In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick is joined by Motley Fool personal finance expert Robert Brokamp and analyst Nick Sciple. Robert shares a few year-end financial planning tips on how to max out your contributions to employer-sponsored accounts, coronavirus-related distribution from employer accounts, Roth asset conversions, flexible spending accounts, and charitable cash deductions. Next, Nick provides an overview of the energy sector and the best way to approach the sector from an investment perspective. He also suggests a stock to put on your watch list, and much more.

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This video was recorded on December 8, 2020.

Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick, and I'm joined as always by Robert bro-ho-ho Brokamp, Personal Finance Expert here at The Motley Fool. That didn't work out at all; did it?

Robert Brokamp: Season's greetings to you all.

Southwick: In this week's episode, it's part three of our year-end investing series, with the help of Industry Focus' Nick Sciple, we're going to dig into the energy sector. Get it? Puns! All that and more on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.

So, Bro, what's up?

Brokamp: Well, Alison, by the laws of personal finance multimedia, I am obliged at this time of year to offer a few year-end financial planning tips. Some of the things we're going to say, you've heard every year, but there are a few that are unique to 2020. And boy! It's been a unique year. So, here are some ways to make the most of this interesting year. In fact, I have five.

No. 1, max-out employer-sponsored accounts. So, you actually have until April 15th of next year to make a 2020 contribution to an IRA. But the deadline for most employer-sponsored accounts, like 401(k)s and 403(b)s, is December 31st. So, if you haven't yet maxed-out the account, if you have a little money lying around, you still have a little bit of time, but you generally can't wait until the last day of the month, for most employers, you have to change your rate of contribution a few days before the final payroll of the year; just as an example, here at The Motley Fool, if you want to max-out your account this year, you have until December 10th before 4:00 PM to do it. But of course, your job will be different, so talk to your HR department. The bottom-line here is that most 401(k) plans, or at least many, don't actually allow you to just send a check, you have to do it through the payroll. Just as a reminder, the contribution limits in 2020 for most employer-sponsored retirement accounts is $19,500, with an additional $6,500, if you'd be 50-or-older by December 31st. For IRAs, $6,000 with an additional $1,000 for the 50-and-better crowd. And those limits are not changing in 2021, they're staying the same. That said, the income thresholds on being able to contribute to a Roth or whether your contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible, those will change, so check those out if you're going to contribute to an IRA in 2021.

No. 2, make a coronavirus related distribution from your employer account, if possible. So, thanks to the CARES Act that was passed in March, employers who've experienced certain health or financial related hardships due to the coronavirus can withdraw up to $100,000 combined from their retirement accounts and avoid the 10% early distribution penalty if they're not yet 59.5, though you still will owe taxes. The good news is, you have up to three years to return the money and it doesn't have to go back into the account from which it came, and we've mentioned this a few times this year, this actually provides an opportunity for people who are in mediocre or worse employer plans to move the money to an IRA. However, this option is only possible this year and the deadline is actually December 30th, not 31st. So, if you're intrigued, make sure to visit the IRS website to make sure that you fit the criteria for making one of these coronavirus related distributions.

No. 3, convert traditional to Roth assets. So, you have till December 31st to do a conversion for this year. This year is a perfectly good one to consider a Roth. Tax rates are historically low and income has dropped for many Americans. Of course, you pay taxes on the converted amounts, but then the money grows tax-free as long as you follow the rules. This is also a good year for Americans over the age of 70 who want to do conversions.

Normally, you have to take your required minimum distributions from a traditional account first and then do the conversion; and no, conversions do not count toward the required minimum distribution, but all RMDs have been suspended for this year, so you can convert at will. Just remember that ever since the tax overhaul that passed in 2017, conversions can no longer be undone by something known as a recharacterization, so only do a conversion if you're sure that it makes sense.

No. 4, spend money remaining in flexible spending accounts. So, depending on your employer's plan, you have until December 31st to spend the money in a dependent care or medical flexible spending plan. Some plans do have different deadlines, some allow for extended grace periods up to maybe March 15th, and for the medical account, some plans allow you to roll up to $550 to 2021, and that's up from last year's $500 carryover amount.

