Hess (NYSE:HES) and Murphy Oil (NYSE:MUR) are two well-run E&P, or exploration and production, companies with high-quality assets. Hess is the larger of the two, but Murphy is catching up, and excluding one-off items, Murphy's EPS have nearly doubled during the past four years.

So, which company is the better pick for investors looking for both income and growth?

As Hess and Murphy are both E&P companies, as a starting point, it would make sense to take a look at the production outlook for these two E&P plays for the next few years.

Hess' management is targeting to grow oil production at a compound annual rate of 5% to 8% through 2017. Most of this production is expected to be liquids as 80% of Hess' reserves are liquids based.

Further, 80% of the company's total reserves are liquids. Murphy is also a leader in terms of liquids reserves, although not to the same extent as Hess: 72% of Murphy's reserves are liquids.

However, Murphy is targeting five-year production growth of 6% to 7% through 2019. This growth rate is, to some extent de-risked as management believes that it can drive most of this output growth from existing assets.

Nevertheless, Murphy is not just relying on output from its existing fields, the company is also bringing new projects on-stream, and if these new projects come online without a hitch Murphy expects production will expand around 9% per annum through 2019 -- faster than Hess' targeted growth.

Still, Hess' cash margin per barrel of oil produced stands at $49 per barrel of oil equivalent; Murphy in comparison is only reporting a margin of $41.1 per BOE.

Using these numbers then, Hess looks to be the more attractive opportunity, although only just.

North American
Within North America, the Bakken in particular, Murphy looks to be making much faster progress than Hess. Indeed Hess is currently struggling to drag its Bakken properties into profit, and positive cash flow is expected in the region during 2015.

Murphy meanwhile reported a cash margin per BOE produced from the Bakken during 2013 of $74 and has increased regional production 215% per annum compounded during the past five years.

Murphy's other claim to fame is the fact that the company's project execution is industry-leading as the company has been reporting discovery to first production project execution times 50% faster on average than the wider industry.

Shareholder returns
Unfortunately, one area where Murphy is lagging Hess is cash returns to investors, although that is likely to change in the near future.

Hess recently ramped up its dividend to shareholders by 150% to $1 per share per annum, up from $0.40 during 2012/2013. In addition, Hess has authorized a $4 billion share repurchase plan funded by restructuring activities.

Murphy meanwhile has only increased its dividend by around 15% per annum since 2004, which is still a decent growth rate and, at current prices, Murphy actually offers a larger dividend yield than Hess. Nevertheless, Murphy only has a $1 billion buyback in place, around 10% of the company's market cap, compared to Hess' buyback, which is equal to around 14% of the company's market cap.

However, things could change in Murphy's favor as the company's management is predicting free cash flow of $2.5 billion to $5 billion per annum by 2019.

Now, as Murphy only has a market cap of $11 billion at present, free cash flow of $5 billion per annum would be a sizable boost for the company, and hefty dividend payouts or share repurchase plans are likely to follow.

Foolish round-up
Choosing between Hess and Murphy is tough as they are both great companies with plenty of potential for growth. That being said, Murphy's projected free cash flow figures cannot be ignored. Indeed, a free cash flow of $5 billion per annum by 2019 would be a game changer and implies that investors are likely to receive hefty cash returns as a result.

So all in all, for the Foolish long-term investor, Murphy looks to be the better choice.


Rupert Hargreaves has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.