By now, it's no secret that exploration and production giant LINN Energy (OTC:LINEQ) has been roughed up over the past year. The company was dragged through a very tough acquisition last year, in which its financial holding company LinnCo (NASDAQ: LNCO) had to raise its offer for Berry Petroleum. Analysts quickly piled on in a series of downgrades in recent weeks, saying LINN overpaid. It also hasn't helped the company that the Berry assets have been slow to integrate and aren't proving to be accretive yet.
In addition, LINN's core underlying operations broadly missed expectations in the fourth quarter, and the conditions that caused those unimpressive results probably lasted through the first quarter as well. It's looking likelier with each passing week that LINN will post another disappointing quarter when the company reports first-quarter results in a few weeks.
However, investors shouldn't panic. In fact, far from it—LINN still has plenty going for it that should interest you. Here's why, although its first quarter might underwhelm, there are too many positives about LINN's long-term prospects to dismiss the company entirely.
First quarter may echo the fourth quarter
Back in February, LINN released a dud of an earnings report which sent it shares tumbling in the aftermath of the announcement. The company missed estimates on several metrics important to an upstream operator. Production came in light, and LINN swung to a wider-than-expected net loss. Management acknowledged the operating issues encountered during the fourth quarter, and blamed much of the company's miss on extremely harsh weather. Analysts also seemed disappointed in the lack of clarity over what management intends to do with LINN's prized Permian Basin assets, which it desperately wants to monetize to create value for investors.
Unfortunately, most of those conditions that resulted in a poor fourth quarter earnings report lasted into the current quarter. The brutally harsh weather that created production disruptions lasted well into April. And, management hasn't given much of an update about the Permian Basin assets, other than the available options at its disposal. This is a significant issue which management should provide further clarity on, since LINN's Midland position comprises almost two-thirds of its total Permian Basin production.
Don't miss the long-term picture
While LINN's near-term outlook is murky, the long-term prospects are extremely positive. Much of this has to do with the fundamental economics of its business. Oil and gas production continues to rise in the United States, and LINN is in the fortunate position of having a foothold in several premier areas of production. Plainly stated, its Permian Basin position is a potential goldmine.
And, LINN also has strong exposure to California, where production will accelerate going forward thanks to the newly acquired Berry assets. LINN's average production reached 6,000 barrels per day in the fourth quarter, 4,000 barrels of which were due to the Berry assets. With Berry in tow, LINN's combined production should soon hit 25,000 barrels per day, which would make it the fifth-largest producer in California.
Plus, it's not as if LINN actually performed poorly last quarter. Its results may have disappointed analysts, but LINN still generated improving metrics across the board. It grew average daily production by 11% in the fourth quarter. In addition, proved reserves jumped 34%. This resulted in quarterly operating cash flow increasing by 9%.
Last but certainly not least, let's not forget LINN's massive distribution, which is the icing on the cake. Both LINN and LinnCo offer double-digit yields thanks to their recent sell-offs. And, for investors concerned with sustainability, it's worth noting that this distribution is secured by sufficient cash flow. LINN generated $31 million in excess cash flow above what it distributed to investors in the fourth quarter. And, should production and cash flow growth prove to be better than expected, there may be room for a slight increase later this year.
Put simply, while it's easy to get caught up in short-term disappointments, Foolish investing is all about seeing past the headlines to understand the long-term prospects. When it comes to LINN, it seems that the recent hysteria and panic selling amounts to little more than an excellent buying opportunity.