Goldman Sachs analysts are favoring four oil-patch stocks, giving them potential six-month price increases of as much as 95 percent.
This comes at a time when oil prices, a great determinant of energy companies' earnings and share-price performances, have been highly volatile.
Oil prices and stocks have fluctuated violently for weeks with concerns about the European sovereign debt crisis and its impact on the world's economy.
However, it's not just the economy that has added to that volatility but also a host of other challenges including geo-political risk such as the disruption of supply from the Middle East and North Africa, and catastrophic events such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Underlying this is a renewed belief the global energy supply isn't unlimited and that it will become a factor in controlling the world's economic growth.
The Standard & Poor's 500 Index is down 6.1 percent this year, while the oil and gas industry, as tracked by Morningstar, has fallen 4.6 percent.
Stocks in the energy sector as tracked by S&P have dropped 6.9 percent. In 2010, the S&P energy sector index advanced 18 percent versus a 13 percent increase for the broader S&P 500.
Here are Goldman Sachs' current energy stock picks for 2011, all with six-month price targets from the bank's latest "conviction buy" list:
Exxon Mobil , the largest member of the S&P 500 with a market value of $366 billion, gets a $92 price target from Goldman, a 21 percent premium to its current price.
Exxon Mobil just reported earnings of $2.13 per share in the third quarter, and Goldman analysts say, "We boost our 2011 to 2015 EPS estimates by 2 percent to 4 percent, driven primarily by higher assumed international natural gas price realizations than previously modeled." The company is an integrated oil and gas company that explores for, produces, and refines oil around the world.
Its shares carry a 2.54 percent projected dividend yield.
Goldman analysts see the company as a defensive play, saying, "We continue to believe Exxon offers investors attractive risk-adjusted return potential in a still-uncertain macro environment."
Noble Energy gets a $113 target price, a 25 percent premium.
Goldman analysts say they like the company because Noble recently announced higher long-term production growth targets, on order of a 17 percent compound annual growth rate, and higher long-term capital expenditures, which means the company is bullish on its own prospects given its ties to the booming U.S. oil-shale industry.
"We see Noble Energy levered to our favorite themes of 'shale scale' and exploration," said the note, referring to the drilling in the U.S. oil-shale deposits in Appalachia and North Dakota.
"We believe Noble's aggressive drilling programs in the Niobrara and Marcellus shale could provide Noble advantages of scale in these plays and ultimately lead to cost/production surprises," said Goldman analysts in a Nov. 16 research note.
Noble's shares carry a 1.02 percent projected dividend yield.
Pioneer Natural Resources gets a $116 price target, a 33 percent premium, from Goldman analysts.
Pioneer, a $10 billion market value company, is an independent exploration and production company with operations throughout the southern and central U.S. Its shares have a three-year average annual return of 64 percent.
In a Nov. 14 note, Goldman analysts said: "We see attractive risk/reward for Pioneer shares as we expect rising production from its three key plays," and it says there is a potential 25 percent upside, including the dividend yield, to its $116, six-month price target.
Western Refining gets a $23 price target, a 95 percent premium, from Goldman.
The company is an independent oil refiner that owns and operates two refineries in Texas and New Mexico. It also operates 150 retail-service stations throughout the Southwest and is a wholesale petroleum-products distributor.
The company just reported third-quarter earnings of $1.38 per share, outdoing analysts' views by 3 cents per share.
Western Refining's shares have a three-year annualized return of 18 percent.
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