As President Donald Trump struggles to contain the fallout from the apparent murder of a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post, markets are turning their attention to what might happen if the U.S. punishes the Saudi government — and at a time when sanctions against Iran and its oil supply are scheduled to take effect in less than three weeks. Investors breathed a sigh of relief Monday when Saudi Energy Minister Khalid A. Al-Falih said the kingdom does not wish to impose an oil embargo on the West.
The sanctions against Iran have already done much to boost the price of gasoline at the pump, as crude oil prices have risen $25 a barrel in the last year, to about $80 on international markets, driven by Trump's threat to reimpose sanctions on Iran, which are now set to take effect Nov. 4.
But in a modest surprise, rising crude and the threat of sanctions have done almost nothing for mega-cap oil stocks, like ExxonMobil, British Petroleum and Chevron, or popular exchange-traded funds like Vanguard Energy ETF and Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF, which focus on the energy sector. The S&P 500's energy sub-index is up only 0.2 percent this year, while the rest of the S&P has risen 3.8 percent.
Making money on oil stocks, it turns out, is more complicated than following the direction of crude-oil prices.
The uncertainty about what Trump will do — and who has the leverage if the United States seeks to punish its longtime ally for any role it played in murdering a dissident who lived in America — is spawning a wide range of speculation about where crude may go as the situation plays out and what that means for energy stocks.
At one end are voices like Saudi media outlet Al Arabiya, which warns that the leading producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could still push crude to $200 if angered, and fringe figures, like former congressman and investing-newsletter maven Ron Paul, who is calling for $400 barrels of oil. Closer to the mainstream are people like CFRA Research energy analyst Stewart Glickman and Moody's Analytics energy economist Chris Lafakis, who believe the market is discounting the idea that Trump will do much of anything to the Saudis.
Though Trump's rhetoric has toughened as days go by, oil prices have given back the price gains they made immediately after Khashoggi disappeared in Turkey on Oct. 2.
One reason energy funds have done poorly this year is because they are mostly tied up in shares of big-name, mega-capitalization companies that aren't nimble enough to see profits move quickly up on an oil price surge. Many of the stocks that dominate energy ETFs — ExxonMobil and Chevron, the top two holdings in both VDE and XLE, make up a combined 40 percent of the S&P energy sector — have significantly trailed the market, in part because of hedging contracts that don't allow them to benefit from short-term oil rallies.
Some more niche oil ETFs have outperformed the market this year, such as the iShares Oil and Gas Exploration ETF and S&P Oil & Gas Exploration ETF, which focus on small-cap stocks, but they have been hit hard this quarter. The only energy ETFs that have kept up strong performance of late are those focused on energy logistics, such as pipelines, which deliver high yields to investors.
The only energy ETFs that have kept up strong performance of late are those focused on energy logistics, such as pipelines, which deliver high yields to investors and which get their revenue from service fees that don't change when oil prices do.
As tensions escalate, investors are asking what would happen to their energy sector holdings if the U.S. took any action against Saudi Arabia?
If that happened and crude prices spiked, oil companies would have a sharp but short-lived gain, Glickman said. Crude also ran much higher in the years before the financial crisis, and oil stocks gained with crude, but gasoline crossing $4 a gallon in the United States was one of the forces behind the market's downturn that wiped out those gains, he said.
"The experience from 2007 to 2009 is that both gains and losses happen," Glickman said. "Crude prices spike, earnings spike, then demand crashes and earnings collapse. The line in the sand is probably $4 gasoline."
Any extended period of anything like $200 oil is very unlikely and "would potentially trigger a global downturn if it were to last long enough," Lafakis added.
The better scenario for energy investors would actually be for crude to settle in about where it is now, with prices in Europe around $80 per barrel and domestic crude commanding about $70, said Rob Thummel, portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors, which manages $21 billion that is mostly invested in energy.
"We need oil prices to stay with $5 a barrel of where they are now,'' Thummel said, arguing that oil stocks are cheap considering their expected profit growth for next year. "If crude stays in the $60 to $70 range, they're going to be able to deliver growth.''
Keeping prices stable and keeping the Khashoggi dispute as quiet as possible is also the best course for the Saudis, said Bjornar Tonhaugen, senior vice president of oil markets at Oslo consulting firm Rystad Energy.
"Considerations by Saudi Arabia go far beyond short-term oil-price developments," he said. "Causing higher oil prices would only damage their reputation as a reliable oil supplier [and] and hurt the longer-term stability in oil demand the Saudi economy is still totally dependent on."
The Saudis produce just more than 10 percent of the world's crude oil, which is a market of about 100 million barrels per day. The run-up to Iran sanctions have reduced Iran's exports by 350,000 to 700,000 per day by different estimates. Lafakis said current prices reflect a belief that Iran's production will fall by 1.3 million barrels daily once the sanctions take effect.
That leaves the Saudis as the major producer who can replace the barrels quickly and contain prices, Tonhaugen said.
North American shale producers can't respond as quickly, because of a shortage of pipelines serving oil fields in Texas and Canada, Glickman said. New pipelines in Texas are expected to come on line next fall, while the Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canada to Oklahoma is expected to begin construction this autumn.
Higher crude prices are already having one negative effect on small investors — gasoline prices have jumped to $2.86 a gallon nationally, from $2.47 at the end of 2017. For most families, that gain wipes out their savings from last year's tax cut and any trading gains on oil shares, Lafakis said.
"Crude's rise means an added cost for American consumers of $60 billion in 2018, with the vast majority of that coming from higher gas prices," Lafakis said.
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