The boom in U.S. supplies of both oil and natural gas as a result of ongoing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations may be the saving grace that rescues the Federal Reserve, the Obama administration, and the overall economy. While Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) and others came under significant criticism for their national land-grab scheme to buy up potentially lucrative land, the oil majors, including ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), stand ready to capitalize on the development. In a completely different wave, oil servicers such as Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) are looking to capitalize on the boom, and companies such as Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ:CLNE) have targeted liquefied natural gas, or LNG, as a way to clean up the country.
The intersection at which each of the developments, and the companies that support them, play a role in affecting the economy is where U.S. energy dependence affects inflation and economic stability. As an ever-increasing percentage of U.S. energy needs are met internally, several major global macroeconomic factors shift in America's favor. As that occurs, the actions of the Fed and the administration are at least bailed out, and the economy is given a greater chance to heal.
How can fracking save the Fed?
Over the past several years, the Fed has grown its balance sheet by a staggering $3 trillion in defense of the U.S. economy and risk assets. The current course of quantitative easing has the Fed pumping up to $85 billion per month into the economy by way of the bond market. This policy has been clearly defined as the set path for as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5% and inflation remains in check. In a vacuum, you would expect this type of easy-money policy to create significant inflation, but thus far, that hasn't been what the data suggests is happening.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the country's dependence on foreign oil peaked in 2006 at 60% of a larger total number than what's seen today. Current reports show that this figure has fallen to 32% of the smaller overall consumption number; dependence on foreign oil has decreased significantly. In terms of natural gas, where it is estimated that the U.S. spent $216 billion on the commodity in 2008, a recent BofA Merrill Lynch estimate suggests that this number has fallen all the way to $76 billion. This last statistic is significantly affected by the fact that the average price of natural gas in 2012 was roughly a third of the price in the U.S. as it was in both Europe and Asia.
When the U.S. is less dependent on foreign oil, several metrics change. The trade deficit and the current account deficit both fall. The latter, which is measured as a percentage of GDP, is expected to be down to 1.2% by 2020, as compared with the current 3.6%. This decline means both that the U.S. dollar is stronger and the cost of goods more stable. Each of these developments keeps inflation in check and allows the Fed and the administration to continue down their current path.
While the path for the Fed may be somewhat protected as a result of fracking, the developments within the industry cover a broad range of outcomes. Chesapeake is well positioned within the industry, but recently it had to announce an SEC investigation surrounding the behavior of its CEO, Aubrey McClendon. It hasn't been clarified how much risk the company faces, but SEC investigations tend to be fairly negative harbingers for the stocks of those companies. Chesapeake is a great company that I might avoid for the time being.
After watching the scramble for land left to the second-tier players, the oil majors such as Exxon are probably preparing for another round of acquisitions, according to Bernstein Research analyst Bob Brackett. While Chesapeake is both too big and too sullied to be a likely takeover candidate, Brackett sees the midsized names as being primed for a takeover bid. Exxon remains the largest oil company in the world and will probably factor in any M&A activity.
Showing the greener side of what is considered a dirty business, Halliburton has developed a device called the SandCastle. These devices used in the fracking process run on solar power and are estimated to have already saved 950,000 gallons of diesel. Clean Energy Fuels, meanwhile, has started a major push for the use of LNG in trucks and locomotives. Its "America's Natural Gas Highway" initiative is aimed at installing the equipment necessary to allow trucks to make a complete trans-American trek solely on LNG.
While each of these companies plays a different role in the fracking boom, they all stand to profit substantially. The reality that increasing supply is good for the U.S. economy, thus giving the Fed more room to maneuver, makes it likely that the Obama administration will back fracking and the companies it benefits. The developments in fracking mean getting on board should have lucrative potential.