Specifically, CARBO Ceramics manufactures small ceramic beads called proppants that are used in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells. Hydraulic fracturing is one of the most popular ways to increase the production of a well and involves pumping high-pressure fluid down a well to create fractures in the surrounding rock. The ceramic proppants then flow into those cracks and prop them open -- allowing hydrocarbons to flow more easily to the surface.
While oil and gas companies always try to pump as much product as possible, when prices rise dramatically, they really try to pump as much as possible. Consequently, orders for fracturing flow to support companies like Halliburton
High ongoing demand helped CARBO Ceramics' sales for the fourth quarter grow by 28%. While increasing manufacturing and sales costs lowered operating margins by 3%, the company still posted net income growth of 16% and EPS of $0.67 (slightly below Wall Street expectations).
Though high demand has the company working at essentially full capacity, it was only able to raise prices by about 3% in the fourth quarter. Looking into 2005, both seem to be a bit of a problem, because the company believes it has limited ability to increase volumes shipped, and input prices (like natural gas) continue to rise. Accordingly, management said on its conference call that 2005 growth will be "limited."
Fools who can look beyond 2005 might see a somewhat brighter picture. The company will be adding 250 million pounds of capacity at year-end, and the demand for hydraulic fracturing (and CARBO Ceramics' proppants) should stay strong. As oil and gas companies face depleting reserves, they will be under increasing pressure to use methods like hydraulic fracturing to keep the hydrocarbons flowing. So while high oil and gas prices might add a sense of urgency for some companies to push hard while the market's hot, lower prices shouldn't dramatically reduce the long-term demand for proppants.
CARBO Ceramics sports a robust valuation that has thus far been propped up by strong growth. While a growth slowdown this year could shrink those multiples and hurt the stock, patient Fools might want to wait for just such a drop to add shares to their portfolio. With so much pressure in the world, why not try to profit from it once in a while?
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson, a chartered financial analyst, doesn't have an ownership interest in any stocks mentioned.