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Oil and Gas Services Avoid Geopolitical Risk: John Stephenson

With oil reserves less and less accessible to western majors, producer stocks can carry significant geopolitical risk. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report,First Asset Investment Management Inc. Senior Vice President John Stephenson explains why service-oriented companies are smart selections for risk-averse energy investors. No matter what happens in the oil and gas business, the companies doing the drilling have solid prospects in this market environment.

COMPANIES MENTIONED: AGRIUM INC. - BAKER HUGHES INC. - CALFRAC WELL SERVICES LTD. - CANADIAN NATURAL RESOURCES - CANYON SERVICES GROUP INC. - CF INDUSTRIES HOLDINGS INC. - EXXON MOBIL CORP. - FIRST QUANTUM MINERALS LTD. - FREEPORT-MCMORAN COPPER & GOLD INC. - HALLIBURTON CO. - POTASH CORP. - SCHLUMBERGER LTD. - SUNCOR ENERGY INC. - THE MOSAIC COMPANY - TRANSOCEAN LTD. - TRICAN WELL SERVICE LTD.

The Energy Report: 2011 was a pretty exciting year with oil prices all over the map, largely fueled by the European debt crisis. What do you expect are going to be the hot topics affecting energy commodities in 2012?

John Stephenson: The spread between Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) prices, which was a big story in 2011, will continue to play a role. I expect a lot of talk about how WTI has once again resumed its place as the global benchmark. Another big topic, as it always is, will be the continuing geopolitics of oil, be it a possible Arab spring in Saudi Arabia or Iran's nuclear program and how that impacts the world. In terms of possible black swan events, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or other regulators could limit horizontal drilling and fracking. However, that could be very positive in the short run for natural gas prices.

TER: What caused the big spread between the WTI and the Brent prices?

JS: Everyone used to look at WTI as the main global benchmark for crude oil prices, and Brent historically traded at a slight discount. Then, over time, Brent started trading at a premium to WTI. What people have to understand is that these benchmark contracts specify grade and location. The delivery location of the WTI crude contact is Cushing, Oklahoma. Because it's landlocked, you can't get crude in from the Gulf region, which actually traded in line with Brent. There also wasn't enough pipeline capacity to get the large inventories of crude that had built up in Cushing out to other global markets. So it really was an infrastructure issue that caused the price spread. Now, various companies have gotten together and proposed pipeline alternatives that would alleviate this glut of oil at Cushing. Therefore, you've seen the spread go from $25 to about $11.40, where it is today.

TER: Your management company, First Asset Investment Management Inc., manages a variety of different commodity-focused funds. What is your 2012 energy outlook?

JS: Our outlook is very supportive and positive for oil. One of the interesting things about oil is that despite the dire headlines, mainly out of Europe, oil has held in as well as it has. In fact, it's been hitting eight-month highs recently. Why is that? Partly because demand is so strong. We saw record demand globally in August and near-record demand in October and November and continuing strong demand despite the fact that Europe appears to be dipping into recession and growth is potentially slowing a little in Asia. This is why I'm very positive on this and expect to see oil go higher.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is very weak. It's sub-$3/million cubic feet (MMcf) right now, and I think it will continue to be weak. Historically the period between December and March is when natural gas trades at a premium to its summer prices. This is actually the first winter I can recall seeing it trading at a discount.

TER: Weak natural gas prices are a result of increased shale gas production through fracking, which has created a significant oversupply in the last year or so. Is this going to continue, do you think?

JS: Yes, the U.S. has 200–250 years of reserves of shale gas at current production rates. I don't see any reason at all for it to change unless, of course, the EPA or someone else were to rule that fracking was detrimental to the environment and there was a moratorium placed on drilling. That could be a black swan event and could change things. If things continue the way they are, there's no doubt that prices will stay low. Now, clearly, there is some opportunity to export this, but that means building a liquefaction terminal, probably on the Gulf Coast or some other part of the country where people are willing to have a liquefaction facility. That would turn natural gas into a liquid to be transported to Asia or potentially to Europe, where the prices are much higher than they are in North America.

TER: So even though we may have hit peak oil, we certainly haven't hit peak gas.

