Marathon Oil: Gabon Re-Entry Could Spark Strong Gains

| About: Marathon Oil (MRO)
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Sub-Saharan Africa is not the place where one might expect to find affluence, stability and economic development. The area usually reminds us of malaria, poverty and malnourished babies waiting to be adopted. However, Gabon is an exception. The Gabonese Republic is one of the most prosperous countries in all of Africa, and certainly the most affluent in the Sub-Saharan region. The country is blessed with huge oil and natural gas resources, and the way the country's government has handled investment is exemplary. Gabon houses a number of foreign oil companies who have turned the little country into something similar to Kuwait or Bahrain.

The French-speaking oil rich nation has not been reported on frequently, mostly due to lack of interest in anything that is Sub-Saharan. All that is about to change thanks to Marathon Oil (MRO), which re-entered Gabon recently. The company expected to make significant strides in oil exploration and has teamed up with Total Gabon, a subsidiary of France's Total (TOT) The Houston based company will take a 21.25% stake in the Diaba fields located off the southern coast of Gabon. Marathon had left Gabon way back in 2009 and its return is being welcomed by not only the Gabonese government but also by several investors who know that great profits lie ahead.

The Diaba license is a crucial oil field that covers an area of 9,075 square kilometers. Drilling is expected to begin in 2013 and Marathon seems to have worked out the details well in advance but financial terms are not yet revealed. The government of Gabon and Cobalt International Energy are the other partners in the venture. Not too surprisingly, Marathon's stock rose by 3 cents at the announcement to settle at $23.35. Earlier, Marathon had worked at Tchatamba Marin, Tchatamba South and West blocks in 2009 before quitting. The company expects this to help it broaden its portfolio of assets internationally. Before investors get excited about the prospects of Marathon striking it big in Gabon, we need to understand a few factors that affect Gabon's oil industry.

Oil revenues form almost 46% of Gabonese government's revenue and 43% of the nation's GDP. While the country used to produce almost 370,000 barrels per day in 1997, the output has generally reduced. However, Gabonese oil is expected to expand by 2025. The government mismanaged a lot of money and overspent on the Transgabonais railroad which even caused its currency to be devalued. Social inequality and economic skewness is rampant in Gabon, in spite of the affluence. Affluence is concentrated among the 20% of the population who receive more than 90% of the national income. The rest of the population wallows in poverty.

Marathon's new venture is expected to create jobs, which would pave the way towards reducing economic disparity. Most oil companies across the world have begun to build infrastructure within specific nations and also help the local population gain education, training and employment. Marathon is expected to do the same in Gabon by investing in infrastructure, and by training and educating its employees. This will have far reaching consequences on the trust that investors have placed in Marathon. Moreover, the Gabonese government has suggested that if any company were to help the nation's economy, it would receive preferential treatment.

I think Marathon Oil will be able to leverage its position as a low cost producer in Gabon. It is one of the lowest cost producers among oil companies because it has divided its assets, exploration activities and production into separate corporate entities, which helps it to decentralize economic burden. This results in a stronger financial position, unlike certain companies like Exxon Mobil, which integrate all the aspects related to exploration, production and maintenance of assets. Marathon is in a very strong position financially.

With a total cash of $655 million and a total debt of $4.76 billion, Marathon's current ratio is 0.74. Though it may seem a little worrying at the moment, 98% of its shares are kept in retail float which increases the company's liquidity. Marathon has a cash flow 5-year average of 7.67 and a levered free cash flow of 2.01 billion. With a profit margin of 15.97%, the company is one of the most promising stocks to invest in. Thus, Marathon's decision to return to Gabon is a great one, and it will positively affect investors.

We may also want to take into account that Marathon acquired a stake at the Vilje field from Statoil (STO), which will certainly help the company to establish itself as a major player in Norway. While Anadarko (APC) remains a significant competitor, it is mostly active in Mozambique. Chevron (CVX) can prove to be a competitor as it operates in Equatorial Guinea. However, Marathon may probably not have to encounter a lot of competition within Gabon and it will only have to work its way with Total SA, which shall remain a friendly partner.

Looking at the numbers, it is easy to surmise that Marathon is a great stock to consider as a long-term investment. It could be the right time to invest in this stock, as it appears slightly cheaper at the moment. The company has very little to lose in Gabon, and if it gains significantly, it will only affect the company positively. Thanks to its widespread and far-reaching presence all over the world, Marathon Oil is a very stable company at the moment. I urge investors to consider buying Marathon Oil. If you have already invested in Marathon Oil, it is probably the right time to sit back, relax and probably even think about a vacation.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.