R-Squared Energy Blog

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Brazil Flexing Its Muscles

A couple of years ago I was thinking about the possible fates of various nations in a world in which depleting oil reserves begin to have a very strong impact on oil prices. I had visions of $100+ oil and eventually $5-10 gasoline, which would place a crushing burden on the U.S. economy.

Of course higher prices will motivate people to conserve (and will contribute to recession), and then you may find yourself in a situation in which the supply/demand balance once again tips toward excess supply (as we found ourselves in as oil approached $150/bbl). Prices fall. The economy starts to recover. What happens then? Prices rise, putting the brakes on recovery. This is what I postulated in The Long Recession. Today I saw that someone else had weighed in with the same general thesis:

Oil prices mean perpetual recession

“The US has experienced six recessions since 1972. At least five of these were associated with oil prices. In every case, when oil consumption in the US reached 4% percent of GDP, the U.S. went into recession. Right now, 4% of GDP is US$80 a barrel oil. So my current view is that if the oil price exceeds US$80, then expect the U.S. to fall back into recession,” wrote Steven Kopits, managing director for U.K.-based energy-consulting and -research firm Douglas-Westwood LLC in New York.

Long recession, perpetual recession – the idea is the same. If demand starts bumping back up against supply because economies are heating back up, it will be very tough to dig out of a recession for very long for countries that rely heavily on oil imports. Maybe we aren’t there yet. Maybe we have another cycle to go. But I see this as a very plausible scenario.

One country that I have long felt is very well-equipped to thrive as oil prices go higher is Brazil. In fact, as I was preparing to buy Petrobras last year, I debated whether to instead buy into a closed end Brazil fund called iShares MSCI Brazil Index (EWZ). My reasoning was that as oil prices climb, the Brazilian economy stands to benefit in multiple ways.

There is of course the obvious in that Brazil has very large oil reserves relative to their population size, and their oil production is on the rise. It therefore stands to see cash flow into the country increase as they begin to export oil. I would expect to see consumer spending rise, benefiting many sectors in the country. For countries that wish to replace oil with alternative energy, Brazil is a key provider there as well. There is probably nobody better at efficiently producing ethanol from sugarcane. Their location in the tropics also means they have good solar insolation, improving the prospects for solar power (as well as for biomass, since they also get ample rain). All in all, they are abundantly blessed with fossil and renewable energy.

I saw another story today from MarketWatch that emphasized some of these very points and reminded me why I selected Brazil as a country with a bright outlook as oil production worldwide depletes:

Brazil’s JBS shows a nation on the march

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — The Brazilians are coming and they are buying, securing a firm foothold in weakened corners of U.S. agriculture. JBS S.A., the world’s biggest beef producer, just added Pilgrim’s Pride to its empire, speeding the Texas-based chicken producer’s exit from bankruptcy with an $800 million cash payment that will give JBS 64% of the company’s new stock.

JBS is not the only Brazilian outfit feeling its protein these days. The country’s economy is on a tear, much of it fueled by resurgent commodities. It posted surprisingly strong 1.9% GDP growth in the second quarter, making it the first Latin-American nation to emerge from the global recession.

Petrobras (PBR), Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, is in the thick of it. Over the past few weeks, it announced several major new deepwater oilfield discoveries, prompting talk that it might swap some of its bulging reserves for up to $25 billion worth of new shares in the company.

The new found oil wealth augments Brazil’s already booming sugar cane-based ethanol exports and vast hydroelectric supplies. Together, they have put the country in the enviable position of becoming a net energy exporter.

The article goes on to say that the Brazilian stock market is up 60% for the year.

So far, my decision to buy PBR over EWZ has proven to be the correct one. In the not quite 10 months since I bought it, the PBR is up 160%. The return from EWZ has been nothing to sneeze at though, up 117% over the exact same time period. This reiterates my belief that Brazil will be a safe haven in an oil-induced financial storm.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, EWZ, investing, investment, PBR, Petrobras, recession, sugarcane ethanol | 14 Comments

Time to Switch to Natural Gas?