JS: No, I don't think we've hit peak gas. Four years ago, the talk was that we were running out. They were going to build terminals on the Gulf Coast to take liquefied natural gas from Trinidad and other places, gasify it and put it in the U.S. pipeline system and supply the northeast in particular with natural gas. Now we're finding we have so much of this stuff in various shale deposits that we have the potential to become a huge energy exporter. Hopefully that will be the case, but for now we don't have the infrastructure in place to make that happen.

TER: In some respects it's a happy turn of events compared to previous supply concerns.

JS: Not if you're a producer of natural gas, but if you're a producer of oil, it's great. If you're a consumer of electricity, then it's great.

TER: As far as your portfolio selections and your outlook for this year, you're clearly leaning much more toward oil and gas liquids. What other factors do you think are going to be affecting prices this year and into the future?

JS: What impacts prices for commodities is supply and demand. I think you're going to see that demand continues to grow. The reality of why we've hit record world demand is not because consumers in the U.S. are doing so much driving. It's rather because consumers in Asia are doing so much driving. China is now the number-one car market in the world. Who would have thought? If you look at total energy consumption, including coal and other sources, China has overtaken the U.S as the number-one consumer of energy in the world. That trend will continue and put upward pressure on oil prices over time. 

The other theme that I think is important for investors to understand is that most of the majors have had real trouble finding replacement reserves to keep producing at the same level. Most of the industry has run from one country to another, where they've been kicked out. When Lee Raymond was running Exxon, he ran over to Russia, then to Nigeria, then Venezuela. The settlement that Venezuela was willing to offer Exxon for its assets was a pittance. This is typical of what we're starting to see around the world. It's very hard for most of the majors to find new reserves and to continue to produce at the same levels because most of the world that has energy is not open or friendly to the West. This creates a huge problem for these companies. 

Given that backdrop, investors need to find companies with reserves in geopolitically stable locations, or where companies are not in the business of generating the reserves; they're in the business of helping oil companies produce those reserves. That leads you to the service sector, which I think is a lower-risk area. Investors can stay in North America and invest in companies they know and understand without worrying about geopolitics. 

TER: What are some of the names that you like in the service sector?

JS: I think if Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, is going to do a job and it's going to produce a new field, it will call in Halliburton Co. (HAL:NYSE) or Schlumberger Ltd. (SLB:NYSE). It's not going to call in Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:NYSE). It doesn't need Exxon's expertise or capital. But it does need Halliburton's or Schlumberger's expertise. These global majors are going to do well on the service side. In the last 25–30 years, the industry has gone from positive bullish cycles to bearish cycles. The people who had the expertise in down-hole seismic techniques, who understood how to operate drill bits at various angles and how to cement and case wells and all of these other things became outsourced to the service industry. The true oil business expertise is in the service industry; that's why I see it as a sound investment.

TER: So if I may make a mining metaphor, it's the guys that supply the shovels to the miners that are going to make the money, not necessarily the miners.

JS: Absolutely. It's the California Gold Rush all over again, except it's the global energy rush, and you want to be in the picks and shovels business, not necessarily in the prospecting business laying claims. If you're a Western company and you're laying claims, chances are you're laying claims in some part of the world that doesn't want you there and that may kick you out down the road. Then what do you have? 

TER: What are some other companies in your portfolio holdings that you particularly like at this point?

JS: One area to look at is the smaller energy service companies, like Calfrac Well Services Ltd. (CFW:TSX) and Trican Well Service Ltd. (TCW:TSX). Again, there is an increasing amount of drilling that's happening, even on the gas side. It's just happening with these new horizontal drilling and fracking techniques. These are the guys who supply this equipment. That's very strong.

I also think you want to look at the oil companies that don't have problems with reserves and short reserve life, including some of the Canadian oil sands producers. I would recommend Suncor Energy Inc. (SU:TSX; SU:NYSE) and Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ:NYSE; CNQ:TSX). These stocks are cheap. They're trading as if oil were $55 or $60/barrel (bbl) when it's over $100/bbl. These low valuations offer a great opportunity.

TER: Looking at your portfolio in your First Asset Energy and Resource fund back at the end of last quarter, Sept. 30, you were about 78% in cash. Was that a strategic decision? Have you changed that cash into equities at this point?

JS: No. We were very defensive at that time, and I think the reason was pretty simple: Europe was blowing up and when any major economic zone is blowing up, I don't think you want to be in commodities or commodity producers. Now we're seeing that the market has stabilized, and you're going see growth going forward. Valuations certainly never got ahead of themselves in either individual stocks or in any energy sector, so I expect valuations to move higher at this point. 

