NEW YORK (Real Money) -- Nobody has championed the oil-and-gas renaissance in this country as I have. It's been one of the great themes of the era. The discoveries, the doubling of U.S. production in just a few years' time, the mountain of beneficiaries in the 16 states where oil is produced -- including all of the oil-service and manufacturing jobs that have been created -- have been nothing short of astounding.
But, as crude oil prices have dropped precipitously -- or, as could be easily argued for any commodity that has fallen from $100 to $62 in just a handful of months -- as it has crashed, the upside has been pretty obliterated, at least for now. The downside action is occurring everywhere in the oil patch, in places we can see and in places we can't.
Now, oil and oil-related stocks make up about 13% of the S&P 500, meaning about 13% does better with higher oil prices. That does not mean 87% do better with lower prices, though. The U.S. economy is a consumer-led one that uses more resources than we can dig out of the ground, so our society and our stocks are overall winners from lower oil prices, which are basically a tax on 317 million Americans and many industrial and service-based companies. There are far more oil burners among stocks than there are oil producers.
As oil continues to decline, those companies that are not hedged and have not locked in higher oil prices are going to keep seeing earnings-per-share benefits, and those benefits will only grow, as befits the rally the market has had. It's no secret that, if you take look at a chart of the S&P and overlay it on a chart of oil, you can see they are headed in different directions.
Nevertheless, because of the way that our stock and credit markets work, there are always going to be both obvious and hidden losers that will be bet against, and many of these are being discovered by the day.
It was easy, of course, to spot the early losers. They come in three categories: the companies that paid up late in the game for properties using $100-per-barrel oil valuations; the oil-service concerns that needed oil to continue going higher so oil-drilling budgets would remain robust; and the oil companies that spent far more than their cash flow on drilling.
In all three of these groups, stocks have just been obliterated. Have they bottomed? I think you have to do a case-by-case analysis. If you own a stock that's higher now than it where it was when oil was last at $60, and if the company has a stretched balance sheet, I think that stock is still going lower. If you own a shares in a company that has bought acreage in the last two years and must drill on the land by lease obligation, that stock's not done going down. If a company can't afford to cut back its drilling budget and isn't hedged enough, that one's not done going down either.
Again, though, you have to look at the financials of individual companies. Some saw it coming; some did not. There are probably some bargains out there already, but we don't have enough details from many of these companies to know how they would really do with oil at $60 or $50 or $40. We just know they'll go down on days when oil goes down. Maybe that's all you need to know right now.
Now, though, we have been examining the next set of losers, the ancillary plays. These, unlike the obviously crushed oil-and-gas companies, aren't as easy to ferret out. These also come in three categories: oil-company creditors; companies that need oil prices to stay higher in order to do better in their own businesses; and geographic consumer plays that are tied to the 16 oil-producing states. These are the tough ones to discern.
First, we don't exactly know who the creditors are or how exposed they are. We know that three banks -- BOK Financial (BOKF) , Cullen/Frost (CFR) and Hancock Holding (HBHC) -- are always being fingered for having too many energy loans. Could they be the next Penn Square, which made high-risk loans in the 1970s and 1980s and then collapsed when oil fell, bringing many others with it? I don't know. Can't think of a reason to own them, though. Banks all pretty much trade together, so if you want bank exposure, either buy the Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLF) or pick ones with less potential to be hurt by lower energy. Those three aren't much cheaper than the rest of the group, so why bother with them?
Some business-development companies, these high-yielding middle-market lenders, also have exposure. Again, there is a usual-suspects list made up of Gladstone Capital (GLAD) , Apollo Investment (AINV) , THL Credit (TCRD) and Main Street Capital (MAIN) . I never recommend these kinds of stocks, because they are opaque. If you go through their holdings, as I have done recently, you can't really tell how much exposure to oil they have. There are reports that all four of these have more than 10% exposure to oil credits. More important, who the heck needs them? Never chase for dividend yield. Just ask those who own oil-drilling companies and thought their yield would protect them, as I thought could happen when Ensco (ESV) started breaking down. Nasty. That didn't work.
Or how about these junk-bonds funds? About 16% of the high-yielding bonds issued, roughly about $210 billion worth, could be at risk. Does your junk-bond fund own good ones or bad ones? How much exposure does it have? Again, these are case-by-case decisions. I can and will make a sweeping judgment that, given the paltry return of these funds anyway, they aren't worth the risk and you should sell them. If you can't tell what they own, and if they admit to owning weaker credit bonds, what's the point? You don't need that headache, especially if interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds are going higher in 2015.
Finally, there are the toughest categories of all -- the companies that you don't think have exposure to declining oil, but that do, both from the capital-goods and the consumer side. Here's some you might not have thought of.
First, while we're seeing a big upgrade of the airlines from Barclays today, remember that one of the chief reasons the airlines have done well -- and I have championed them -- is that older planes use too much fuel, so it's prohibitively expensive to start up a new airline. But the reason shares of discount air carrier Spirit (SAVE) fell so much yesterday had more to do with the idea that start-ups could use older airplanes to compete against Spirit and, of course, the rest of the industry, because of the high fare umbrella. I think it is a legitimate worry that new carriers will start up using older gas-guzzling planes, and that this will keep the airline stocks from going as high as they should, all things considered.
Second, Boeing (BA) could get hurt. Just as oil prices can get so high that the airlines can't afford to buy new planes, oil can also get so low that they won't need new more fuel-efficient planes. I think oil is at those levels right now, so that's something to watch -- and it, too, will keep a cap on Boeing's stock going forward.
Finally, there are the non-oil-service companies that cater to the oil-producing states. Here I have good news: Other than Conn's (CONN) , which is the appliance retailer headquartered in Texas, there are very few companies specifically involved in selling just to oil-producing areas. Like the banks, most retailers are now national in focus. So I wouldn't sweat the program.
I wish I could come up with a definitive list that says, "Don't worry about this company," or, "Don't be concerned about that one." But you can't. The reason? Because the market has made up its mind: If there can be a correlation, there is one. That's how, for example, Tesla (TSLA) can keep going lower with lower oil. The people who buy Tesla cars now aren't really making the trade-off between cheap electricity vs. cheap gasoline. But they will if Tesla is to go mass, and that could hurt sales. So the stock goes down.
Maybe that's really the only allegory you need to know -- the one that tells you all you need to know right now: If a stock has been going lower when oil has gone lower, it is going to keep going lower, regardless of whether that's fair. Because, in the end, as we know from the classic stock movie, Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."