Has Natural Gas Hit Bottom? Not Yet!

08/21/2009 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Bargain-basement prices make the sector's stocks look tempting, but excess supply and other factors are still weighing down producers.

Some companies will eventually make a killing from the recent collapse in natural gas prices. But when? And which companies?

Value investors usually need only identify a bargain, and then hang on until the rest of the stock market catches up with their thinking. But the plunge in natural-gas prices has been so severe and could last so long that some companies with the best natural gas assets may not survive the shakeout.

Balance sheets are at this moment more important than geology. Prices are the beginning of the problem. Benchmark Henry Hub natural gas for September delivery closed at $3.163 per million British thermal units on August 17. That's a 44% decline in price since the beginning of 2009 and the lowest price since September 2002.

Natural gas in storage, meanwhile, climbed 63 billion cubic feet in the week that ended August 7. That pushed inventories 592 billion cubic feet higher than they were at the same time a year ago.

Supply Up, Demand Down

The problem is supply and demand. US natural gas producers continue to increase supply. Much of the new gas is coming from what were once called "unconventional" sources, such as the gas shales of Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Natural gas production was up almost 2% in the first five months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008, according to the US Department of Energy.

That increase in supply has come as demand has crumbled. Consumption fell 4.2% in the first five months of 2009. Factories, chemical plants, and steel mills account for 29% of US consumption. With the recession, many of those customers are running at less than full speed. Demand from industrial customers fell 13% in the first five months of the year.

The worst of the crunch is still ahead. (For another way to judge when the oil and gas sector has bottomed, see my post "Next week it's oil, oil and more oil earnings," on using capital budgets as a leading indicator.)

Natural gas producers with big debt loads and high interest payments haven't yet cut production. In the second quarter, companies such as Chesapeake Energy have instead used higher production to beat Wall Street's earnings projections.

And producers that had the smarts or good luck to lock in higher prices with hedges haven't cut production either. XTO Energy, Devon Energy, and Ultra Petroleum—companies with hedges that cover a good portion of their production—all reported an increase in production, big profits from their hedges, or both. XTO, for example, reported it had received an average price of $7.08 per million Btu in the second quarter because of its hedging.

Not Normal Times

But both of those alternatives look like they're running out of gas. All that production has to go into storage when there are fewer customers. But storage space isn't infinite, and the system is approaching its limits. That, of course, will drive Henry Hub prices for future delivery even lower.

Hedges—and the profits they protect or generate—expire, and the cost of new hedges has been climbing as prices have been falling. And that's if hedges are going to be available at all. As a result of congressional efforts to crack down on energy speculators, regulators such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have floated proposals that would restrict the number of hedges available or increase their costs.

Normally, I say the best way to profit from the collapse in natural gas prices would be to buy shares in the companies with the biggest reserves and just wait (and wait and wait) for gas prices to rebound.

But in these abnormal times, there are two problems with that approach.

First, natural gas stocks have massively rebounded from the panic lows of late 2008, when investors feared that many producers would go bust because their balance sheets were so loaded with debt. Chesapeake Energy, for example, traded at $11.32 a share December 1. It closed at $22.25 on August 17.

It's easy to understand the December panic. Chesapeake showed $13.2 billion in long-term debt at the end of the fourth quarter, and analysts were predicting the collapse of the company's cash flow. The fear was that the company would have to sell off a major part of its asset base to stay liquid.

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It turned out that analyst projections were absolutely accurate. Cash flow from operations did fall from $5.2 billion in the fourth quarter to $1.3 billion in this year's first quarter. But the company raised more cash from selling off assets than analysts had expected, which meant that Chesapeake had to sell off fewer of them. The company got close to top-of-the-market prices from BP, for example, for some of its gas shale assets. And Chesapeake struck ingenious deals to raise cash. For example, the company got a $1.1 billion accelerated payment for drilling costs from Plains Exploration & Production by offering a 12% discount for early payment.

And the company's hedges came through big time. In the second quarter of 2009, Chesapeake saw gains of $597 million from hedging. With hedging, its realized price of natural gas in the quarter was $5.56 per million Btu. Without hedging, the realized price in the quarter would have been $2.68 per million Btu.

Too Soon to Hit the Gas?

All of which leaves a value investor with a tough decision to make.

Have Chesapeake and other natural gas producers survived the worst of the crisis? If so, that would make them bargains at recent prices.

Or are these stocks headed back to something like the panic prices of December, when investors realize that the worst is yet to come?

I think you know where I come out. I think natural gas prices are going to be lower in a few months than they are now. I think hedges are going to be more expensive (and contribute less to profits) and that companies are going to have hedged a smaller percentage of production in 2010 than in 2009. And I think we're finally going to see a drop in production from some as storage space gets increasingly tight.

And that will mark the low for this cycle. I'd expect to see that bottom sometime in the next three to 12 months. Sorry that I can't be any more specific, but so much depends on when the economic recovery arrives and how strong it is when it does knock on our doors.

That said, I don't expect stock prices at this bottom to reach quite the depths of the end of 2008. We should be able to see a recovery by then, even if it won't have done much of anything yet for natural gas prices. For a rule of thumb, investors might see a retracement of about 40% to 60% of the gains from the lows. For a stock such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK), that would mean a price of $14 to $18 a share.

And we should be able to see that, given slow action on global climate change, natural gas will be a key, if not the key, transitional fuel as the world tries to reduce its use of oil and coal, both of which add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned than natural gas does.

I'd recommend a two-fold strategy to value investors in natural gas:

  • First, I think you can buy shares of the natural gas producers with the best balance sheets right now. If I'm right about a bottom in the next 12 months, these stocks won't show a huge drop. And if I'm wrong, you'll own a piece of the sector at a decent price. My two favorites here are Devon Energy (DVN) and Ultra Petroleum (UPL).
  • Second, you can wait to buy the more leveraged companies in the sector, such as Chesapeake Energy, at a bottom. Waiting will give you a better read on exactly how many of the assets you're paying for will remain with the company.

I'll be looking to add a stock or two from the first group sometime this fall when I feel I have a better read on the direction of the market as a whole.

At the time of publication, Jim Jubak owned shares of the following companies mentioned in this column: Devon Energy and Ultra Petroleum.

View the complete Jubak Picks portfolio here

Jim Jubak has been writing "Jubak's Journal" and tracking the performance of his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio since 1997 on MSN Money. He is the author of a new book, "The Jubak Picks," and he writes the Jubak Picks blog. He is also the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com.

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