Also, thanks to the CARES Act, the items that qualify for your medical flexible spending account have been greatly expanded, so visit FSAstore.com to see what's eligible. And again, reach out to your HR department to find out the deadlines for your plan.

And finally, No. 5, deduct charitable cash contributions. Once again, thanks to the CARES Act, taxpayers can deduct up to $300 in cash contributions to qualifying charities without having to itemize their tax returns. Make sure you visit the IRS website for more info, and it also has a searchable database to find which organizations qualify. Of course, you can always donate more, and I hope you do, because man! There are a lot of people and businesses struggling out there. I personally need to step up my own charity. My wife and I are actually going to talk about that later today. And I've been trying to focus my holiday spending on local businesses -- you know, independent bookshops, mom-and-pop shops, which by the way, if you visit their website, a lot of local businesses actually offer online ordering, remote pickup, even shipping, and a lot of independent businesses are struggling, I'm trying to support them and I hope you'll consider doing the same.

And that, Alison, is what's up.

[...]

Nick Sciple: So excited to be here on Answers, this is my first time here, I'm in the guest chair, which is kind of a little bit different, you know, answering the questions instead of asking the questions. But, yeah, every Thursday we talk about what's going on in energy and industrials, we've had a lot of great guests this year. Bethany McLean is just one example. So, check it out if you're interested in the sector.

Southwick: Yeah, so you are the third member to join us. So, we have talked to Dylan about tech, and we talked to Emily Flippen about consumer goods. And so, today is energy. And this is one of those sectors that I feel like I understand a bit, but probably not really much at all, so I'm going to need you to talk to me like I don't understand anything more than energy to make life go.

So, I know that energy can be pretty broad, right, I mean, we power our cars, our homes, so we're talking gasoline, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, I don't know. Where should we start when talking about energy?

Sciple: Yeah. So, when we're talking about energy, I think the way most of us think about it is just things that deliver electrons to your home that turn the lights on. So, you put the gas in your car that might be a company like Exxon (NYSE:XOM). However, one important thing to think about when you're an investor is the way the S&P thinks about energy may not match exactly the way you think about energy. So, if you look at the S&P 500 energy sector comprises companies engaged in the exploration and production, refining and marketing, and storage and transportation of oil and gas, coal and consumable fuels, and also includes companies that offer oil and gas and equipment services. So, what that means is, if you are invested in the XLE ETF, the energy sector of the S&P 500, you're centrally investing in oil and gas companies. So, that's these big integrated companies like Exxon that produce oil, distribute oil, and refined oil. Then you've got big production companies, like, ConocoPhillips, EOG Resources, Occidental Petroleum; pipeline businesses, those are these midstream companies Kinder Morgan, would be a company folks are familiar with; refiners like Phillips 66; and then servicing companies like Schlumberger or Halliburton. So, those are the big subsectors when it comes to energy in the S&P 500.

Southwick: Yeah. I think one thing that I didn't really think about until I, actually a long time ago, used to kind of host Industry Focus, when it was on video form. And is the idea that there are all of these tons and tons of companies that are dedicated along the way to getting you your energy. So, there are the ones who explore, to try and find oil, there are the ones who dig the holes, there are the ones... so, can you talk a little bit about just a little bit more about all of the different companies that are involved in bringing energy to you?

Sciple: Sure. Yeah, so when you hear investors talk about oil and gas, you'll often hear the three streams; so upstream, midstream, and downstream. And so, that kind of refers to the supply chain of oil. So, if you think about the oil flowing downhill, it starts out upstream and it goes downstream. The upstream are these exploration and production companies, that is what they're known as. These are the people that are pulling the oil physically out of the ground, those are the companies like ConocoPhillips and EOG Resources that I just mentioned. When you talk about midstream, that's just a codeword mostly for pipelines. You take the oil out of the ground, you put it in a pipe and you send it down to market. These pipeline companies, kind of, interesting aspect about them is they kind of have a monopoly, right? You own the pipe that's distributing this commodity to market. So, they're a little bit less sensitive to oil prices than the producers that are literally selling this oil as it comes out of the ground. And then lastly you have the downstream, these are the refiners, these are the folks that take oil and then turn it into gasoline, jet fuel, plastic, what have you. And so that's how those work.

