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Balancing Stock Risk and Return

By: Cabot Heritage Corporation
Posted: 6/25/2012 3:27:00 PM
Referenced Stocks: APA;EPL;GTLS;NOV;SU

Downside Risk

Strong Balance Sheets

A Strong Energy Stock

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I used to tell my son hitting a baseball correctly is all about balance. The same is true in investing; to invest correctly you need to balance risk and return.

When I worked at Texaco, "protect the balance sheet" was our rallying cry. The goal was to never over-lever the balance sheet with debt, because a strong balance sheet would get you through the business cycles.

Now, when I teach, I harangue my graduate students over and over: Finance is a function of balancing risk and return. (Hopefully they can hold that thought after the semester ends!) Kidding aside, I never cease to be amazed at how seldom people focus on the downside risk to their investments. Mesmerized by the allure of greater financial gains, people believe they can achieve high returns combined with low risk. In all my years in the business, I have yet to see that financial phenomenon occur.

In particular, investors time and time again fail to give ample weighting to "financial" or default risk arising from increasing leverage. Indeed, if you don't believe in credit risk, just look across the Atlantic at Europe or remember Long-Term Capital Management or the housing collapse of 2008.

Leveraging your investment may magnify your returns as long as the investment heads north. However, if it turns sour the higher interest expense will be harder to cover, and default may be knocking at your door.

Excessive debt - whether public, company or individual - eventually reduces growth, and if left unchecked, will lead to bankruptcy.

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In their recent seminal work, Professors Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff warn of the danger of excessive public debt in two papers, "This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly" and "Decade of Debt." Essentially, both papers warn that public debt in advanced economies has risen to levels not seen since the end of World War II. They point out that high debt leverage levels have historically been associated with slower economic growth and higher rates of default or restructuring.

To avoid that fate, your investment portfolio should be filled with companies that have strong balance sheets and positive free cash flow to enable them to invest through the downturns.

Conservative balance sheets insulate companies from economic slowdowns and reduce their financial risk, which in turn improves your investment portfolio risk/reward profile.

I recently took a look at the energy sector to find companies with strong balance sheets and positive cash flow after debt leverage service costs, and most importantly, strong production growth profiles.

Companies I identified include Suncor Energy ( SU ), Chart Industries ( GTLS ), National Oilwell Varco ( NOV ), Apache ( APA ), Energy Partners ( EPL ) and Energy XXI (EXXI).

Leverage is and should always be a financing decision, not an investment decision.

So how do you use this information to improve your investment?
First ask yourself whether the investment has more upside gain potential than downside loss potential.

If it does, and you decide to make the investment, then decide how to finance it. If you believe financing makes a bad investment better, then you probably believe in a free lunch.

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Last September, I visited Suncor Energy ( SU ) in Calgary, Canada. The company is an integrated energy company that develops petroleum resource basins in the Athabasca oil sands; this involves the acquisition, exploration, development, production and marketing of crude oil and natural gas in Canada and internationally; transportation and refining of crude oil; and marketing of petroleum and petrochemical products primarily in Canada.

The company has a credible growth plan of disciplined capital investment to fund future projects for the next 20 years, investing through the cycles but not at the expense of productivity and the balance sheet.

Suncor's focus is on steady 10% production growth per year from 2011 to 2020 for oil sands and 8% for the total company. To maintain productivity, avoid downtime and cost overruns, it prefers not to rush projects; management has a 25- to 30-year view on production, unlike conventional E&Ps where the view is two to three years.
Suncor's balance sheet is strong with debt to capital including cash at 13%, capital spending is on target, generating high levels of free cash flow after capital spending and dividends.

The stock is trading well below its 52-week high. According to my discounted cash flow models, SU is currently trading at about a 25% discount to market, so I value SU at 36, using a conservative 2012 price of $90 for West Texas Intermediate crude oil.
Good luck out there, keep your head down, eye on the ball, shoulders square, in balance and follow through.

Your guide to energy investing,

Lou Gagliardi
Editor of Cabot Global Energy Investor