As an investor, you should be getting excited about the recent bump in oil prices. This is the best oil price environment we've seen in a long, slow, and painful three years.
If you're not an oil investor yet, though, the early February market correction has beaten down the prices of some promising companies. That's on top of the beating many of these companies took during the years-long oil price slump. Which makes this a great time to take a look at three of them -- Apache Corporation (APA 2.06%), Hess Corporation (HES -0.08%), and W&T Offshore, Inc. (WTI -0.54%) -- and see if they're worth buying.
A teaser that may pay off
Some stocks like to tease their investors by climbing just shy of a big price milestone...and then dropping back down again. That's what the last year has been like for shareholders of Apache Corporation. The independent oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) company's shares seem perpetually poised to break through the $50 threshold, only to get battered down over and over.
Apache's shares had a rough 2017. In the first half of the year, weak oil prices coupled with falling production sent shares tumbling. Then the market got impatient with the slow pace of development at Apache's monster Alpine High play in West Texas, and sent shares even lower. For the year, the stock was down 33.5%, despite several savvy moves by the company to shore up its operations, including selling off its underperforming Canadian assets.
When oil prices began to rise at the end of 2017, though, Apache's shares began to follow suit, buoyed by a better-than-expected third-quarter earnings report. However, before they could cross that $50 mark, they suffered the one-two punch of projected lower-than-expected Q4 2017 production thanks to a third-party pipeline issue, followed by the market correction earlier this month. That's knocked the company's per-share price back under $40, which I think is an excellent entry point given the company's growth prospects.
Alpine High should come fully online this quarter, and that production boost combined with the rising price of oil, along with Apache's best-in-class 2.6% current dividend yield, should set the company up to outperform in 2018.
A plan that may pay off
The biggest thing that independent E&P Hess has going for it is probably its joint venture with the venerable ExxonMobil (XOM 0.79%) in some exploration blocks off the coast of Guyana. Hess owns a 30% stake in this very promising find. But even with Exxon hoping to bring the Guyanan oil to market quickly, it won't start flowing in earnest until at least 2020. The good news is that Hess has some goodies to offer to investors in the meantime.
Hess is planning to sweeten the pot for investors by $1 billion in 2018, with $500 million in share buybacks and another $500 million in debt reduction to help shore up its balance sheet. Coupling this with improved oil prices, Hess should come out of 2018 in much better shape than it entered the year.
Hess' share price has already rebounded a bit off of its post-correction low, which might concern investors. But the stock is still down about 40% over the past three years, barely better than Apache's 43% drop during the same time frame. Even with the recent improvement, Hess -- which also sports a dividend yield around 2.2% -- looks like a bargain.
A risk that may pay off
W&T Offshore's stock is down nearly as much as Apache's and Hess' over the last three years: about 39%. That's despite shares more than doubling in price over the last six months. And after the recent market correction, there may be more upside for W&T's shares, thanks to two of its three most recent exploration wells striking oil.
But W&T is also a big risk for investors. For one thing, the company had to go pretty heavily into debt to fund its operations during the oil price downturn, resulting in nearly $1 billion in long-term debt currently on its books. And for a small company like W&T -- its market cap is less than $600 million, compared to Apache's $14.5 billion and $14.6 billion for Hess -- that represents significant risk. The company's debt-to-equity ratio is an astonishing 2.4, compared to Apache's 0.5 and 0.4 for Hess.
The company may have more big oil finds up its sleeve, which would certainly improve its cash-generation abilities. But its poor balance sheet -- plus the fact that unlike Apache or Hess, it pays no dividend -- means the current risk probably outweighs the potential reward for most investors.
The recent market correction has smacked some recovering oil company shares back down into bargain territory. Apache and Hess are looking like two bargains worth pursuing for investors bullish on oil. W&T Offshore, on the other hand, is a much riskier investment and far less of a sure thing.
However, with oil prices still hovering around $60 per barrel even after the market correction, 2018 is looking positive for oil stocks generally. And now is an attractive entry point for energy investors looking to get in while the getting is good.