Then you have the integrated companies, those are like Exxon, they do all three. And then the last one would be the servicing companies, like you said, you mentioned the companies that drill the holes in the ground. They are the companies that help those producers, kind of, do their work.

Southwick: When I think of a typical Motley Fool stock, I think of tech, consumer goods, retail, stuff that we've already talked about in our series. I don't necessarily think of energy. Why is that? Is it because energy is hard to understand, because it's so massive, or I don't know, I don't think Foolish stocks when I think of energy, but maybe I'm wrong?

Sciple: Well, I think the reason that it's difficult for us as The Motley Fool to pick energy stocks, is we tend to be long-term buy-and-hold investors. You find a company with a strong competitive advantage that can continue compounding that over time. Energy, just the particularities of that market, tends to not work that way. It's a commodity market. Oil produced in one part of the world. You know, there are puts-and-takes when it comes to different grades of oil, but for the most part, these are substitutes. And just given the vicissitudes of human nature, the market is very cyclical. So, when things are going really good, everybody wants to rush into the oil market and produce more oil, which pushes prices down, which leads to people losing money, which pushes people out of the market through bankruptcies and on and on and on and this endless cycle. And so, it's very difficult when it comes to investing in oil and gas stock, these historical drivers of the energy market, to just buy a company and then hold it over the long term, you have to ride these cycles. And just it doesn't fit the Foolish kind of mindset, in general. Although, you can make money doing that, and we have recommended energy stocks in the past just in that oil and gas sector.

The last thing that I would mention is that oil and gas is arguably in secular decline, right? If you talk about -- [laughs] historically you have this cyclical nature of the market where it's difficult to hold over the long term, and then we've got this rise of renewable, where I think most folks would argue about the pace at which oil demand might decrease, but I think most folks would agree that 50 years from now there will be less oil demand than there is today. And so, for those reasons, it's just hard to buy-and-hold for the long term in the oil and gas sector.

Brokamp: I was reading The Wall Street Journal the other day about the fall of Exxon. I believe it was as recently as 2012 maybe, that it was the biggest company in the S&P 500 and now it's been kicked out of the Dow. Energy stocks, in general, the sector is the worst-performing so far this year. It is a fascinating story when you look at an industry that dominated the economy for so long and you just wonder, is this cyclical or is this the end of oil dominance and people really should be looking beyond oil for a longer-term investment?

Sciple: Yeah, I don't know, we'll see. I think, you know, [laughs] all these things take time. I think the stat on the average car on the road is like 11 years old, so even if you want to say EVs are going to be 100% of the new cars sold next year, it's going to take a little bit of time for that changeover to take place. But to your point, when you talk about the energy sector, like I said off the top, it's all oil and gas. And I think today, when a lot of people think about the future of energy, what energy is, [laughs] a lot of folks would say, we probably need to rebalance this sector when people think about, you know, I want to go invest in renewable energy, they're thinking about companies like NextEra Energy, which is a utility, or Brookfield Renewable Corporation, which is also utility. You've got Plug Power, has been, kind of, a hot renewable stock this year, also not in that subsector. So, I think it's a fair argument to say that we're probably due for a rebalancing in the energy sector as oil becomes less prominent. I'm not predicting that oil is going to go away anytime soon, but I think there's a strong argument to say we should probably rethink what the energy sector is going forward.

Southwick: Wait a second, energy has been in decline since 2012, because I get -- we'll get into the year of 2020 with energy, but what's been going on since 2012 that the whole sector is, oil anyway, is in decline?

Sciple: Yeah, so when it comes to 2012, the decline of the energy sector, it's really been this idea of shale, shales worked too well. So, since early 2000s shale oil and gas has really been under development and really surged following 2008-2009 when oil prices surged to all-time highs. As I mentioned earlier, the cyclical nature of the energy markets, when oil prices get high, that draws in new supply, encourages folks to look where oil and gas maybe they could access it, but it maybe didn't make economic sense in the past.

Well, you know, we had tons of capital flow into shale oil and gas, which worked really incredibly well. When you discover supplies of oil and gas that drive production up, I want to say, over 10 million barrels a day for the U.S. The U.S. is producing 13 million barrels a day of oil, making it the biggest producer in the world, from a couple years ago, the U.S. was nowhere near the biggest producer in the world.