We're no longer at that same cash level. Our position at that time reflected an overall nervousness about the world. When you have these dominant issues, you need to take your money off the table, which we did. Ultimately, the trade was to the downside, and we preserved value by doing that. I'm very proud that we were able to raise so much cash and be truly defensive at a time when the market was dropping quite substantially.

TER: Are there any of your other attractive portfolio holdings that you'd like to discuss at this point?

JS: I think in terms of other commodity themes that are working well, certainly Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX:NYSE) would be a great name—that's on the copper side; it is the largest pure copper producer out there. On a similar vein with a little bit better growth and a little bit more sensitivity to the market—meaning it will move a little more dramatically than the market itself—would be First Quantum Minerals Ltd. (FM:TSX). That's another name that I think does very well.

We haven't talked a lot about the agricultural names. If we're talking about the broad resource base, it's been a tough time in the agricultural space, particularly for the fertilizer companies. But I continue to think Potash Corp. (POT:TSX; POT:NYSE) looks attractive, especially at this level. Agrium Inc. (AGU:NYSE; AGU:TSX) looks attractive at this level. It's a little more defensive than Potash. The Mosaic Company (MOS:NYSE) has struggled. I would probably recommend CF Industries Holdings Inc. (CF:NYSE) over Mosaic. Those are the areas that I would look to. 

Also, in terms of other oil and gas producers, Canyon Services Group Inc. (FRC:TSX) does well.Transocean Ltd. (RIG:NYSE; RIGN:SIX), a big supplier of offshore platforms, will do well in this environment. Even Baker Hughes Inc. (BHI:NYSE) is transitioning its fleet to more horizontal drilling from straight vertical drilling. Those are all names that we have held and will continue to hold in the future and expect to do well.

TER: To sum things up as far as the energy outlook for 2012, what would you like to tell us?

JS: I would say that energy remains the most important of all the commodities. It will be the most important in 2012 and likely in 2020. Even though we're over 100 years into the energy era, we are still very much dependent on oil. While it may seem expensive when we're filling up at the pump or when we look at the futures prices, it's still cheaper than orange juice on a volumetric basis. There is no substitute for oil, at least no good substitute. There is no technology right now that is commercially viable enough that could change the industry in the way that horizontal drilling and fracking changed the natural gas world. So I think you're going to see oil prices move considerably higher. 

Demand no longer is being driven by America; it's being driven by Asia and predominantly by China. That trend will continue. In many parts of the world where demand is growing the fastest, namely the Middle East as well as some parts of South America and Asia, fuel prices are subsidized. In an environment where gasoline prices are subsidized, the consumer isn't feeling the full impact that we feel here in North America. So for those reasons, I think we'll see oil prices move higher, stay higher and exit 2012 at least $130/bbl. Natural gas prices, on the other hand, will remain range-bound in the $2.50–3, maybe $4, range. It's very hard to see a successful investment strategy for investors there, other than with the service companies that are going to be the beneficiaries from all of that drilling.

TER: I think that pretty well sums it up. We appreciate your thoughts and input today.

JS: My pleasure.

john_stephensonJohn Stephenson is a senior vice president and portfolio manager with First Asset Investment Management Inc., where he is responsible for a wide range of equity mandates with a particular focus on energy and resource investing. He has been recognized by Brendan Wood International (BWI) as one of Canada's 50 best portfolio managers for the past three years. He is the author of The Little Book of Commodity Investing (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), which has been translated into five languages and Shell Shocked: How Canadians Can Invest After the Collapse (John Wiley & Sons, 2009), and writes a free bi-weekly investment newsletter, Money Focus, which reaches a global audience of more than 125,000 (www.reportonmoney.com). 

Stephenson is regularly quoted by Bloomberg News, Reuters, The Associated Press,
The Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail and is a frequent guest on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business and Canada's Business News Network (BNN), Sun TV and the CBC. He is frequently the keynote speaker at investment conferences throughout North America. Stephenson holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Waterloo, an MBA from INSEAD, as well as the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Financial Risk Manager (FRM) designations. He lives in Toronto.

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DISCLOSURE:
1) Zig Lambo of The Energy Report conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Energy Report: None. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for services.
3) John Stephenson: I personally and/or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I personally and/or my family am paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.

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