Where to Drill for Portfolio Outperformance

The Energy Report: Chad, you recently released an early look at 2014 titled, Drilling Down for Outperformance. You noted that you saw an average 3540% upside on your Buy-rated names. What are your criteria for picking companies?

Chad Mabry: To start, we use a discounted cash flow-based net asset value (NAV) approach to valuing exploration and production (EP) stocks. While cash flow is an important metric, NAV does a better job of comparing companies with different asset profiles, specifically within the small and midcap EP space. NAV does a better job of accounting for a company's upside potential than cash-flow metrics. We use a bottom-up approach to drill down into a company's asset base, its average type curve, estimated ultimate recoveries (EURs), well costs and so on. In this way we find out about the economics of those plays and what the sensitivities are to our commodity price deck. We then try to sort out companies that aren't being valued appropriately and identify strong risk-reward opportunities.

TER: There has been a lot of commodity price volatility this last year. How do you determine what prices to use when you're estimating NAV?

CM: That's a good question. Given the volatility inherent in oil and gas commodity price movements, forecasting prices is somewhat of a losing proposition. We try to set a long-term price deck based on the industry cost structure, which is based on the marginal cost of new production. Over the long term, laws of supply and demand will win out and commodity prices should normalize toward equilibrium levels, which are currently about $90 per barrel ($90/bbl) for oil and $4.50 per thousand cubic feet ($4.50/Mcf) for natural gas.

TER: The Energy Information Administration (EIA) is forecasting U.S. oil production to increase by about 1 million barrels/day in 2014 with year-over-year growth in the 1015% range. What impact could that have on the price of oil going forward?

CM: There is an oil production renaissance in the U.S. We expect that to continue, driven by the independent EPs. We're forecasting production growth in 2014 of about 5055% in our coverage universe. That is going to be driven by oil growth as companies continue to allocate the vast majority of their capex budgets next year to oil and liquids-weighted projects.

TER: Are there certain sectors of the oil market that you like better than others?

CM: We feel the outperformers into 2014 are the companies that have established core positions in some of the more economically attractive oil and liquids resource plays in North America. It won't come to anyone's surprise that some of the best-in-class resource plays include the Eagle Ford, the Bakken and the Niobrara, to name a few. But we also feel like there are some pretty intriguing, earlier-stage plays that offer exposure to oil and liquids that we're going to be keeping an eye on into next year, specifically the Utica, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale and the Woodbine.

TER: What do you like about developed areas, like the Eagle Ford?

CM: Eagle Ford has become the standard bearer for the oil and liquids resource plays in the U.S. The geography is best in class and it is a repeatable play with very compelling economics. As we move into development mode in the play, we continue to see the potential for additional catalysts, which should continue to lead to outperformance for our names that have exposure there.

As well costs continue to reduce and recoveries and completion designs improve, we expect rates of return to drift higher. As various operators focus on additional zones, there is additional upside potential to companies' drilling inventories in the form of additional pay zones.

The best exposure to the Eagle Ford and one of our top picks is Carrizo Oil Gas Inc. (CRZO:NASDAQ), which has established a very nice sweet spot in La Salle County.

We also like Sanchez Energy Corp. (SN:NYSE), which has become somewhat of an Eagle Ford pure play with a very robust inventory across the play.

TER: Carrizo is in the Utica, the Marcellus and the Niobrara. In November, it announced record oil production, and the stock price is up pretty dramatically, although it's off its all-time highs. Is there still upside?

CM: We believe so. We see roughly 50% upside to our NAV from current levels. One of the reasons that it is a top pick of ours is that it has core positions in very attractive plays. You mentioned its position in the Utica, the Niobrara and the Marcellus. It has some best-in-class exposure to these plays.

We expect the company to have some downspacing results in the Eagle Ford as it continues to test 500-foot (500 ft) spacing versus 750 ft, where it is today. We don't have that in our numbers right now. We estimate that could add about $10/share to our NAV from current levels.

"Given the volatility inherent in oil and gas commodity price movements, forecasting prices is somewhat of a losing proposition."

In the Utica, the company's acreage is in a very delineated, core spot of the play. While it is still early on in its activity in the play, we expect it to have initial well results in the near term. We think that could be another catalyst for the name.

Then, like other operators in the Niobrara, Carrizo is also testing downspacing, which, if successful, could yield incremental upside to what we're giving it credit for right nownot only core positions in core plays, but also the catalysts that we expect to drive the stock up toward our NAV over the next 12 months.

TER: You have a Buy rating on Sanchez. It also has a secondary in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale. What impact could the Tuscaloosa have on its share price?

