To say that 2015 has been a dismal year for the oil and gas industry would be a understatement.
Year to date, crude oil prices have yet to recover, the overall sector is down by nearly 22%, and every major player is fighting a significant slump: BP plc (BP) - Get Report (down 10%), Exxon Mobil Corp.(XOM) - Get Report (down 14%), Chevron Corp.(CVX) - Get Report (down 19%) and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDS.A) (down 26%).
Will 2016 deliver a reversal of fortunes?
Brent oil averaged around $50 per barrel in the third quarter, a plunge from the earlier $62 a barrel in the second quarter. Brent is now trading at $44. The decline has been uniform and has affected every major operator.
Meanwhile, the global demand for oil has grown even stronger, even as U.S. production volumes continue to decrease, while OPEC's productivity pipeline runs at an average higher than 2014 (with inventories tipped to increase further). There's also the possibility of an Iranian production channel opening doors circa 2016, heightening the chance of another price drop.
If we look at the earnings landscape for the sector, the analysis for most stocks is largely equal: analysts estimate BP to report $2.20 earnings-per-share (EPS), down 44% year on year. 2016 should see a 5% rise in EPS at $2.31.
Exxon will probably sign off 2015 with a sharp 50% drop in EPS. The 5.3% rebound (as suggested) in 2016 is in line with predictions for BP.
Chevron is clearly the worst hit in 2015, with EPS tanking from $10.14 to an estimated $3.32, a fall of over 65%. Analysts expect a 30% rebound for the next year -- reaching $4.11 levels in terms of full year EPS.
In terms of strategy, 2016 will be dominated by a blitz of cost-management initiatives.
For instance, BP now has reduced upstream employees by 10% and agency contractors by 42% respectively, as compared to the numbers from 2013. It's also leveraging local capabilities to manage expatriation levels. For third-party expenditures, BP continues to capture market deflation, achieving average cost reductions of around 15% until the third quarter.
Another key metric are non-operating restructuring charges. BP should approach $2.5 billion in total by the end of 2016 as it pushes these efforts, in alignment with the $1 billion restructuring charges BP had initially announced (December 2014) for the period ending 2015.
Further, oil and gas companies are striving to maintain their capital expenditures (Capex) or reduce the same, marginally. Exxon stands by its earlier situation, suggesting its Capex guidance for 2016 will be at $34 billion, and for 2016 and 2017, below $34 billion. In an environment where commodity prices are unlikely to improve in a hurry, an as-low-as-possible Capex is most feasible.
Chevron exhibits the same trend. It expects capital exploratory spend in 2016 to be in the range of $25 billion-to-$28 billion, down from $35 billion this year. The company expects further reductions in 2017 and 2018 -- hovering around $20 billion-$24 billion, depending on business conditions.
Given current conditions, valuations for the oil and gas sector as whole (as well as specific companies) have adjusted to the "new normal" of deeply depressed energy prices for a protracted period.
Today, Royal Dutch Shell is available at 11 times forward earnings. Chevron, however, trades at 23 times, which is extravagant compared to BP and Total SA(TOT) - Get Report , both at 15 times, while Exxon is at 19.7 times.
A word on Total's earnings: despite the all-round plummet, analysts expect a slight rebound over 2016. Total, though, is an exception and will probably see a drop in EPS, over the next year, following a weak 2015.
Dividends, however, can provide some succor to this battered sector. Thanks to a drop in stock prices in 2015 and partly due to companies maintaining their dividend payouts, oil and gas shares are ready to offer a chunky dividend yield.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. will give you a 4.47% yield, while Chevron is at 4.7%. Exxon isn't far behind at 3.6%, and BP offers an abnormal 7.02% at current prices. Royal Dutch is an attractive proposition at 7.6%.
The upshot: the energy patch is heading into 2016 in far better shape than it entered 2015, which makes select energy stocks good plays for investors willing to shoulder some risk and bet on a sector comeback.
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.