A return to a higher price of oil is obviously a big catalyst for ConocoPhillips' (NYSE:COP) stock price this year. However, the company also has three other major opportunities it has the potential to capture over the next year -- each of which could push the stock price higher.
Opportunity No. 1: Capturing plunging oil-field service costs
When ConocoPhillips cut another $2 billion out of its 2015 capital budget, it noted that $500 million of that reduction is the result of anticipated cost deflation as oil-field service costs are expected to come down. That equates to roughly a 3.7% savings as a result of lower costs that typically follow plunging oil prices.
However, the company has the opportunity to capture a lot more than just 3.7% in cost savings. The last time crude oil prices crashed was during the financial crisis, and at that time, operating costs dropped by almost 20% for many producers. This time around, cost savings could be even more significant, as some drillers are refusing to drill another well until costs drop by 40%, which is why many oil-field service companies foresee painful drops in margins over the next few quarters. ConocoPhillips has a huge opportunity to capture additional costs savings, which could enable it to spend a lot less money this year than it's currently planning to spend, but still accomplish all of its goals.
Opportunity No. 2: Leading the consolidation wave
Collapsing oil prices causes the stock prices of oil companies to follow suit. A big downturn, like the one the industry is experiencing right now, also forces oil companies to consider consolidation as greater scale tends to lead to better ability to weather these downturns. This is why the stocks of many big oil companies have been largely insulated by the downturn while smaller players have seen their stocks crushed.
Because scale matters in the oil industry, we could see a big oil megamerger wave like the one in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after the price of oil went bust in 1997.
When it comes to scale, ConocoPhillips has a lot already since it is the largest independent oil company in North America; however, it's still small compared to the supermajors. So, in order to bulk up, the company could look to merge with another large independent peer like Apache (NYSE:APA), Anadarko (NYSE:APC) or Hess (NYSE:HES). These companies all could be in play as they have either struggled in recent years, or are facing pressure from activist investors to do a better job creating value.
A megamerger could be the easiest way for these companies to fix what has ailed them, while providing a big scale booster for ConocoPhillips. A merger would lead to cost reductions so the company can earn even better margins as well as be better positioned to capture opportunities in the future.
Opportunity No. 3: Make a big splash in exploration
Despite cutting its capital spending program twice over the past few months, ConocoPhillips isn't completely axing its exploration budget. In fact, the company still plans to spend $1.5 billion on testing its global portfolio of future opportunities, as we see on the following slide.
ConocoPhillips really is venturing into uncharted waters in a lot of its exploration efforts, and these efforts could lead to the company discovering a future growth engine. For example, the company has already announced two new discoveries in Senegal, and appraisal drilling this year should help the company better understand the extent of these finds. A discovery of a big oil field could provide the company with a major growth driver over the next decade while also providing a near-term boost to the stock price.
Despite the weak oil market, 2015 could be a real pivotal year for ConocoPhillips. In the near term, the company has the potential to capture substantial cost savings from oil-field services, which would enable it to earn much better returns than it would otherwise. Meanwhile, the company also has the potential to lead what could very well be a big consolidation wave as oil companies bulk up to better handle future downturns. Finally, ConocoPhillips hasn't abandoned its oil exploration program, and a big new oil find could fuel future gains in its stock.