(For readers looking for part two of my Bakken Victors and Victims series, that column will be posted on Thursday.)
In going over the rubble of the oil patch in an environment of low, sustained oil and gas prices, one sector stands out in its ability to outperform: the refiners. Blowout third-quarter results don't distract from this very investable group: You don't need high gas prices for refiners to make spectacular profits.
For the last several years, the investibility of the refining sector has hinged upon a connection I made in 2010 between the spread of U.S. domestic crude and global crude prices. A very close correlation could be found between the input prices for domestic refiners in the West Texas Intermediate benchmark for crude oil while the output price that refiners could get was being tracked more closely by the Brent oil benchmark.
We watched the Brent/WTI spread like a hawk and caught some great profits in the sector as the spread widened without an immediate reaction from the refiners, which experienced doubles and even triples in U.S. refining for names such as Valero (VLO) and Tesoro (TSO). As the spread became more difficult to predict, we refrained from the sector, preferring to invest in the start-up MLP-like dropdown names of integrateds spinning off downstream assets ¿ the biggest of these was Phillips 66 (PSX) and Marathon Petroleum (MPC). But so many of the smaller refiners played this tax-advantaged game too and buying initial shares of Tesoro Logistics (TLLP) and Sunoco Logistics (SXL), for example, proved to be long-term grand slams.
Drop-down benefits aside, there now appears to be further long-term profit potential again in the refiners themselves. The recent drop in oil and gas prices left an opportunity that I will admit to being one week late to: While gas prices got pummeled with oil, the refiners took an absolutely unnecessary beating and created a tremendous opportunity we did not capitalize on quickly enough. Still, there's a lot of value left in the space. The third-quarter reports indicate that the advantaged nature of domestic refining isn't about to end any time soon.
Crude oil in the U.S. now appears to be stabilizing -- with a very deep discount in place and the possibility for more. As the stock market has rallied, oil has not. This indicates that the full flushing of the oil market is not yet finished. At the very least, it appears the refiners will benefit from sub-$80-per-barrel oil (including the Bakken and Midland basis discount) for at least another six months, perhaps more.
Lower gas prices will bring higher demand, which is another plus in the midterm for refiners. While customers enjoy the sub-$50 fill-up, they'll take a few more fun trips, or run the boat or truck a little bit further. Currently, refiners in the U.S. are not competitively burdened and can find export opportunities anywhere the slightest slack in their market can be found. That may not last, but, for now, it's a golden time.
The supply of dropdown opportunities for some of these refiners is far from over. Some, Marathon, for example, are well behind the curve of some others. They will continue to unlock further value as they accelerate their dropdown schedules.
I particularly like Marathon and Philips 66 for all of these reasons, and I expect to have holdings in them for the next year. Despite having missed the opportunity to buy them on fire sale two weeks ago, I still believe they represent some of the best opportunities in a price-constrained oil sector.
You simply don't need high gas prices to lead to high refining profits.