Shrinking crude spreads - WTI has gained 7.2% while Brent has risen just 1.7% so far in December - likely will hold back refiners during the first six months of 2014, Cowen's Sam Margolin says.
Extremely favorable refining conditions from last month are deteriorating amid higher utilization and continued reduction in crude imports, limiting supply and causing U.S. prices to melt higher, the firm explains, adding that investors need to "manage near-term expectations" while "remain(ing) constructive on the refining story for 2014."
Margolin keeps Outperform ratings for Western Refining (WNR +4%), Marathon Petroleum (MPC +2.6%), Tesoro (TSO +0.4%), Valero (VLO +1.4%) and PBF Energy (PBF +1.7%); HollyFrontier (HFC +2.4%), Delek (DK +2.3%), Northern Tier (NTI +0.6%), Alon USA (ALJ +1.7%) and Calumet Specialty Products (CLMT +3.8%).
Tesoro (TSO -1.8%) apparently didn't offer enough good news at yesterday's analyst day, as shares tumble despite the general perception from the meeting as "incrementally positive."
The key messages in the meeting surrounded progress of the synergy capture from the Carson acquisition, continued margin improvement through feedstock and product optimization and driving additional logistics growth.
TSO sees rail unloading capacity along the U.S. west coast for North Dakota crude oil growing to nearly 1M bbl/day through 2015; TSO's $100M rail-to-barge project in Washington is the largest of the offloading projects announced so far.
Imperial Capital raises its TSO price target TSO to $63 from $57, and Howard Weil lifts its target to $66 from $62.
J.P. Morgan is the latest investment banker to turn bullish on refiners, upgrading HollyFrontier (HFC +2%), Valero Energy (VLO +1.8%) and Marathon Petroleum (MPC +0.9%) on its expectation for a larger difference between Brent and West Texas oil prices.
The firm revises its view on oil prices, forecasting Brent prices averaging $105.50/bbl for 2014 and $100.30 for 2015 vs. WTI prices of $91.50/bbl for 2014 and $85.30 for 2015, suggesting a $14-$15 differential, which should increase U.S. refining margins.
In particular, the firm believes HFC's inland refining system is "well positioned to benefit from growth in production of disadvantaged inland North American crudes, and expect(s) HFC to capture Brent-WTI price differentials as higher gross margins across the majority of its throughput."
HFC is upgraded to Overweight from Underweight, VLO and MPC are raised to Neutral from Underweight, and Phillips 66 (PSX +1.5%) and Tesoro (TSO +1.2%) are maintained at Overweight.
BofA Merrill Lynch makes a positive case for leading refiners HollyFrontier (HFC), Valero (VLO) and Tesoro (TSO), believing the rebound in crude spreads signals the early stages of crude saturation on the U.S. Gulf coast and introduces a new layer of seasonal margin volatility that plays to the benefit of the sector.
The firm upgrades HFC to Buy from Neutral with a $60 price target, up from $51, after HFC has lagged the early seasonal rebound in the U.S. refining sector that has accompanied the expansion in crude differentials.
VLO is BofA's top pick in the sector; poised to complete a second MLP, VLO can unlock $5-$9/share of value in the stock, the firm says.
The firm likes TSO's west coast crude advantage and accelerated spending at its MLP.
The new proposal angers farm groups, corn ethanol producers and supporters of biodiesel, but it's a victory for oil companies, which have long argued that if the content of ethanol in motor fuel exceeded 10% - i.e., the "blend wall" - it might damage cars, motorcycles and lawn mowers.
The administration also is setting a 2B-2.5B gallon target range for all advanced biofuels (earlier).
Barron's is bullish on refiners HollyFrontier (HFC -0.2%) and Tesoro (TSO -0.3%), each of which has operations near the heart of the shale oil boom that should benefit from shifting oil price dynamics.
HFC will continue to see cost benefits from its proximity to plentiful shale oil, which can be even cheaper than WTI, and is investing to improve the efficiency of its refineries which should give it an edge over competitors as delivery bottlenecks from booming oilfields are resolved with new pipelines.
Like HFC, TSO has refineries with geographic advantages, which Credit Suisse says are among the best-positioned in U.S. refining; also, TSO's valuation may not reflect the benefits that will result as it moves pipeline, storage and other assets into its Tesoro Logistics (TLLP) MLP.
HEP expects financial results for the current quarter will be negatively impacted if the reduction in the refinery's production lasts for an extended period of time, but minimum contractual commitments will limit the reduction in HEP's distributable cash flow.
Shares of refining companies move higher after Howard Weil's positive note on the sector, whose relative underperformance provides an opportunity for investors who felt they had missed their opportunity to participate in the U.S. energy renaissance to have another shot.
The firm singles out three stocks for upgrades: HollyFrontier (HFC +2%) and Valero (VLO +0.2%) are upgraded to Outperform from Sector Perform, while Marathon Petroleum (MPC +1.6%) is made a Focus Stock.
HollyFrontier's (HFC) credit rating is upgraded two notches to Baa3 - into investment grade - at Moody's, citing the refiner's low leverage and history of conservative financial policies.
HFC "will continue to be one of the industry leaders in through-the-cycle profitability given its crude procurement advantages emanating from the locations of its refineries near the major shale plays in the U.S.," the ratings agency says.
HollyFrontier Corp is an independent petroleum refiner. It produces high-value light products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, specialty lubricant products, and specialty and modified asphalt. It operates in two segments; Refining and HEP.