The oil industry has been through its share of ups and downs over the last decade, with volatile oil markets driving investors crazy at times. But commodity volatility is a part of the industry, so investors have to find stocks that can make it work to their advantage.
Three of our Foolish contributors put their heads together to outline what the best oil stocks are today given the market's trends, and Core Laboratories (NYSE:CLB), Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC), and Ensco (NYSE:ESV) bubbled to the top. They're well positioned in the market and may even provide a great value for long-term investors.
A cash cow trading in the bargain bin
Jason Hall (Core Laboratories): The oil business is hard enough if you're a producer. But if you're one of the companies providing services to the producers, it's even tougher; you're the first one to get squeezed on prices when oil falls and the last to be able to raise prices when demand ramps back up. Furthermore, many oilfield service companies have expensive equipment to maintain even when business is slow, and those fixed costs compound the pain when times are tough.
Core Laboratories really stands out as an exception in this regard. You have to go back to the early 2000s -- more than 15 years ago -- to find the last time it didn't generate a profit or positive operating and free cash flows.
That's because Core is more tech leader than "picks and shovels," with a light-asset model that helps it make money even when business slows.
That's not to say it hasn't been affected by oil prices falling sharply in recent months or that its results in coming quarters won't be squeezed as well. Its earnings are feeling a pinch, as are cash flows -- but far, far less than the beating its stock price has taken:
With shares trading for the cheapest they've been in nearly a decade, Core tops my list of oil stocks worth buying right now. It provides an incredibly valuable service to producers, is able to make money in nearly every part of the cycle, and returns substantial cash to shareholders with a 3.3% dividend yield at recent prices.
A major overreaction
Matt DiLallo (Anadarko Petroleum): Shares of oil giant Anadarko Petroleum have been under pressure over the past few months due at first to a slump in oil prices and most recently to its poorly received fourth-quarter results. As a consequence, the oil producer's stock is now down more than 25% in the past year even though oil prices have only declined by about 8%.
While Anadarko's earnings came in below expectations due to higher costs and lower prices for the oil and natural gas liquids it produces, that number isn't the oil giant's primary focus. Instead, its priority is to generate cash, which came in strong at $1.6 billion for the quarter, pushing its full-year total to $5.9 billion. That was more than enough money to cover the company's $5 billion of capital spending as well as its dividend, which it boosted a jaw-dropping 500% last year. It used the excess, plus cash on its balance sheet from prior asset sales, to buy back shares -- retiring 12% since late 2017 -- and to pay down debt.
Anadarko expects to continue generating cash this year. The company set its budget for $50 oil, and with crude above that level, it should produce more excess cash. Add that to its $1.3 billion balance at year-end and the $2 billion that should soon come in the door from its midstream sale, and Anadarko has plenty of money to continue rewarding shareholders, aiming to repurchase another $1.25 billion in stock as well as pay off $1.4 billion in debt by the middle of next year. That buyback will be even more impactful after Anadarko's recent sell-off, which is what makes it a top oil stock to buy these days.
Drilling is back again
Travis Hoium (Ensco): Offshore drillers have been some of the hardest hit by the oil markets' turbulence over the last five years. Low oil prices left weak demand that coincided with an oversupply of drilling rigs that left even the biggest operators susceptible to financial hardship. But recently, the industry has undergone a consolidation that should leave the remaining players in a better position financially. Ensco is one of the largest drillers left, and that's why I think it's an oil stock to buy.
You can see below that Ensco has recorded its fair share of losses in the last few years, but it's now reporting positive EBITDA, and the rise in oil prices over the last three years will help demand.
What I don't think can be understated is the impact consolidation will have on the industry. Ensco alone has acquired Atwood Oceanics and recently agreed to buy Rowan in an all-stock deal. Other large players like Transocean are also buying competitors in a broad industry consolidation. That should help push dayrates for rigs higher in the long term and increase margins.
Buying offshore drillers doesn't come without risk. If oil prices fall again or shale is preferred by explorers to open waters, the industry could go through another downturn. But if it recovers, Ensco has a lot of upside, and that's worth betting on right now.
Buying the dip in oil
Oil prices will continue to be volatile, and that's just the nature of investing in the industry. But Core Labs, Anadarko Petroleum, and Ensco are well positioned to thrive and could be huge winners if oil prices rise again. If you're interested in oil stocks, these three companies are a great place to start.