Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.
Today's winter storm has blanketed the Eastern Seaboard, hitting cities from Washington to Boston with snow and mixed precipitation after leaving the Southeast facing extremely unusual conditions. The impact on stocks has been minimal, as the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) were up about 17 points at 12:35 p.m. EST. But the bigger question many investors have is why ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), and other energy stocks haven't soared after such a harsh couple of winter months. Both Dow energy stocks are up today, but only in line with the minimal gains of the overall index.
One part of the explanation is that changing supply conditions in the industry have caused price movements in oil to disconnect from those of natural gas. For the most part, oil hasn't seen a very big move this winter, as even the relatively small percentage of Americans who heat their homes with heating oil has been falling in favor of natural gas. In fact, cold winter weather can sometimes even depress oil demand, as drivers stay off the road.
Yet that still doesn't answer the question of why sharply rising natural gas prices haven't boosted Exxon, Chevron, and other stocks. The problem is that the rise in natural gas has come from relatively depressed levels, and the vast majority of energy producers have moved away from natural gas production in favor of assets that will provide more lucrative oil and liquids. Exxon moved heavily into natural gas several years ago with its XTO Energy purchase, and Chevron followed suit with its more modest purchase of Atlas Energy. But in light of the longer-term declines we've seen in energy prices since the peak years of 2007 and 2008, producers are still unconvinced that moving back toward an emphasis on natural gas is warranted.
What will eventually help Exxon, Chevron, and the U.S. energy industry as a whole will be when it becomes possible to move all energy products, especially natural gas, more efficiently both within the U.S. and across borders through international trade. Investments in liquefied natural gas terminals and pipeline infrastructure are coming far slower than the new finds seen every day from exploration and production companies, and that has held back the ability of those producers to make the most from their discoveries. In the long run, though, equalizing worldwide prices should help many energy companies boost their profits, and even Exxon and Chevron could benefit to some extent from the ongoing advances in energy technology and transportation.