A couple of articles, both at Seeking Alpha, got me to thinking about whether it might be time to trade in my Petrobras (PBR) stock for something in the natural gas sector. From the first of the two articles:

Natural Gas Should Get a Boost from China’s New Demand

China has been developing natural gas vehicles for many years, recently the number of vehicles running on nat gas has risen dramatically. For example, the government of Xi’an in western China, a medium size with 8M population, has decided to mandate all city buses and taxis using natural gas. The government website reported 5000 buses and 20000 taxis was using nat gas in 2008, and is expected to grow in coming years.

That wasn’t the most interesting bit for me. This was:

With natural gas price at historic low $3.74, investors should take advantage and invest in ETF such as (UNG), or producers such as Chesapeake Energy Group (CHK), Devon Energy Corp (DVN) and XTO Energy (XTO).

I haven’t been following natural gas prices closely, and would have expected them to be on the rise like oil prices. Speaking of which, the other article was about Petrobras, and it argued that the price is poised to rise further if oil prices continue to climb:

Petrobras Ready to Benefit from Next Oil Price Spike

During the credit crunch, there were concerns Petrobras would have trouble obtaining financing to exploit Tupi. The stock dropped from over $70 to a low of under $15 in November of 2008. However, the stock has recovered nicely as credit crunch worries have subsided and financing deals have been reached with China and others. Recently PBR traded above $43/share. The PE=11.7 and the dividend yield is a scant 0.70%. But this isn’t a dividend story. Unlike US majors XOM, CVX, and COP, Petrobras is a story about strongly increasing production in an age of peak oil. That will certainly lead to increasing profits and a stock that will outperform its peers.

To me, this explains why PBR is trading at $43 a share. But I bought PBR at $17.50 in November – having just barely missed the bottom – and it has risen sharply with oil prices. But I think the upside at this point is limited unless oil prices continue to climb. In fact, I would have sold it already if I wasn’t trying to wait long enough to benefit from the long term capital gains tax rate.

And while I think there is some upside left to PBR, natural gas stocks should go sharply higher if natural gas prices start to respond to higher oil prices. (Historically, this correlation has not been very good, but the two have correlated well in the past few years). We are also entering the low demand time of year for natural gas, and prices also reflect that. But if your outlook is a bit longer than past this summer, natural gas is looking like a real bargain to me. In fact, natural gas stocks remind me of PBR back in November…

June 10, 2009 Posted by | CNG, investing, natural gas, PBR, Petrobras | 22 Comments

Trying to Make Sense of Ethanol Tariffs

Note that in the following essay, I am not trying to come down either for or against ethanol tariffs, but rather to discuss what I see as the key issues surrounding them. U.S. energy policy is slanted to favor U.S. farmers and ethanol producers, and I am merely trying to explain the tariffs within that context.

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You are probably aware that the U.S. imposes a $0.54/gallon tariff on ethanol that we import from Brazil. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met with President Obama last week and implored him – in the name of a better environmental policy – to remove the “absurd tariffs on ethanol.” In response President Obama said the situation is “not going to change overnight.”

Brazil wants help lifting US ethanol tariffs

Brazil is a world leader in biofuels and the world’s largest exporter of ethanol. But Silva, who met with President Barack Obama on Saturday, has made little progress persuading the U.S. to reduce the tariffs, which are in place to protect American farmers who make ethanol from corn. Brazil makes ethanol from sugar, in a process that is much more efficient and costs less.

By all accounts, ethanol from sugarcane is a more sustainable model than ethanol from corn. The key to this – as I explained here – is that a true waste product (bagasse) is generated and used to fuel the boilers, mostly eliminating the need for fossil fuels for the production of the ethanol. So why do we penalize Brazilian ethanol? Is it pure protectionism?

While I am no fan of the perpetual subsidies we have put in place to prop up our corn ethanol industry, I think the tariffs do make sense in light of what policy-makers are trying to achieve. Gasoline blenders receive a credit of $0.51/gal (soon to drop to $0.45/gal, which should be this year since the farm bill said the credit would drop “beginning in the first calendar year after the year in which 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol is produced”).

While the credit indeed goes to the gasoline blender, since it reduces their costs for ethanol, it provides an incentive for ethanol producers. That is why ethanol producers – and not gasoline blenders – are the ones who always scream the loudest when the discussion turns to removing the credit. The question on the ethanol tariff becomes “Do we want to extend that incentive to Brazilian ethanol producers?” In other words, do you want your tax dollars going to incentivize sugarcane ethanol producers?

