Activism In The Oil Patch Is Paying Major Dividends

Includes: COP, DVN, HES, OXY
by: Bret Jensen

One of the major stories that has not gotten enough play in the financial press over the last 12 to 18 months is the tremendous shareholder value that has been unlocked by large energy firms in the United States. These companies have spun off non-core operations and overseas assets as well as making other shareholder friendly moves. A good portion of these actions have been driven by increasing activism by fund managers and they have caused stock prices in these entities to move up substantially as a result.

I believe these actions will continue given how successful they have been with investors. Let's take a look at some of the key moves by these major concerns and what lies ahead to unlock further upside for shareholders.

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) spun out its refinery & marketing assets within Phillips 66 (NYSE:PSX) in April 2012. Not only have investors that have held the spin-off seen a better than 80% return, the move freed up capital and allowed the remaining company to focus more attention to growing production.

I also like that ConocoPhillips has sold off some overseas assets and has ~60% of its capital budget allocated to growing production from its promising North American fields such as its substantial Eagle Ford acreage.

I continue to believe that ConocoPhillips is the best positioned American oil major which includes ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) & Chevron (NYSE:CVX). The shares yield a robust 3.8% which is solidly higher than its oil major brethren and its assets are in the best geopolitical shape from a risk perspective. As fracking technology continues to improve to become cheaper and also gets enhanced production results where it is deployed, Conoco should be a major beneficiary.

Hess (NYSE:HES) was the next large energy concern to make moves to unlock significant value spurred on by Elliott Management who took a major stake in the firm and were quite active making "suggestions" to unlock shareholder value. Among several positive moves the company took was to spin off its 1300 retail gas stations, initiate a $4B stock repurchase program and a substantial increase in its dividend as well.

I was early to call out these positive catalysts and the stock has had a major run since then, going from $50 a share early in the year to over $80 a share currently. I recently took profits in this play but only because my portfolio has gotten so top heavy with its allocation to energy names due to their great performance this year. Otherwise I would still have an "Accumulate" on the shares as I think the company will continue to deliver additional shareholder value.

Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) has also started to be the target of agitation from activists. I called out some of the moves this lagging energy concern could make to reward investors in March when the shares were trading at $80 a share. The stock has moved up more than 20% since then but I still think the shares have further upside.

Activists in the last year have ousted its longtime chairman. The company is also in the process of finding a buyer for a 40% minority stake in its Middle East operations which analysts believe can fetch ~$8B. It is also considering selling some assets in the Rockies that might go for $4B.

As the company redeploys the funds from these sales into growing production in promising North American fields, especially in the Permian Basin, and takes other shareholder friendly moves (Ex, increase in dividend and/or stock repurchase program), I think the stock can move nicely higher from current levels.

Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN) was recently singled out by Bloomberg as one of the next energy concerns that could be targeted by activists. The company also just announced it will combine the majority of its midstream assets with Crosstex Energy (XTXI) and Crosstex Energy LP (XTEX) to form a publicly traded MLP (Master Limited Partnership).

Analysts are very positive on this move as Devon has stated this transaction will lift earnings from these assets to $700mm annually from a current $425mm. This could also result in Devon's debt to be upgraded to investment grade status. Robert W Baird has already come out and called this transaction an "Epic Deal". Jefferies also lifted its price target on Devon by $3 a share to $74 as a result of these deal.

The company should see revenues rise in the low double digits for both FY2013 & FY2014. Devon has also beaten bottom line consensus estimates by 20% or more three out of the last four quarters. Given further moves to unlock shareholder value are probable as well as its current growth rate, the stock is still cheap at less than 12x forward earnings.

Disclosure: I am long COP, DVN, OXY. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.