Cramer: Buy Hess because activists could turn the oil play around

Key Points
  • "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer tapped into Hess' business to see if Elliott Management can still improve the oil and gas company's prospects.
  • With all of Elliott's involvement, Hess is still plagued by operational issues, sub-par management and valuation disparity, Cramer said.
Cramer: Why investors should look at Hess shares

With oil prices on the rise and in striking distance of the $60 mark, CNBC's Jim Cramer sought what he called "a spur" — a way for investors to play oil's potential turnaround.

"If you don't have any oil exposure here, ... maybe you should be thinking about buying the stock of Hess, because not only does it have a spur, it's got someone saber rattling for the CEO to go and the company to put itself up for sale," the "Mad Money" host said.

Elliott Management, an activist fund run by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, has held a stake in Hess since 2013.

In 2013, Elliott successfully got CEO John Hess to give up his position as chairman and appointed three of its own nominees to Hess' board of directors.

But while the fund has made fortunes for investors with other energy investments like Marathon Petroleum, it hasn't had as much luck in Hess, building a large position in the oil and gas play just before oil's peak in 2014.

"Hess has been a dog," Cramer said. "The stock's now at $44. Elliott wants to put the company up for sale. I don't blame them because I think the sum of the parts could be north of $75 a share."

It's no secret that Hess has undergone some turmoil in recent months. Wall Streeters manage to find disappointing aspects to each earnings report, including its latest miss in October.

At the same time, Hess has been cutting costs and selling big swaths of its assets: in April, it spun off its pipeline business; in June, it sold $600 million worth of its Permian Basin enhanced oil recovery assets; and it agreed to sell its oil fields in Denmark next year.

Hess said it will use some of the cash raised to pay down its debt and some for a $500 million share buyback program, which will take in between 3 and 4 percent of its share count.

Cramer cast the Hess of today as a pure-play exploration and production company with assets in Malaysia, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bakken shale and Guyana, which alone could be worth $6 billion, according to some speculators.

"But the company's got some major issues. In the Bakken shale, there's a general sense that Hess is operating poorly despite having some excellent oil fields," Cramer said. "More importantly, investors have gotten frustrated that it's taking these guys so long to get things rolling in Guyana, where their partner's Exxon [Mobil]. They should be doing better."

"And there's a larger scale problem," he continued. "Hess is too small to behave like a big integrated oil — that's not even what it is anymore — but its assets are too disparate [and] scattered all over the world for the company to be run like a finely tuned exploration and production machine."

Hence why Elliott recently revived its public demands for Hess, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Elliott, which owns 6.7 percent of Hess, declared it wanted more asset sales, more buybacks, a dividend cut, the potential firing of its CEO and, if all else fails, a full sale of the company.

"In short, the activists believe that management has lost all credibility because of its incredibly poor track record and scattershot overall strategy," Cramer explained. "So when management says, 'Just wait for Guyana to come online in 2020,' nobody believes them."

That's where Elliott's sum-of-the-parts argument stems from: the fund believes that a sale could be the only way for the stock of Hess to finally get a fair valuation.

Cramer had faith in the activist firm. If Hess' billionaire CEO resists, Elliott could launch a proxy fight, and given the stock's poor performance, investors would likely be on Elliott's side.

"But here's the bottom line: if Elliott gets its way, then I think Hess' stock can go much higher, even if management tries to fight them. I just don't think there's much downside left in this thing given the recent rebound in oil," Cramer said. "In the end, I recommend putting on a small position so you can buy more into weakness if Hess foolishly tries to fight off the activists rather than surrendering to their demands."

WATCH: Cramer recommends Hess' stock on activist prospects

Cramer: Buy Hess because activists could turn the oil play around

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