallo (ExxonMobil): ExxonMobil is about as fine an oil company as you'll find. It operates three world class businesses -- upstream production, downstream refining, and chemicals manufacturing -- that help mitigate risk and create value throughout the oil cycle. In addition, it has unparalleled financial strength, boasting one of the best credit ratings in the entire world, which it supports with a low leverage ratio and the ability to generate healthy cash flow even at lower oil prices. Further, its management team has a history of investing for returns as opposed to just growth, which has powered peer-leading returns on capital over the long-term.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has only grown stronger during the downturn. It has cut costs and improved operations while at the same time bolstering its portfolio and moving forward with returns-focused growth projects. These factors position the company to generate solid cash flow even if oil prices don't improve, and a gusher if they do.
That said, despite all that ExxonMobil has to offer, its stock has fallen 13% this year and is only slightly above the bottom it hit during the darkest days of the downturn. Because of that, investors can pick up shares at around the cheapest valuation they've been in years and lock in 3.9% dividend yield while they're at it. Given the company's fortress-like financials, that payout is on rock solid ground and likely to continue heading higher in the future since this dividend aristocrat has already boosted its payout for 35 straight years and has several high-return growth projects underway to keep that streak alive. Add it up, and Exxon is a low-risk way to earn high returns when the oil cycle makes its upward turn.