Here is how the tariff prevents that. A gasoline blender could buy corn ethanol or sugarcane ethanol, blend it into gasoline, and get the same blender’s credit in either case. Because ethanol produced from Brazilian sugarcane is cheaper than ethanol produced from corn, without the tariffs in place blenders would likely get all of the ethanol they could from Brazil. Given that this is completely contrary to the goal of creating a U.S.-based ethanol industry, the tariff makes sense in that context. One could argue the point that the tariff isn’t there to punish Brazilian ethanol, but rather to prevent them from taking advantage of a provision designed to spur U.S. ethanol production with taxpayer money.

Of course the fact that the tariff is $0.54 while the blender’s credit was $0.51 and quickly falling to $0.45 is a different matter. If the tariff is equal to the blender’s credit, then indeed one could argue that this is merely the removal of U.S. taxpayer support from Brazilian ethanol. However, if the tariff is greater than the blender’s credit, it begins to look like a punitive tariff, designed to do more than just remove U.S. taxpayer support. There is a senate bill currently under consideration to level that playing field back out:

Bipartisan Senate bill seeks lower tariffs on ethanol imports

A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to lower U.S. tariffs on ethanol imports to achieve “parity” with the blender’s credit, which was reduced in last year’s farm bill.

The farm bill knocked the blender’s credit from 51 cents per gallon to 45 cents per gallon. A new Senate measure (pdf) is aimed at knocking down the 54-cent-per-gallon import tariff and the 2.5 percent ad valorem tariff to achieve “parity” with the lowered blender’s tax credit.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the sponsors, said in a statement that the higher import tariff creates a barrier for sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil, and hence gives gasoline imports a “competitive advantage.”

I don’t find myself agreeing with Senator Feinstein very often on energy issues, but here I think she is correct. This is the other side of the coin. While the tariff may have the effect of ensuring that the blender’s credit only goes to U.S. ethanol producers, it also has the impact of putting Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage to gasoline or crude oil imports. Is this desirable? I don’t think so. To the extent that we require fuel imports, I fall into that camp of preferring to deal with Brazil over Venezuela.

So, how might I write a better policy than the one we have now but still protect U.S. ethanol producers? First, eliminate both the blender’s credit and the tariffs. This removes the barriers to Brazilian ethanol, while leveling the playing field with gasoline imports. Second, given that the present policy is designed to protect U.S. ethanol producers, require that some percentage or some volume of ethanol blended into the fuel system must come from them. Third, even with the current blender’s credit in place, U.S. ethanol producers are struggling to survive. If they had to sell their ethanol in a competitive (unprotected) market, they would all go bankrupt. Therefore, you have to keep the mandates in place regarding the amount of ethanol that must be blended into the fuel supply. This ensures that even if they can’t compete in an open market, they still have a captive market.

Of course I have said many times that I don’t favor mandates at all, nor do I think the corn ethanol industry will ever be viable in an open marketplace. However, it would be disastrous for Midwestern economies to completely pull support from under the industry. I would favor a policy in which we no longer encourage expansion of the industry, and over time phase the mandates out. This would in my opinion be the end of the corn ethanol industry, but a slow end without a shocking impact. If it isn’t, and they can survive in a world without mandates, then more power to them. But if they still can’t manage to live without subsidies after receiving them for 30 straight years (and even that wasn’t enough, hence the mandates), why should we expect that they ever will?

Incidentally, one final note on Brazil. People sometimes ask me which countries I think have a bright future, despite the prospect of peak oil. I think it is hard to make a case that anyone is going to be better off than Brazil. They are sitting on top of huge oil reserves, they can produce ethanol very efficiently and have the infrastructure in place to utilize it, and they have good solar insolation for solar panels, solar hot water, etc. I just don’t know of other country as well-positioned as they are. Not only do I think they will survive peak oil, I think they will thrive and their economy will continue to grow. That’s just one of the reasons I have invested money in Brazil.

March 22, 2009 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, energy policy, PBR, Petrobras, politics, sugarcane ethanol, Venezuela | 122 Comments

Fortune Says Oil Stocks are a Bargain

I certainly can’t disagree with this:

Betting on big oil’s comeback

The article first argues that oil prices are unlikely to stay low for too long:

“Right now, the upsides in the oil sector far exceed the downside risks,” says Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “I am absolutely convinced that oil prices will rise.”

