NEW ORLEANS -- For energy investors, a week in the Big Easy is always a mixed bag. The annual Howard Weil confab brings scores of energy companies to New Orleans and, this year, a record number of investors. Some reports suggest over 500 investors trekked to the city at the mouth of the Mississippi in an attempt to figure out if the energy trade will continue to work or whether it is beginning to lose its juice.

While finding so many companies and investors in one place is a good thing, the temptations of the French Quarter leave many portfolio managers and analysts ready to return to more subdued pastures after three days of company presentations and late nights on Bourbon Street (talking business, of course!).

Nevertheless, a week with that many energy mavens around is sure to provide some themes that are useful to investors. Here's what I learned on my New Orleans "vacation:"

  • While interest in energy names has to be near a peak, the bullishness remains reserved. I talked to as many skeptics and analysts with guarded opinions of the group as those with more bullish outlooks. While the sheer volume of investors was at record levels, the level of euphoria didn't strike me as excessive. In fact, I was somewhat surprised at the subdued nature of the enthusiasm. From a sentiment perspective, I'm not convinced we have reached the bullish peak yet. As regular readers of this column know, contrary sentiment indicators are something I believe in strongly. Here's the bottom line: It doesn't seem to me that expectations are excessive, and there is a good chance that first-quarter numbers still can provide some positive surprises for investors.
  • As discussed here before, the contract rig market remains strong. Margins for land-based drillers like Nabors (NBR) - Get Report, Patterson-UTI (PTEN) - Get Report and Grey Wolf( GW) continue to expand as demand chases limited supply. In the offshore arena, day rates also continue to climb with Rowan (RDC) recently inking a contract for one of its Gorilla class rigs to work for $100,000 per day. Another interesting story in offshore rigs is Pride International( PDE), a company that has been mired in debt but has done a solid job of restoring its balance sheet even as margins improve.
  • Other service companies also are beginning to see significant improvement in operating metrics. Grant Prideco( GRP) is a manufacturer of drill pipe and drill bits, and its pipe business is at an "inflection point," according to CFO Matt Fitzgerald. The company is seeing solid demand growth, which should lead to meaningful margin expansion. In addition, the company's investment in drill-bit technology and premium pipe is beginning to pay off as exploration companies want the latest technology to drill more demanding wells. Superior Energy (SPN) continues to see improvement in utilization and day rates for its work boat fleet in the Gulf of Mexico as well as growth in its rental tool and well workover businesses.
  • Exploration and production companies also should report better-than-expected results in the first quarter as high commodity prices and solid drilling activity will boost results. Recent IPO Bill Barrett Corporation (BBG) is quickly becoming a major player in Rockies exploration as Barrett creates a new company after selling his last creation for nice profits to Williams (WMB) - Get Report. While I tend to focus on domestic E&P companies that are focused on natural gas, oil prices make those looking for black gold interesting as well.Along with Bill Barrett, St. Mary (SM) - Get Report is a company searching for oil in the Williston Basin in Montana and North Dakota and having good success. Along the Gulf Coast, the ability of Energy Partners (EPL) to keep growing its production and expand its success onshore looks like a winning strategy. In addition, the potential of the company's recent discovery at South Timbalier 41 (EPL's No. 3 well) does not appear to be fully appreciated by the market, providing additional opportunities for investors over time.

The stories remain bullish and investors remain optimistic but not irrational. The real short-term wild card is commodity prices. For seasonal and speculative reasons, these prices could continue this moderate correction. But remember, a year ago expectations were not terribly different than they are today, and oil was below $40 and natural gas trending toward $5.

While the stocks may take a pause as commodities find their new base prices, $45 oil and $6 natural gas provide plenty of opportunities for energy investors in the coming months.

Christopher S. Edmonds is vice president and director of research at Pritchard Capital Partners, a New Orleans energy investment firm. He is based in Atlanta. At time of publication, neither Edmonds nor his firm held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to