Despite improving commodity prices, the energy sector remains deeply out of favor. For income investors with a contrarian bent, however, that's a potential buying opportunity. The problem is that there are still very real issues for energy companies to deal with. That's why integrated giant Chevron (CVX -0.87%) is one of the best options in the space. Here's a few points to back that up.

1. Diversification

There are a multitude of ways to invest in the energy sector, from the upstream (exploration and production) to the downstream (chemicals and refining), and there are different dynamics to each major area. Chevron, one of the world's largest integrated energy companies, has exposure across the value chain, from drilling to transportation (the midstream sector) to processing. That provides balance to its portfolio, since in normal markets some areas will usually be doing better than others and helping to smooth out financial results.

A man with the word risk and a bag of money balanced in front of him on a simple balance with an umbrella over the whole.

Image source: Getty Images.

Conservative investors know that diversification is good for their portfolios, but it can also be good for a company's business. It may seem like small solace, but in 2020 Chevron's international downstream business was in the black while all of its other reporting segments were in the red. It was a terrible year by any measure, but it would have been much worse if the company were only focused on drilling for oil or operating in a single market/region. 

2. Financial strength

Diversification is nice, but Chevron is hardly the only diversified oil company. It is one of many that fall into the integrated segment of the industry. But one area where Chevron stands alone is financial strength. The company's debt-to-equity ratio is roughly 0.33 times, lower than U.S. peer ExxonMobil's (XOM -0.88%) 0.4 times and way below European peers that sit at 0.6 times or higher. 

To be fair, European oil majors tend to carry higher debt loads and higher cash balances than Chevron or Exxon. However, spending a cash horde during an industry downturn isn't necessarily viewed as a positive by investors, and adding debt to an already debt-heavy balance sheet is equally undesirable. So Chevron's low-leverage approach may actually give it more leeway. Indeed, it used its financial strength to add debt during 2020 so it could muddle through the hit without the need to cut its dividend. It also managed to make an opportunistic acquisition and still maintain its industry-leading leverage metrics. 

CVX Debt to Equity Ratio Chart

CVX Debt to Equity Ratio data by YCharts

3. The dividend

For more conservative income investors, a company's dividend is sacrosanct. BP and Royal Dutch Shell both cut their dividends last year, while Exxon, Chevron, and Total did not. That said, Chevron has an over-three-decade-long streak of annual dividend increases under its belt at this point. And it just announced a 4% increase in its dividend along with its first-quarter earnings. Total is focusing on debt repayment over dividend increases right now, and while Exxon's dividend history is every bit as strong as Chevron's -- if not stronger -- its balance sheet isn't in as good shape. And, notably, Exxon has big spending plans that it needs to fund, suggesting that dividends may have to play second fiddle to capital spending in the near term. Chevron's spending plans were relatively modest even before the pandemic. 

When you take into account all of the above, it helps to explain why Chevron's 4.9% dividend yield is near the bottom of its peer group. However, the stock's yield is still near the high end of the company's own historical range. So it looks like Chevron is historically cheap today, even though you can get a higher yield from other companies in the sector. The problem is that to get those higher yields you need to step up the risk scale. For conservative types, that's probably not worth it. 

4. The future

One clear knock against Chevron is that it is dragging its feet as the world looks to move beyond oil and natural gas. That's a legitimate complaint -- Chevron is simply tiptoeing into the clean energy waters, while others, like BP and Shell, look like they are jumping in with both feet.

The thing is, energy transitions take time, and the world is likely to need more of all energy sources as emerging economies continue to develop. So oil and natural gas aren't likely to go away overnight. 

Meanwhile, the renewable power space looks a bit expensive right now, with intense competition resulting in inflated prices and potentially lower future returns. So taking a wait-and-see approach might actually work in Chevron's favor if it avoids overspending just to appease Wall Street. And with such a strong balance sheet, there's no reason why it can't buy its way into the sector via an acquisition should a good opportunity arise. That chance, hopefully, will come when investors have soured on renewables and bid down the stock prices of clean energy-focused names.

Not perfect, but pretty good

Every investment comes with a few warts, and Chevron is no different. However, for conservative income investors looking to put money to work in the out-of-favor energy sector, it has a lot of positives. Specifically, the company's historically high yield, industry-leading financial strength, and diversified business model all give it an edge over its peers. And the negative that Chevron is taking a slow approach on the global warming front may not be as bad as some fear.

For most income investors, Chevron stacks up really well compared to the competition.