After last year’s $100 free-fall rocked expectations, that kind of confidence is surprising. But Gheit is not alone; a strong consensus is growing for a price rebound. While crude isn’t likely to rocket back to the sky-high levels of 2008, even bearish analysts admit that oil can’t stay below $50 for long.

Those are of course my sentiments as well. I believe that long-term oil prices are going to see robust growth. Short-term it may run up to $150 and back down to $35, but my metric is always to ask where oil prices will be in 5 or 10 years. I believe they will be more than double where they are now, so I am leaving oil company stocks in my portfolio for the long haul, even if prices fall to $20 for a while.

They spoke favorably of the two oil stocks in my portfolio:

Other large stocks stand ready for a rebound. ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500), whose shares have fallen 57% over the last year, has a price to earnings ratio of 9 versus Exxon’s 13. The company has a large amount of refining exposure, which hurt its bottom line in 2008 because of rising oil prices and slowing consumption.

Maran says that ConocoPhillips was unfairly penalized because of its partnership with Lukoil and its expulsion from Venezuela. Investors are worried about political risk – an overreaction, he says, and one that’s likely to change if more countries invite foreign companies in to revive their flailing economies.

Another big producer analysts say is undervalued is Petrobras (PBR), which discovered a series of mega-fields off of the Brazilian coast two years ago. Goldman’s Murti recently wrote that Petrobras “may be the best positioned major oil company in the world for the next oil price upcycle.”

It’s still unclear how much the company’s offshore find is worth, but Don Coxe, a longtime oil guru who now runs Coxe Advisors, likes what he sees. “Petrobras is a special story, and investors want to be a part of it,” he says. “They could find $25 billion worth of oil down there.”

ConocoPhillips has been a wild ride. Fortunately, I was in very early, so I am still ahead even after the steep fall. Petrobras has been all positive. In early December, it looked to me like an absolute steal based on their reserves (see Loading Up on PBR). Despite the rocky road for stocks in general lately, PBR has been the gem in my portfolio: Up as much as 70% since I bought it.

While I have taken losses just like most people, PBR has been moderated the rest of my portfolio. And as oil prices rise back to the $60 range, I expect PBR will be double what it is now, and COP will be up 30-40% over today’s price.

March 8, 2009 Posted by | ConocoPhillips, COP, investing, PBR, Petrobras | Comments Off on Fortune Says Oil Stocks are a Bargain

Fortune Says Oil Stocks are a Bargain

I certainly can’t disagree with this:

Betting on big oil’s comeback

The article first argues that oil prices are unlikely to stay low for too long:

“Right now, the upsides in the oil sector far exceed the downside risks,” says Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “I am absolutely convinced that oil prices will rise.”

After last year’s $100 free-fall rocked expectations, that kind of confidence is surprising. But Gheit is not alone; a strong consensus is growing for a price rebound. While crude isn’t likely to rocket back to the sky-high levels of 2008, even bearish analysts admit that oil can’t stay below $50 for long.

Those are of course my sentiments as well. I believe that long-term oil prices are going to see robust growth. Short-term it may run up to $150 and back down to $35, but my metric is always to ask where oil prices will be in 5 or 10 years. I believe they will be more than double where they are now, so I am leaving oil company stocks in my portfolio for the long haul, even if prices fall to $20 for a while.

They spoke favorably of the two oil stocks in my portfolio:

Other large stocks stand ready for a rebound. ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500), whose shares have fallen 57% over the last year, has a price to earnings ratio of 9 versus Exxon’s 13. The company has a large amount of refining exposure, which hurt its bottom line in 2008 because of rising oil prices and slowing consumption.

Maran says that ConocoPhillips was unfairly penalized because of its partnership with Lukoil and its expulsion from Venezuela. Investors are worried about political risk – an overreaction, he says, and one that’s likely to change if more countries invite foreign companies in to revive their flailing economies.

Another big producer analysts say is undervalued is Petrobras (PBR), which discovered a series of mega-fields off of the Brazilian coast two years ago. Goldman’s Murti recently wrote that Petrobras “may be the best positioned major oil company in the world for the next oil price upcycle.”

