Increasing fighting in Iraq has the market's attention today and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) is down 0.8% as a result. Kurdish troops have taken control of Kirkuk, a key northern city, and the Iraqi military is mobilizing as I write.
President Barack Obama indicated today that the U.S. is considering how it can assist in the conflict, presumably without getting into another prolonged war. And of course with so much oil coming from the Middle East, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude was up nearly 2% to $106.36.
One stock climbing on rising oil prices
Twenty-six of 30 Dow components are in the red in late trading, and those that are moving higher are barely past breakeven. The company eading the way is Chevron (NYSE:CVX), up 0.8%.
Chevron produced 2.6 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2013 and gets a vast majority of earnings from its upstream, or oil and gas production, business. As oil prices rise, so do profits in this segment, so a conflict like this could actually be profitable.
I've highlighted before that changes in oil prices are often like taking money from one pocket and putting it in another, because higher upstream profit means lower downstream, or refining, profit. But an extended Iraqi conflict would have a long-term impact on global production and prices, which would eventually trickle its way down to the pump.
The problem in the past has been that gas prices haven't risen along with oil prices. However, if scarcity becomes an issue, especially as Big Oil cuts back on capital spending this year, refineries won't be willing to operate at a loss and eventually gas prices have to go up.
Is this a reason to buy Big Oil?
That's not to say that investors should pile into Big Oil today. Oil prices ebb and flow over the long term, and while this conflict could impact pricing, as seen during the last Iraq war, I wouldn't bet on a long-term spike. Consumption in the U.S. is down significantly since 2005 and only 29.7% of oil consumed in the U.S. is imported, versus 60.3% in 2005.
Oil is a global market and a shortage in Iraq would lead to higher prices elsewhere, but the world is less reliant on the Middle East than it was a decade ago. Plus, more than half of the new oil found last year was offshore, and shale production outside of the U.S. is still barely getting off the ground.
Chevron is a small winner today because of high oil prices, and it will benefit if they stay high. I just wouldn't bet on that over the long term given consumption trends in developed nations.