And so, in a market such as energy, like I said earlier, it's a commodified market. When you see this massive amount of supply come on at a faster pace than demand, that drives down energy prices. And then if you look at the shale oil and gas, the kicker is, [laughs] none of this production is really profitable. We've been seeing for years and years, each incremental barrel of oil getting pulled out of the ground is cashflow negative for these businesses. You can talk about why production continues, there's more debt capital flowing to these companies, there's incentive structures when it comes to some managements that incentivize producing more volume rather than maybe earnings per share, things like that. And so really the big takeaway is, shale has worked so well that it's driven oil and gas to levels where it's just difficult to make a profit. And so, you know, if you can't make money, that's a tough situation for these companies to be in.

You mentioned Exxon. Exxon has been paying over 100% dividend payout ratio for over five years. So, it's just really a tough spot to be in for these companies.

Southwick: Okay. So, tough spot, and then 2020 hits, and suddenly, I think, no one is driving around as much, [laughs] no one is -- I don't know, maybe there's other transportation energy things gobbling up energy, but it feels like 2020 was probably an awful thing to hit the energy industry at an already awful time.

Sciple: Yeah. So, when I think about what happened to energy this year, have you ever seen that gif and it's Ron Paul and he's got his hands in the air and it says, IT'S HAPPENING, or whatever. That's kind of how I would describe the energy market for this year. So, back in the beginning of February, I had Tracy Shuchart on the podcast. Folks might know her as @chigirl on Twitter, a really great follower when it comes to energy markets. This is before the big COVID pandemic really, really took hold. And we talked about this wall of debt that was coming for the shale patch in 2020 that we saw going back to when the market really, kind of, crashed back in 2016. And we expected to see a bunch of bankruptcies come down this year. And then of course, you had [laughs] the pandemic take place, where that really whacked a lot of demand for oil.

On that same podcast, Tracy cited the stat, for each 10-hour flight, that's 700 barrels of oil per flight. And so, we have international travel really shut down, that crushes demand. And then at the same time you had this temporary kerfuffle between Saudi Arabia and Russia, where they both increased production into this decline in demand, which everybody saw, that the news back in the Spring, that drove oil briefly below $0.

And so, I think kind of the takeaway is, you've seen a lot this year, this idea of trends being pulled forward that were already taking place. So, you know, telehealth, remote work, all these sorts of things. One trend was, a lot of these shale companies had been in this period where they were losing money perpetually, building up this wall of debt that was coming due. And it was all going to come due sooner or later, and it happened. And we've seen a bunch of bankruptcies this year, Chesapeake, probably the most prominent among them. At one point it was the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., I believe. And now it's just gone bankrupt. It's just one of those things where they were already in a tough spot and then you had this historical crisis that really made it that much more pressing.

Southwick: We haven't really talked much about renewable energy, so we probably should talk about renewable energy. So, if big energy, oil, gas, is not doing so well, how is renewable energy doing?

Sciple: So, renewable has done incredibly well this year. If you look across top performers in the market, you know, companies like Brookfield Renewable, I think is as on a double this year. NextEra Energy is up over 20%; you look at that against the energy ETF, down 28%, doing quite well. Obviously, the EV sector has been really hot this year with a lot of those names performing well. The one thing I would say, though, about renewables is, some of the valuations on these are really, really optimistic. I think, you know, as pessimistic as the story is for oil, I would say, the optimism on renewable is probably as strong on the other side.

Brokamp: And by EV, just to be clear, you mean electric vehicle.

Sciple: Electric vehicles; Tesla and various competitors, of which, there are many arriving every day this year.

Southwick: Yeah, I guess it is pretty crazy that Exxon fell off the Dow, but then Tesla joined the S&P. Am I getting that right?

