One of the biggest stories in the news over the past few weeks is how the United States and other Western powers have imposed sanctions against Russia due to disagreements regarding the Crimean Peninsula. Unfortunately, much of Europe is very heavily dependent on oil and gas from Russia to meet its energy needs. Thus, European nations cannot impose truly harmful sanctions against Russia due to this energy dependence. For this reason, the Europeans are looking westward for help. Specifically, the nations of Europe hope that the United States and Canada, which possess massive reserves of natural gas, could offer relief by becoming providers of natural gas to Europe. If the Europeans get their wish, it would be a massive boon to LNG shipping carriers such as Golar LNG (NASDAQ:GLNG).
About Golar LNG
Golar LNG is one of the largest owners of liquefied natural gas tanker ships in the world, owning 19 LNG tankers with another seven under construction. Golar LNG is also active in other areas of the LNG industry including floating storage and regasification. In fact, Golar LNG has converted five of its existing tankers and two of its newbuilds into units that will be used for this purpose instead of for shipping LNG across the ocean. But for our purposes and for our investment thesis, we are only concerned with the units that are being used to ship liquefied natural gas.
Why is this? Well, in short, LNG tankers are the only way to get natural gas across the ocean. At least, the only practical way. This is because natural gas is, as the name indicates, a gas. This means that natural gas will actually expand to fill whatever space it is put in. Thus, the amount of natural gas that could fit in even a very large tanker would be so small as to render it economically unviable to go through the effort of shipping it if the natural gas was kept in its gaseous state. But by cooling the gas sufficiently to turn it into a liquid, the density of the gas is increased and much more gas can be put into the same amount of space. Therefore, these specially built ships owned by Golar LNG would be the only practical way to ship natural gas from North America to Europe.
Golar hurt by short-term problems
The LNG shipping industry has been struggling recently, although it is nothing compared to the long-term malaise that is afflicting the oil shipping industry. In 2012, there was a 2% drop in global liquefaction volumes. This was followed up by another 2% drop in 2013. Additionally, LNG shippers saw their global tonne miles drop by 4%-5% in 2013, but these were still quite high by historical standards. Additionally, the rates that shipowners such as Golar LNG are paid to transport natural gas have been falling. This is because there are a large number of new LNG tanker ships being delivered with no increase in LNG shipping demand. Therefore, the supply of LNG tankers has begun to exceed demand.
With all that said, these difficulties are expected to be short term. Golar LNG states in its fourth-quarter presentation that the industry's analysts believe that demand for LNG is expected to increase worldwide by 2020, and this increased demand will require that the size of the global LNG tanker fleet grow by approximately 225 vessels by 2020. But only 110 new vessels have been ordered. Thus, the growing demand for these ships should be sufficient to absorb all of the ships that are currently in the global fleet or under construction. But investors today may have to wait for a few years while this plays out.
These predictions were made before politicians in the West began proposing sanctions against Russia. Thus, the assumption was that Gazprom would continue to be a major supplier of natural gas to Europe. So far, at least, the Europeans have done nothing to change this situation. But if the governments of Europe are serious about replacing a significant portion of the natural gas that they import from Russia with natural gas that comes from North America then the worldwide LNG tanker fleet will have to grow by far more than 225 ships by 2020. Therefore, if the European governments decide to go down this path, we will almost certainly see dayrates for LNG tankers rise due to all of this new demand.
Several energy companies, including Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A), have proposed the construction of LNG plants in North America to turn the continent into a major exporter of natural gas. It will take time to build these plants so that Golar LNG can begin shipping the LNG produced by them to Europe, but the company pays investors to wait. At the time of writing, Golar LNG pays a dividend of $1.80 per share per year, giving the stock a 4.26% yield at the current price.