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Energy: The Worst Performing Sector Of The Decade

Nick Cunningham

The energy sector has been the worst performing selection of stocks for quite some time.

The roller coaster ride for oil prices is not exactly a new phenomenon. The oil market is infamous for its repeated boom-and-bust cycles. But the lashing that energy stocks have received over the last few years is particularly notable.

As Reuters notes, energy has been the worst performing sector in the S&P 500 this year, also the worst since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and also the worst performing sector over the past decade.

While the poor performance has been going on for quite some time, this year’s downturn is especially bad. The S&P 500 is up nearly 15 percent this year, while the energy portion of that index is down more than 3 percent. That comes even as oil prices are higher than where they were at the start of the year. It may be hard to remember, but WTI was trading in the mid-$40s at the start of 2019, and Brent was in the mid-$50s.

Even the 3 percent loss for the S&P 500 Energy obscures some particularly bad performances. Concho Resources is down by a third since the start of the year, with most of the losses coming after it reported its second quarter earnings at the end of July. Whiting Petroleum has lost nearly 70 percent of its value.

Even Pioneer Natural Resources, often cited as one of the strong independent shale drillers in the Permian, is down 10 percent year-to-date. EOG Resources has shed 20 percent.

The oil majors have not been spared, although their losses are much less eye-popping than independent shale E&Ps. Exxon is down by a little more than 2 percent; BP is down 3.7 percent; Royal Dutch Shell is down by more than 6 percent and Total SA is off by 7 percent. Meanwhile, Chevron is actually up 4.5 percent.

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The Wall Street Journal noted that Hess Corp. is the single best-performing stock this year, which may come as surprise to most people. The company has surged by 40 percent this year. And while it has a significant presence in U.S. shale, particularly in the Bakken, the reason for its success has nothing to do with shale. In fact, as the WSJ notes, the strong performance comes in spite of shale. Hess has partnered with ExxonMobil in exploiting the huge offshore oil reserves off the coast of Guyana, where the two companies have made discovery after discovery. Offshore Guyana is seen as pivotal to Hess’ success.

Meanwhile, shale drillers continue to bleed cash even as they increase production. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 43 biggest “stand-alone U.S. oil companies” lost more than $90 billion combined between 2014 and 2018, “prompting an investor exodus from oil and gas,” the WSJ said.

The financial stress in the U.S. shale patch, and the fact that companies have fallen out of favor – especially ones that spend recklessly – has raised the prospect of a slowdown in production. That could yet push oil prices back up, which should provide some financial tailwinds to stock prices.

However, that logic is the conventional wisdom, which came into play in years past. This time around, there is little evidence of a rebound in investor faith, in part because of years of losses – both in times of low oil prices but also in times of higher prices. 

“The view of the sector in general has gotten to a point where it’s a very difficult space for institutional investors to embrace because it’s been such a chronic underperformer,” Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital in South Carolina told Reuters.

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He went on to add: “If you look over the last 18 to 24 months, the reason why this space is so frustrating is because when oil rallies, they rally but not nearly to the degree you think that they should…But then when oil comes in, they get crushed.”

The outlook is not great for the industry. In the short run, the U.S.-China trade war could tip the global economy into recession, which would likely drag down oil prices. Even absent the economic risk, the oil market is staring down a glut in 2020. The upside appears limited.

Looking out even further, there is a great deal of uncertainty. On the one hand, poor returns in the shale sector, and the steep fall in upstream investment following the 2014 oil market downturn, could prompt a supply crunch in the 2020s. That’s the bullish case for the energy sector. On the other hand, demand is already decelerating and the climate crisis is deepening. Policy risk and the rise of electric vehicles pose an existential threat to the growth of oil demand in the medium- and long-term.

In other words, the case for oil stocks is hampered in the short run, and very shaky in the long run.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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