Sciple: Yes, absolutely. So, again, yeah, there's this idea of, you know, is now the time when the transition takes place. I think one of the big headlines from this year, is you saw BP, back in August basically say, [laughs] hey, we want to get out of the oil and gas business. They want to cut their aggregate oil and natural gas production by 40% by 2030. They expect their income from oil and gas to go into decline beginning in 2025. By 2025, they want to approve 20 gigawatts of renewable energy projects. So, you have this idea of this debt wall, kind of, came due for shale and we have a lot of reckoning here. And then you've got, you know, big oil companies like BP are saying, we need to pivot to renewables, there's a lot of reasons behind that. We've seen a lot of European energy majors do this, partially because maybe the regulatory framework is more clear there, and there's a little bit more of a ESG [Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance] push in that market, but I think it was a really big story to see an oil giant saying basically, we intend to move quickly to become a renewable energy player. And this is a field they really don't have a ton of experience in.

Southwick: So, this may sound bad, Nick, but I was kind of expecting this conversation about energy to be not interesting to me, but it's actually been really interesting, [laughs] so thank you for coming. It sounds like this is a fascinating time in the energy sector, for better or for worse. And so, this is actually -- I mean, I just wanted to pause and say, thanks, Nick, I'm enjoying this conversation, so.

Well, let's start looking ahead. So, what are some trends that you're watching for 2021?

Sciple: Why, I think the big one is from an energy policy point-of-view. I talked about earlier how the regulatory framework is maybe a little bit more clear in Europe than it is in the U.S. So, we do have a new Presidential Administration changeover and there's been talk about Green New Deal and expanded environmental policies, what happens with the Paris Climate Accord, those sorts of things? I think that's one thing to watch. There's been this talk about, you know, is fracking going to be banned? I don't think that's likely to take place, but you know, as far as effects on oil and gas companies, maybe there will be changes in permitting structure or the requirements when it comes to emissions and things like that. So, I think across the sector, I think there's questions about what happens from a regulatory point-of-view, No. 1.

And then No. 2, I just think, broadly is, how does the economy recover? Are people going to start flying again, how quickly does travel recover, the vaccine? And I think that's true across the market, but in particular, in energy when essentially any part of economic activity, anytime you travel, trade, any of these sorts of things, energy use goes up.

Brokamp: Yeah, we saw last month, we were talking about the struggles of energy, but in November, the energy sector was the best performing sector and oil jumped 27%, so clearly some investors are investing, at least short-term, in energy companies to benefit from the rebound.

Sciple: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I think to a certain extent, maybe there was a lot of pessimism in some of these companies. I still think it's a hard road ahead. So, you know, you look at Exxon, folks might say, hey, you know, it's a 9% dividend yield. But I don't know, it's tough.

But that said, we've seen this year lots of companies reduce investment in exploration and production, I talked about BP, Exxon has also announced they're going to spend less. So, over time, what does that mean for oil and gas companies when there's less investment, sooner or later that shows up in production, and maybe prices go up? I don't know. The big challenge is too, we're in this oversupply scenario and most production globally is controlled by, you know, nation states that aren't as necessarily profit-motivated in the same way that public companies are. So, it's a tough spot for these companies to be in. And I don't know if I'd predict a recovery, but I don't know if I'd predict their demise either.

Southwick: So, then what's an investor to do? What are you doing as an investor? Do you invest much in this sector or are you just like, follow it for the show? [laughs]

Sciple: Yeah, I would say, for me, if you're a kind of a beginning investor and you want energy exposure, I think it's a very, very difficult place to, kind of, play. And especially, the exploration and production companies, you've got this super-high sensitivity to oil prices and then you've got managements that are just, kind of, in a tough spot. I think, for me, [laughs] if I just want broad energy exposure, I don't hate Berkshire Hathaway, they have a huge renewable portfolio, they touch essentially every part of the market. This year they bought Dominion Energy's pipeline assets. I think those pipeline assets are really strong assets. So, that's where I'm invested when it comes to energy. I think it's a difficult space to be involved in.

I think if you're an income investor, I think pipeline companies make sense. Again, these are companies that kind of have a monopoly on that pipeline route. So, once you have that in place, you're in a strong position. But I would say, you know, energy is a place that you should tread carefully, particularly on the energy and production side, so that's generally what I try to do.

Southwick: All right, Nick, before we go, how about you share a stock to watch?