CM: We have just $1/share of Tuscaloosa Marine Shale value in our NAV right now. It's very minimal at this point. At current levels, investors are getting a free option on Sanchez' Tuscaloosa Marine Shale potential, which could be very meaningful.

One of the reasons that we like these more emerging areas is that you're not really paying as much for some of these positions. Contango Oil Gas Co. (MCF:NYSE.MKT), which is more of a legacy name, also has exposure. I'd even classify it as a Tuscaloosa Marine Shale sleeper because it doesn't register on a lot of people's radars as having a significant position in that play following its merger with Crimson Exploration Inc. (CXPO:NASDAQ).

If you're a believer in the long-term commerciality of the play, which we are, then a name that you need to own is Goodrich Petroleum Corp. (GDP:NYSE), which has by far the most leverage to that play with around 300,000 net acres. As that company accelerates to a five rig-operated program in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale next year and gets away from the well watch nature that's made for a volatile 2013, its position in that play delivers outperformance for the stock. If you're a believer in the play, then Goodrich is a must-own name. As the play advances further along the development curve, Goodrich becomes a takeout candidate for any larger company looking to gain exposure in a material way.

TER: What else is intriguing in the Niobrara?

CM: A lot of these names with exposure to the Niobrara have been some of 2013's outperformers.

But when we look at who has exposure to the play and who maybe isn't getting as much credit as the next guy, an attractive name to us is PDC Energy Inc. (PDCE:NASDAQ). It's the third-largest producer and leaseholder in the Wattenberg. In addition, it has a pretty significant position in one of the emerging areas of the Utica. At these levels, it's a pretty compelling investment.

TER: The price is down from earlier in the year. Is this a buying opportunity?

CM: The stock did correct a bit after a Q3/13 earnings miss and its initial results in the southern part of its Utica position, which didn't meet Street expectations. This did present a nice buying opportunity. It does have a number of upcoming catalysts, not only in the Utica, but also from additional downspacing and testing of other formations in the Wattenberg/Niobrara. At current levels, investors are getting a free option on its position in the Utica.

TER: Are there any neighbors you like?

"As we look into 2014, we're more focused than ever on company-specific fundamentals and relative performance indicators that should help pick the outperformers into next year."

CM: Yes, as a matter of fact. Bonanza Creek Energy Inc. (BCEI:NYSE) has a very quality position in the Niobrara; it's essentially a Niobrara pure play. But at current levels, it is receiving closer to full valuation for that position, and we see better risk-reward in other names, specifically Carrizo and PDC.

TER: Bonanza Creek is both in Colorado and the Cotton Valley sands in Arkansas. What are the next steps?

CM: Its focus will be on its Wattenberg/Niobrara position. It has a four-rig program in the play, which should drive 2014 production growth of 4550%. But at the same time, the Wattenberg valuation is more than $50,000/acre, which just seems closer to full value at these levels.

TER: Did you also initiate coverage on Gulfport Energy Corp. (GPOR:NASDAQ)?

CM: Yes. We have a Hold rating on Gulfport for similar reasons. Whereas Bonanza Creek has a quality position in the Wattenberg/Niobrara, Gulfport has a fantastic position in the core of the Utica. The valuation is a bit stretched at these levels, however.

TER: You have a Buy on Midstates Petroleum Co. Inc. (MPO:NYSE). Is that based on its exposure to the Anadarko Basin?

CM: The Buy on Midstates is based on the fact that its portfolio is misunderstood and undervalued. It also has a leading position and is one of the biggest operators in the Mississippi Lime play in Northern Oklahoma. Then it has the third leg of the stool, if you willthe Wilcox play in Louisiana, which is an earlier-stage play that it is not receiving any credit for. As we move into 2014 and the company executes and delivers what we feel like will be above-average production growth, that value gap is likely to narrow.

TER: Do you still like the Gulf of Mexico?

CM: It's all about relative valuation. The Gulf of Mexico players had a nice tailwind earlier this year with Light Louisiana Sweet oil prices enjoying a healthy premium to West Texas Intermediateclose to $20-plus/bbl earlier this year. That premium has since eroded. It's not something that will likely come back in a meaningful way in the near term. As a result, you lose that benefit looking into 2014. But, like I said, it's all about relative valuation.

We do think there are some nice opportunities in the Gulf, specifically Stone Energy Corporation (SGY:NYSE). It has several impactful catalysts in the form of deepwater exploration wells that should have results starting in early 2014, which could drive outperformance for the stock. Investors aren't paying for any of that upside at these levels, so that's really why we have the Buy rating on Stone at this time.

TER: Its stock is up to $40 from $32 last month. Is that mainly because of the new spudding in early 2014?