It’s still unclear how much the company’s offshore find is worth, but Don Coxe, a longtime oil guru who now runs Coxe Advisors, likes what he sees. “Petrobras is a special story, and investors want to be a part of it,” he says. “They could find $25 billion worth of oil down there.”

ConocoPhillips has been a wild ride. Fortunately, I was in very early, so I am still ahead even after the steep fall. Petrobras has been all positive. In early December, it looked to me like an absolute steal based on their reserves (see Loading Up on PBR). Despite the rocky road for stocks in general lately, PBR has been the gem in my portfolio: Up as much as 70% since I bought it.

While I have taken losses just like most people, PBR has moderated the rest of my portfolio. And as oil prices rise back to the $60 range, I expect PBR will be double what it is now, and COP will be up 30-40% over today’s price.

March 8, 2009 Posted by | ConocoPhillips, COP, investing, PBR, Petrobras | 6 Comments

Loading Up on PBR

A little over a month ago, as a result of the dramatic fall in the market capitalizations of oil companies, I opened up a brokerage account with Ameritrade to take advantage of the fire sale. Besides my ConocoPhillips (COP) stock, most of my investments are diversified in various mutual funds – often diversified into things I don’t know too much about. As I have said many times before, I am a long-term investor. Short-term volatility doesn’t impact me much; my time horizon when I buy a stock is 5-10 years out. Therefore, I see an opportunity.

Do I think oil prices will be hanging around $40 in 10 years? Absolutely not. I think the OPEC cuts will begin to bite, and they are going to be very slow to increase production again. I also think that non-OPEC production will peak soon, if it hasn’t already (and that is in fact a widely held view; the bigger question is whether worldwide production will peak – and I think it will). Right now the December 2009 WTI contract is trading above $52, so the market is expecting prices to go up from here.

So, if I am correct, and I think oil prices are headed back above $100 in the next few years, what is a long-term investor to do? If you can put up with the risk, you could buy oil futures. But I don’t like that kind of risk. Better I think is investing in energy companies, and oil field services companies. But which ones? If I didn’t already own COP, it would have been a no-brainer. The price to earnings ratio (PE) had fallen to below 4 – the lowest of any major oil company – and the dividend yield was right at 4%. It was being priced like a company in dire financial straights, when it was nothing of the sort. But I already own COP, and I don’t want to concentrate my holdings too much.

The other problem with the U.S. based oil companies is that their access to oil is drying up. So, how about a non-U.S. oil company sitting on a bunch of reserves? Saudi Aramco seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t believe there is any way to invest there. There are companies like Statoil (STO) in Norway, ENI (E) in Italy, and Petrobras (PBR) in Brazil. The one that really intrigues me is Petrobras. They are sitting on large reserves, and have made a number of new discoveries in recent years. Consumption in Brazil is very low relative to the U.S., and the EIA forecasts that they will become a net exporter in 2009. Production has been growing in recent years. Access is not a problem, since they still have room to grow even at home. I have also noted my opinion that in a post-peak world, Brazil is poised to continue to grow their energy production for many years.

I had missed the chance to buy PBR at $15 in November, and by the last week in November the price had bounced back to >$20. But with PBR trading at $21, I went ahead and put in a limit order at $17.50, hoping I hadn’t missed the bottom. On December 4th, that trade executed. The PE then was hovering around 5. (I had almost invested some on margin, but the margin rates were much too high for my liking).

Since then, the stock has risen by as much as 48%, until backing off somewhat last week. As I write this, my shares are up 34% in less than 3 weeks. Despite my long-term view, such a quick run-up has provided a great temptation to go ahead and sell. But short term capital gains are taxed at a much higher rate than are long term capital gains, so I plan to go ahead and hold for at least a year. In the interim, if shares fall again to $15, I will put more money down.

As a footnote, there was an investment that I carefully considered as an alternative: EWZ, which is a closed-end mutual fund that invests in Brazilian companies. The reason I considered this is that if you look at the low consumption in Brazil, combined with their oil reserves, you can make a very strong case that their economy has a lot of room to grow. But one of EWZ’s major holdings was Petrobras, so I figured I would just go directly with PBR, who stand to benefit quite a lot as Brazil’s economy grows.

December 23, 2008 Posted by | ConocoPhillips, COP, EWZ, investing, oil companies, PBR, Petrobras | 22 Comments