Sciple: Awesome. Yeah, so as a stock to watch, I'm going to give credit to Jason Hall, he appears with me regularly on Industry Focus Energy podcast, and also hosts The Wrap on Fool Live for our Motley Fool subscribers. This company is TPI Composites (NASDAQ:TPIC), they are the largest independent contract manufacturer for wind turbine blades. Blades are the most prominent part of a wind turbine, but they're only 22% of the installed turbine cost.

What's interesting about this market, so we talked earlier about commodification in energy, you see it in oil and gas, you see it in natural gas, in renewables you see it as well when it comes to solar panels, because historically there's been massive volumes produced in China, which has just made it difficult to make money in that market. Wind is a little bit different, which is why TPI Composites is different. So, the size of these turbine blades can be just absolutely massive. Part of that is for efficiency reasons, the analogy I'll give is, if you ever see those old bicycles with the giant wheel on the front, those were racing bicycles, because you could go faster, the bigger the size, the wheel is more efficient. And it's a similar factor when it comes to wind turbines. And because of the size of these blades, logistically it's difficult to say, make this big-old blade in China and then ship it to the U.S. So, it combats some of the commodification in the market.

Their customers have 52% of the global onshore wind market, 88% of the global market, excluding China. Big customers like Vestas Wind Systems and General Electric. One thing to note there is, there are some customer concentration risks, over 70% of their business comes from General Electric and Vestas. However, we are seeing increasing outsourcing of those businesses. Why is that? One, just because demand is lumpy. You know, only so often do you have these big investment-grade projects, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to always have your own dedicated production capacity. And then again, that size of the turbine blades makes it difficult to ship. And so, some of these companies don't necessarily want to have production facilities all over the world, and so it makes sense to outsource.

And when you look at the business for TPI Composites, they've had pretty strong growth the past several years, growing revenue at a 26% compound annual growth rate over the last five years. In the most recent quarter, net income flipped to $40 million from losing $4 million the year before. They're expanding their production lines and extending supply agreements. So, you see their cash flow is a little bit negative, but that's because they're investing for growth.

And one other thing that I think is interesting when you talk to this continued growth in outsourcing in wind turbines, one of their competitors is Hexcel. They're a producer of composite material, similar to TPI Composites, they are a supplier for Vestas Wind Systems for the internal wind turbine blades that they produce. And this is a quote from their recent earnings call, Hexcel CEO said, "Major wind energy customers shifted their U.S. blade operation to an outsource model rather than using Hexcel's glass fiber composite material to manufacture their blades in-house for the Americas regions." So, that likely refers to TPI Composites.

So, you see this continued strong growth, you see signs customers are continuing to move outsourcing, wind energy has reached a point where it is less expensive than traditional forms of energy, be that coal and things like that. And so, continued growth in wind. And so, for all those reasons, lots of tailwinds for TPI Composites.

And valuation, they're near an all-time high valuation right now at 1X sales, lots of growth for the business going forward. And they're in an interesting niche that I think gives them potential to grow in this kind of new normal as energy transitions toward renewable.

Southwick: Awesome! Nick, thank you so much for joining us.

Sciple: Thank you, all. It was great to be on here. I hope I answered your questions.

Southwick: Yeah, I think that was fantastic. I really appreciate you coming on. And like I said, I enjoyed our chat. This was more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Again, no offense, but...

Sciple: Hey! No, it's not a big deal. Like, this is a -- you know, [laughs] the thing about energy is like, it kind of is behind everything that's going on. So, from a service level, it's kind of boring, it's like, oil. But then when you kind of drill into it, there's lots of kind of interesting moving parts behind the scenes that, you know, I don't know if I would rush to invest in it, but it's important to understand it, I think.

Southwick: Right, drill into it, tailwind; all puns intended, I'm sure.

Sciple: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Southwick: Well, we'd love to have you back again. And I should always remember the disclaimer.

As always, The Motley Fool may have recommendations for or against the stocks we talked about on the show, don't buy and sell stocks based solely on what you heard here.

Well, that's the show. It's edited energetically by Rick Engdahl. Our email is Answers@Fool.com. Yeah, we'll be finishing off this year with a mailbag episode. So, bring it, so we can answer it. Answers@Fool.com.

For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick, stay Foolish everybody.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.