CM: Fortunately for Stone Energy, there are a number of wells, operated and non-operated, that should provide a steady flow of catalysts throughout 2014 and 2015 in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. We expect several catalysts over the course of the next couple of years.

TER: Are there other relative outperformers in the Gulf of Mexico?

CM: Right now, our two names that operate exclusively on the Gulf of Mexico shelf are Energy XXI (Bermuda) Ltd. (EXXI:NASDAQ) and Energy Partners, Ltd. (EPL:NYSE). We have a Buy rating on Energy XXI and a Hold rating on Energy Partners. Shares of Energy XXI, on a relative basis, are more attractive because they are trading below their proved-only valuation and the company is pursuing a number of exploration objectives, which could cause the stock to outperform. Energy Partners has had some issues in some of its core fields recently, which could provide a headwind for shares in the near term.

TER: Energy XXI also has been doing quite a bit of consolidating of other smaller players. It is pursuing some deeper salt plays. When could those start to pay off?

CM: It's the third largest oil producer on the shelf. It is taking advantage of its footprint in the area and its expertise of the geology in the basin to pursue some deeper exploration targets, not necessarily the ultra-deep. We should get some results into 2014 from the company.

You mentioned it being a consolidator. Both Energy Partners and Energy XXI have become consolidators on the shelf. Looking into 2014, we wouldn't be surprised to see Energy XXI target some larger objectives internationally, specifically in Malaysia, which offers a nice analog field to what we've seen in the Gulf of Mexico, but with larger scale.

TER: Energy XXI also just initiated a share buyback program and raised the dividend. Is that part of a trend?

CM: It's a representation of its confidence in the stock and in its performance, its belief that shares are undervalued and its willingness to buy back shares at levels it feels are too low.

TER: Smart capital allocation has been a differentiator for some of these companies in 2013. How are successful companies better using their resources?

CM: Since we've seen commodity prices somewhat range-bound with a lot of the land grab more or less over, investors will be even more willing to reward companies that demonstrate effective and efficient operations in 2014.

TER: Companies have been trying to create some new catalysts and value, and derisk their new projects. Is that paying off?

CM: Yes. We've seen that across the board in terms of drilling efficiencies. As companies have migrated away from acreage capture to development mode in their core resource plays, we've seen rig productivity increase fairly dramatically. That's been an area where companies have been able to deliver meaningful cost savings while, at the same time, enhancing their drilling and completion techniques, essentially making bigger wells and increasing their IRRs in these plays. Downspacing has also been a catalyst in a lot of these plays and, looking into 2014 in some of the more developed plays, whether it's the Bakken, the Eagle Ford or the Niobrara, additional downspacing results will be a major catalyst for a number of companies.

TER: Can you leave us with some advice for investors in the space as they prepare for 2014?

CM: Stock selection will be more important than ever looking into 2014. While this is a group that historically has a high correlation to oil and gas prices, it's becoming more of a stock picker's market. As we look into 2014, we're more focused than ever on company-specific fundamentals and relative performance indicators that should help pick the outperformers into next year.

TER: Thanks for joining us today.

CM: Thanks for having me.

Chad Mabry is an analyst in MLV's Energy and Natural Resources Research Department. Bringing over 10 years of experience in the oil and gas industry, he primarily focuses on small- and mid-cap companies in the Exploration Production sector. Prior to joining MLV, Mr. Mabry was a senior analyst with KLR Group and Rodman Renshaw, and an associate analyst with Pritchard Capital Partners. Mr. Mabry holds an M.A. in Accounting and a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.

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1) JT Long conducted this interview for The Energy Report and provides services to The Energy Report as an employee. She or her family owns shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.

2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Energy Report: Energy XXI. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for its services or as sponsorship payment.

3) Chad Mabry: I or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I personally am or my family is paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. My company has a financial relationship with the following companies mentioned in this interview: MLV Co. managed or co-managed a public offering of securities and received compensation for investment banking services from: Goodrich Petroleum Corp., Carrizo Oil Gas Inc., Sanchez Energy Corp., PDC Energy Inc., Bonanza Creek Energy Inc., Gulfport Energy Corp., Midstates Petroleum Co. Inc., Stone Energy Corp., Energy Partners Ltd., Energy XXI, Contango Oil Gas Co. MLV Co. or any affiliate expects to receive or intends to seek compensation for investment banking services in the next three months. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this interview. Comments and opinions expressed are my own comments and opinions. I had the opportunity to review the interview for accuracy as of the date of the interview and am responsible for the content of the interview.

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One thought on “Where to Drill for Portfolio Outperformance

  1. I have a high interest in companies which are beginning to drill in the Petroplex formations in W Texas.

    Can your person help?

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