Williams Companies (NYSE:WMB) is navigating through an uncertain period, both in the commodity market and in its own history. That said, despite these uncertain times, the company believes it and its MLP Williams Partners (NYSE:WPZ) are on the right path forward. That was clear from comments made by CEO Alan Armstrong on its third-quarter conference call. Here are four things he wanted to make certain that its investors knew about the company.
1. We're on track with our merger
One of the chief causes of Williams' uncertainty is its pending merger with Energy Transfer Equity. Armstrong addressed this by saying:
I'd like to provide a brief update on the transaction we announced with Energy Transfer. ... We are on the path to completion [and the deal is] expected to close in the first half of 2016.
Because the merger is still being reviewed by regulators, Armstrong couldn't say much about it on the call and even asked analysts to refrain from questions on the deal. That said, he did reiterate the fact that the company is moving toward completion, with a close expected next year. In other words, no news is good news.
2. Here's how we're handling weak commodity prices
The other big uncertainty in the market is the impact that lower commodity prices will have on Williams' cash flow due to its direct and indirect exposure to prices. Armstrong addressed this concern by saying:
Despite the fundamental pressures on our industry from dramatically lower commodity prices, we've continued with very substantial growth in our adjusted EBITDA and DCF, so really, showing strength as we continue to see prices erode and some really dramatically low NGL prices in the quarter, but our strategy of continuing to invest in these big fee-based projects is really starting to overwhelm those lower prices.
While most of the industry's cash flow is contracting due to weak prices, Williams Companies and Williams Partners are growing largely due to a number of fee-based projects that are coming online. This is helping to mute the exposure to those lower prices.
3. We are feeling some impact from commodity prices
That said, Armstrong went on to say:
And so that's not to say we aren't feeling some of the effects of the low commodity prices directly in our commodity margins and indirectly via the volume shut in on some of our gathering systems, particularly in the Northeast.
Armstrong points out two areas where it is feeling the pinch of lower prices. First, it does have some direct exposure to prices, primarily at its processing plants, which is crimping margins. Further, because prices are so low in places like the Marcellus shale producers are turning off wells, which is hurting the gas volumes flowing through its gathering systems. Neither issue will go away until prices being to improve.
4. Demand growth for natural gas is coming
The good news is that an improvement could to be on the horizon because demand is expected to start to pick up. Armstrong noted the expected shift in industry fundamentals by saying that,
The North American producers continue to really amaze us and continue to innovate and deliver production at costs levels that no one thought was possible even a year ago, and while this has led to painfully over-supplied markets in the short-term, it continues to lead the way toward growing demand and expanding prosperous markets for natural gas and natural gas derivatives. And so, over the long-term, we think we're really seeing a supply led expansion, and I know that people are getting impatient about that, but I can assure you, as you look through our backlog of projects, it's very evident to us that that capital is going in place to pave the way for growing demand.
Natural gas demand is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years due to billions of investments across the petrochemical and utility industries, which are building facilities to consume cheap natural gas. For example, according to the American Chemistry Council, 148 petrochemical projects have been announced -- including new factories, expansions, and process changes to increase capacity -- valued at $100.2 billion. Meanwhile, in Ohio alone there are five natural gas power plants in development representing upward of $3.8 billion in investment that are expected to be online by 2019. As these projects start to come online it will increase demand for natural gas, which could spur better prices and then additional supply growth. That suggests new opportunities for Williams Companies and Williams Partners to move additional natural gas supplies from production basins to these end users.
There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding both Williams Companies and its MLP Williams Partners at the moment. However, Williams is confident in its future, not only because it has limited exposure to commodity prices, but more importantly due to the fact that the natural gas story remains intact thanks to the tremendous growth in demand that's just over the horizon.
Matt DiLallo 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.