The oil and gas industry can be a difficult place for investors to navigate, as anyone who's invested in the industry over the past several years can attest to. But it can also be very profitable, especially if you buy the best companies at good prices and remain patient.
With this idea in mind, we asked three of our energy experts who also invest in the sector, "What's an oil stock worth buying right now?" They came up with a diverse list, including an offshore driller that's transformed itself over the downturn, Transocean LTD (NYSE:RIG), an integrated giant that offers a pretty broad measure of safety, ExxonMobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), and midstream operator ONEOK, Inc. (NYSE:OKE), which is on course to be one of the best income growth stocks in the industry.
Offshore drilling doesn't seem as uneconomical anymore
Tyler Crowe (Transocean): For the past few years, there was significant concern that offshore drillers wouldn't be able to compete with shale oil or OPEC as an economically viable supply. The lead times for projects were too long, and the break-even price didn't make sense when oil was less than $50 a barrel like it was from 2015 until mid-2017. That thesis, coupled with an oversupply of rigs and some questionable balance sheets, meant Wall Street headed for the exits and left shares of Transocean in the dumps.
Yet by most accounts, offshore oil is going to struggle to compete with shale and OPEC as a low-cost supply. Fortunately, those aren't offshore oil's only competitors. As it stands, shale drilling makes up less than 5% of the global oil supply, while OPEC has about 42% of global supply. While these two supply sources have room to grow, it will be hard for both to replace declining production from the other 50% of the world and meet increasing demand. That's where offshore oil fits into the puzzle, and why Transocean looks like such an interesting investment right now.
We're already seeing the impact of those trends mentioned above play out. A barrel of Brent crude oil -- the international benchmark price -- is over $70. At those prices, there are lots of offshore fields from which producers can get a sizable return. With a fleet of advanced offshore rigs, producers are likely going to gravitate toward Transocean's capable fleet for its drilling needs.
From the investors' perspective, the company has a decent amount of available rigs to grow revenue, and isn't overly burdened by its debt load. So as those rigs go to work, more of that is going to flow to the bottom line than to pay off outstanding debt.
The offshore oil market is looking more promising by the day, but shares of Transocean still trade at a deeply discounted price. If there was a time to consider shares of Transocean, it's now.
Sometimes bigger is better
John Bromels (ExxonMobil) Oil prices are on the rise, and so are the share prices of many oil and gas companies. Some have even seen double-digit gains already this year. That makes me concerned about valuations -- and the potential for a market overreaction if the price of oil heads south again.
While there probably is some upside left for many independent oil drillers, one of the safest oil stocks to buy right now is ExxonMobil, the largest oil major by market cap. Exxon's size and conservative management strategy may have put a damper on its share price in 2017 compared to its peers, but the company has excellent fundamentals for an oil major, with a very low debt-to-equity ratio and good returns on capital compared to its peers.
Exxon is also a Dividend Aristocrat, having raised its dividend annually for more than 25 years -- it's raised it at least every other year for more than 50 -- and currently sports a 3.5% yield. The company also has some promising new projects in the works that seem likely to pay off for investors who buy in now. It's not the sexiest play in the energy sector at the moment, but ExxonMobil is certainly one of the safest.
In the right place(s) at the right time
Jason Hall (ONEOK, Inc.): Shares of ONEOK aren't exactly dirt cheap, and actually trade at a small premium to its peer group. But a big reason why it trades at that premium is because it's been one of the best midstream income investments in the space over the past couple of years. Its share price is up almost 181% since the lows in early 2016, and its ability to pay -- and increase -- its dividend has rewarded investors with 216% in total returns over the past two years.
While it might seem like now's the time to take those profits and get out, I think it's actually a good time to consider buying shares. At recent prices, ONEOK pays a solid 5.3% yield, and management has been steadfast that it will be able to grow the payout 9%-11% per year through 2021 as it invests in new projects that will significantly increase its cash flows. As my colleague Matthew DiLallo recently described, those projects are lining up, as is the funding to pay for them now.
Over the past several years, plenty of people have been burned by midstream companies that were supposed to be able to pay steady dividends, only to see the payouts get slashed. ONEOK has been one that investors have been able to count on, and largely because it operates in some of the fastest-growing oil and gas plays in the U.S. Its ability to lock up new deals to grow cash flows -- as well as the capital to pay for those projects -- will go a long way to keeping the dividend growing in years ahead.