Wednesday, 06 October 2021 08:55

The Great Energy disconnect

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Each month Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes for the Australian Financial Review.  Here is the column that appeared in the 6th October 2021 edition.

 

The oil and gas sector is one of the most unloved sectors in the market according to Luke Smith, Resources Portfolio Manager at Ausbil Investment Management.

The demand destruction for energy resulting from pandemic lockdowns saw oil futures briefly trade as a negative value in April 2020 as oil demand endured its largest fall since 1945.  Since that time the oil price has recovered from around US$20 per barrel to now over US$70 per barrel.

Hugh Dive, CIO at Atlas Funds Management adds that LNG is currently selling for around 4 times the price it was 12 months ago.

Dive says that normally share prices in energy companies are highly correlated to the underlying prices for oil and gas, but currently there is a disconnect.  Despite the oil price rising 250% from US$20 per barrel to over $70 barrel since April 2020, the share price of Woodside has barely moved, and the energy sector trades well below their pre COVID levels.

Gaurav Sodhi, analyst at Intelligent Investor believes that oil equities are severely mispriced by investors who have given up on stocks that don’t tick the ESG box (Environment, Social, Governance).  

Smith says that the long term oil demand outlook is structurally challenged for reasons including the automotive industry moving to electric vehicles over combustion engines.  This is causing some investors to question whether the current strength in energy prices is sustainable.  Of the broader commodity set, oil markets have been one of the hardest hit by COVID, and given the materiality of transportation to demand, is yet to fully recover.  Transportation represents 60% of overall oil demand and during COVID lockdowns passenger vehicles, buses, freight, maritime and aviation transportation was severely impacted.

We have seen a recovery in road and maritime activity according to Smith, however uncertainty remains around the return of international travel.  Jet fuel represents 7% of overall oil demand.

 

 

Dive is of the view that world oil markets are rebalancing after the collapse in demand during 2020, which can be seen in the chart.  While policies in Western countries will reduce oil demand through moves to clean energy, these are likely to be offset by increases in demand from China, India and other Asian countries.

Smith’s near term bull case for energy revolves around the lack of investment in new supply since the prior downturn in oil markets in November 2014.  He believes that the combination of reduced investment overall, and misdirected investment away from large scale oil developments, supports the expected tightness in markets over coming years.

Dive says that climate change remains a risk to the energy sector, but paradoxically these concerns may see few new major producing assets being developed, putting upward pressure on oil prices.  While rich countries such as Norway can mandate that all taxi’s are Tesla’s,  developing nations are unlikely to accept lower growth rates and slower reductions in poverty to meet climate targets set by rich European nations.

The recent fund manager survey conducted by BofA Securities, showed the energy sector was the most underweight sector in the market relative to its history.  

Sodhi is of the view that oil prices are likely to be higher than most anticipate.  He says that there is little doubt that equity prices don’t reflect oil prices, and that it is easy for investors to ignore the energy sector when energy producers are not making money.  As oil producers start to print good cash flow numbers, perhaps as early as next reporting season, the market will either change its mind or investors will get rewarded with dividends.  

Ausbil’s preferred investment in the sector is Santos due to superior management and its diverse portfolio of low cost assets with an exceptional growth outlook.

Dive and Sodhi like Woodside which they describe as ‘fantastically cheap’ with a cost of production below US$5 per barrel, low gearing at 19% and a huge franking account balance.  

The case against investing in energy according to Sodhi revolves around the possibility of the Saudi’s potentially wanting to monetise their huge resources faster than expected.  They could flood the market with oil, thinking that getting something for oil is better than leaving it stranded.

Energy shares are cheap and investors need to assess whether they represent good value or are a value trap.

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