What a difference a week makes. This time last week Iraq was struggling with some militants in Anbar Province, the same basic situation that had gone on since January. Now, those militants have seized oil-rich Mosul and are fighting over Tikrit and Samarra. More surprising still, the Kurdistan Regional Government has used the instability as a pretext to seize Kirkuk, another oil prize in northern Iraq.
The Islamist militants are calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a spinoff group from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the primary insurgents during the U.S. war there. ISIS now spans a large portion of both Iraq and Syria, and really seems to be in the process of creating an Islamic state there, tearing down parts of the old Iraq-Syria border that bisects the region.
Iraq seems to be heading toward partition at this point, with ISIS taking the west, the existing Iraqi government retaining the east and southeast, and already autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan moving further toward outright secession.
Investing in what comes next
With Iraq busy struggling to cope with ISIS, it is in no position to contest the long-standing independence ambitions of Kurdistan, which would find itself as an independent and important energy producer.
Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, Kurdistan has been awash in foreign investors looking to cash in on their oil riches, and three big foreign players have the most ongoing activity there: ExxonMobil Corp (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), and Total SA (NYSE:TOT).
For a long time, exporting out of Kurdistan has been dicey business, with Iraq's central government claiming full authority and the regional government trying to export through Turkey over the central government's objections. The margins are already huge -- so huge ExxonMobil has been eagerly divesting itself from Iraq's massive oil fields to focus on Kurdistan and has secured rights to fields around Kirkuk.
Margins will only get better as Kurdistan's status becomes more settled. ExxonMobil's Kurdish gamble looks to pay off huge, and its new contracts with Turkey are set to make the company the big winner in all of this.
The path to Europe
There's more good news for Kurdish oil, too, as the pipeline to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan gets underway, allowing Kurdish oil to be sold at much higher prices for exports to the starving European energy market.
Europe's in a bad way as far as oil is concerned, with traditional suppliers like Libya and Syria trending down to zero exports in the face on unrest, and Kurdish oil will be a big relief for them, one which can command some big profits.
Chevron has seen the writing on the wall for a while, amassing a large Kurdish portfolio in a short time, even though it meant a major backlash from the Iraqi government. Total SA, a little more reluctant to go all-in because of its deals in Iraq itself, have also been picking up speed of late, and have some lucrative prospects.
By the numbers
In the end it's hard to find anything not to like about these three, and they're all fine choices for investment, which should benefit from the growth in Kurdistan's market.
ExxonMobil is the biggest player, but also the biggest company. Even though 2.7% seems like a nice dividend, it's actually the worst of the three, and its forward P/E of 13.31, while by no means bad, is also the worst of the bunch.
Chevron was a bit later to the Kurdistan game than ExxonMobil, but has really gone gangbusters there. The company's forward P/E is lower at 11.33, its dividend is higher at 3.5%, and Chevron has an impressive $16 billion in cash on hand, which should make its aggressive acquisitions easy to continue.
Total SA wins out on the numbers, however, with a forward P/E of 10.62 and a dividend yield of 4.8%. It even wins out in cash on hand with $23.6 billion. Still, at this point I prefer Chevron as a Kurdistan play because it has been more aggressive in acquisitions.
Still, all three companies are worth considering for your portfolio, and their already promising forward PEs should look even better when factoring in the rising oil prices an Iraqi breakup no doubt portends.