Unless you've been living in a cave for the past year you know all about the big drop in crude oil prices, and how it's left a lot of oil companies high and dry -- and how that has killed a lot of investors.
The same thing (more or less) has happened with natural gas:
While there's no indication that gas prices are set to climb anytime soon, there are a handful of companies heavily exposed to gas that may be poised to rebound. Let's take a closer look at three.
Taking a beating
Over the past year, Ultra Petroleum Corp. (NASDAQ:UPL), Linn Energy, LLC (NASDAQOTH:LINEQ), and Clean Energy Fuels Corp (NASDAQ:CLNE) have all been punished. And while falling oil prices are largely behind Clean Energy's stock price drop -- I'll explain later -- Linn and Ultra have been hurt by the falling price of both oil and gas.
Considering that oil and gas prices are both anticipated to remain relatively low for at least the remainder of the year, what sets these stock apart? Let's take a look at them one at a time.
Strong hedging programs for the producers
Both Linn and Ultra Petroleum operate robust hedging programs. This means that they buy and sell contracts that lock in fixed or minimum prices for much of their production. The risk of hedging is that it can limit upside, since it can lead to selling oil or gas for less-than-market-value. That's obviously not a concern in the current environment.
Linn in particular relies on hedging:
This could limit profits if oil and gas prices go up significantly in the next year, but let's be honest -- that would be a high-end problem. Today (and for the foreseeable future), it makes sense for the producers to maximize some price certainty for their production.
Ultra Petroleum doesn't hedge as much of its production as Linn, but it does have a significant portion locked in at above-market prices:
Ultra is projecting between 280 billion and 290 billion Bcfe production in 2015, producing 70 billion Bcfe in the first quarter. Doing the math, that means about two-thirds of its remaining 2015 production is hedged at a significant premium to the current market price of less than $3/Mcf.
This is especially important for both companies, as almost every estimate out there expects gas prices to remain low for the balance of the year. Demand will increase as utilities use more natural gas for power generation as the summer heats up, but there's a lot already in storage, and production levels are likely to continue to outpace demand.
But both Linn and Ultra are well-prepared to deal with that for the foreseeable future.
Cheap gas is good for Clean Energy
Since Clean Energy Fuels' business is providing natural gas to vehicle fleet operators, low prices are good. The company makes its money as a provider, and the cost of the commodity itself is simply a "pass-through" to its customers.
However, natural gas "competes" against oil-based fuels like gasoline and diesel, and the decline in oil prices caused the company's stock to plummet over the past year. If oil prices aren't expected to increase significantly -- which would increase the differential between NG and oil-based fuels -- why is now a good time to consider the company for a turnaround?
In short, the company never really struggled.
Clean Energy's primary business is providing fuel and running stations (both public and private) that fleet operators refuel at. The company also builds most of these stations and owns a manufacturer that builds compressors for refueling stations all over the world, but these two segments are secondary to its fuel business, and are also more seasonal and "choppy" in nature. Factor in the ups-and-downs in the price of gas itself, and revenue can be uneven from quarter to quarter.
With this in mind, management has stressed the importance of the company's ability to grow its volume of fuel sales. And it just so happens that this metric has grown at double-digit rates almost every quarter for the past several years. It has in fact grown at a rate of more than 22% for five quarters in a row.
In other words, the company is growing its core business. Furthermore, margin dollars per gallon of fuel have remained steady, and actually increased slightly, going from $0.28 per gallon during last year's Q4 to $0.29 per gallon in this year's first quarter, even as gas prices fell more than 30% from one quarter to the next.
Risk, fear and greed
Warren Buffett is known for having advised us to be "fearful with others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful." That can be good advice, but that doesn't mean we get to invest with impunity. The bottom line is all three of these companies still carry some risk, and you should consider that when making your investment decision.
But with that said, both Ultra and Linn look well-prepared to keep riding out cheap gas (and oil), and poised to bounce back in a big way when prices eventually recover. For Clean Energy Fuels, the risk is that it can't become cash-flow positive before its debt becomes a problem, but it does look like the market's fear -- that cheap oil would harm its prospects -- hasn't come true.