For the third-time in as many days, dismal employment data helped sack the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC). With the ADP employment report and jobless claims figures both missing the mark earlier this week, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that March's non-farm payrolls increased by just 88,000 last month -- far below economists' estimates of 200,000. It was, in fact, the slowest job growth that we've witnessed in the past nine months.
If there were two positive takeaways from the employment report, it was that unemployment dropped to 7.6%, despite the sluggish job growth -- which was mainly a function of more people dropping out of the labor force --and the fact that January and February's job gains were revised higher.
That still wasn't enough to keep the S&P 500 from falling 6.70 points (-0.43%), to finish at 1,553.28. In spite of the readily-visible job market weakness, three companies drastically outperformed within the S&P 500 today; and they were all from the energy sector.
Oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) company Nabors Industries (NYSE:NBR) was today's biggest gainer, adding 5.9%, after it announced its intentions to add two new, independent members to its board of directors. Nabors' management has been under fire from its top shareholders, Pamplona Capital Management, which has been critical of Nabors' underperformance relative to its peers. The addition of two new board members should help align investors' interests with those of the company. In addition, Nabors announced early last month that it would begin paying a $0.04 quarterly dividend. These may be baby steps, but they're steps in the right direction for Nabors' shareholders.
The final two big gainers didn't have any company specific news that sent them rocketing higher today, but instead, relied on a very big rally in natural gas for their ascent. Following yesterday's data, which showed a 94-billion cubic foot reduction in natural gas inventories, spot natural gas prices jumped higher by better than 4%. That was enough of a propellant to send natural gas-heavy independent E&P companies like Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE:COG) and WPX Energy (NYSE:WPX) higher by 5.1% and 5.2%, respectively.
Although I like the long-term prospects for natural gas, given its abundance in the U.S. and the current administration's desire to make the U.S. less reliant on foreign sources of oil, Cabot's valuation is becoming a bit of an eyesore. Cabot is now sitting on more than $1.05 billion in net debt, trades at 11 times sales, and is valued at a robust 28 times forward earnings. In short, it's not a current favorite of mine!
WPX, on the other hand, could offer some intrigue, as my Foolish colleague Tyler Crowe noted earlier this week. Tyler opined that WPX offers the cheapest natural gas reserves in the U.S. and could be a lucrative buyout candidate, because many of its oil assets are located in the highly desirable Bakken formation. It's difficult to argue against its reserves, but understandable why the company hasn't exploded higher, given that about three-quarters of its reserves are natural-gas based.