The easy trade is rarely the best one

Canadian Oil Sands (TSX: COS) had a wild day after their year-end report and upcoming projections for 2015.


Traders clearly were panicked at the beginning of the day and when they all cleared the exits, the stock rocketed upwards.

The amount of volatility we are seeing in the Canadian oil and gas sector is indicative of the volatility typically seen in down points in the market (see 2008-2009 for a good example of this), but these scenarios typically take months to finish and not days. Of course you have to be there exactly at the day the S&P 500 hits 666 in order to catch the absolute bottom, but the right trade at the time should feel painful.

Right now buying into oil seems like the right thing to do, but the trade doesn’t feel painful to make. This makes me very cautious and I will continue to wait.

The other item I am looking for is that audited financial statements are due on March 31st, although companies typically report them earlier. Loan covenants are going to be tested against these numbers and it will be obvious which players out there will be over-leveraged.

The other comment I will make is that most producers seem to be in a waiting game – even Canadian Oil Sands projects a WTIC price of US$55/barrel in their 2015 overall projection. Right now WTIC is at US$47 (the December 2015 crude future is at US$56) so we are not too far off that projection, but the financial modelling of all of these companies (and even the Government of Canada) has an upward bias to commodity pricing. What if this doesn’t materialize? As company hedges (note that COS does not engage in hedging) start to expire and companies have to really start digging into their balance sheets to remain operating at existing production levels, eventually you’re going to see production decreases. Only until then it seems the fundamentals will sufficiently shift toward higher oil prices.

The trade at that time, however, will be painful. Only then will investors see a superior reward on their investment.

The same applies to currency markets. Right now going against the US dollar seems like stepping in front of a freight train at full speed. I’ll be unwinding some US currency exposure if the Canadian dollar depreciates a little more.

Reviewing underperforming Canadian oil and gas producers

One observation: It is abundantly clear that oil and gas producers in North America are going to be trimming their 2015 capital budgets. This will disproportionately affect the service companies, but most of this has already been baked into equity prices.

I have no idea where oil prices will be going in the short term. There is plenty of incentive for those that have already sunk a boatload of costs into their wells to keep them flowing. In the short term you might see some price shocks, but in the medium and long term, I cannot see oil losing too much demand relative to supply levels. While getting into my vehicle and experiencing heavy traffic is hardly a statistical sample that you can extrapolate across the world, intuitively I do not think electrification of transportation is going to be an imminent threat on crude oil (or natural gas) as being the transport fuel of choice. Nor do I see the requirements for plastics or any derivative products of crude being replaced anytime soon.

The point of the preceding paragraph is that crude oil is not going to disappear off the map anytime soon (unlike its predecessor, which was whale oil).

With my very generalized valuation theory on oil and gas producers that “oil prices are a reasonable proxy for company performance plus financial leverage effects”, I note that WTIC (West Texas Intermediate Crude) reached the US$80/barrel level back in June of 2012:


A very simple theory is that oil and gas producers that are trading below what they were trading in June of 2012 should be given a second look to see what caused their relative dis-valuation from present oil levels. A surprisingly large number of Canadian oil and gas companies are trading well above their June 2012 levels despite the oil price difference.

One reason is simply due to good (or lucky timing!) hedging strategies.

Another is due to the mix of oil (and the different types of oil), transport issues, and the percentage of natural gas and natural gas liquids in the revenue mix of a company – in general, while you aren’t suffering pure hell at US$2.50/GJ back in June 2012, your typical gas driller hasn’t been wildly profitable compared to the good ol’ days back in 2008 when you were at US$10.

There’s also the simple reason of having excessive financial leverage and not being able to finance the corporation at revenues obtained at current prices.

There’s plenty of reasons why an oil and gas company would be trading lower today than in even worse price environments seen in June 2012.

So given everything trading on the TSX, I’ve done some homework as a starting point and gone through the companies with the following criteria:
– Share price over CAD$2
– Market cap over $1 billion
– Not a foreign entity (although they can have foreign operations).
– Trading lower today than they generally were in June 2012.

We have, in descending order of market cap:

TLM.TO (not that they’ve been having difficulties lately!)
LTS.TO (I was a prolific writer that commented on its ridiculously high valuation when it was known as Petrobakken).

I note that Canadian Oil Sands (COS.TO) is trading barely above what it was in June 2012. This is probably the most purest equity play on WTIC possible beyond putting money in USO (not advisable).

Any thoughts? Comments appreciated.