It has been a frustrating 2017 for Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE: CHK ). From a business standpoint, there has no doubt been some progress has been made toward the company's goals of paying down debt and returning to neutral, if not positive, free cash flow. But the CHK stock price still is down about 48% year to date.
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The decline includes a ~7% drop on Thursday morning in response to the company's third-quarter earnings release. And the Q3 release seems a microcosm of the challenges facing the company at the moment.
The numbers weren't bad, necessarily. Adjusted EPS actually beat expectations by a penny. But spend and production figures looking forward are a bit disappointing, and overall the results aren't enough to get CHK out of its funk.
I've argued in the past that CHK stock is a great pick to play higher energy prices - and I still think that's the case . But even with higher prices, Chesapeake Energy needs a little more than it showed on Thursday morning.
Chesapeake's Q3 Earnings
From a fundamental perspective, CHK posted a mixed quarter. Revenue of $1.94 billion declined 14.9% year-over-year, and missed estimates by about $130 million - or six full points. There is some timing-related noise in that number, and previous asset sales drove much of the decline. Non-GAAP EPS of 12 cents was 1 cent better than the Street's expectation - but not good enough to drive the CHK stock price higher coming out of the report.
Looking closer, the quarter seems similarly mixed. Chesapeake already had announced that Q4 production numbers would take a hit due to the aftereffects from Hurricane Harvey. Still, overall, production has improved so far in the quarter, with the company on track to reach a target of 100,000 barrels of oil per day in the quarter.
But 2018 guidance looks disappointing. As Reuters reported, analysts were expecting about 7% production growth next year. Instead, CHK management guided on the Q3 conference call for flat to modestly positive growth . That should bring 2018 EPS estimates down.
The reverse is true on the capital spend side. For the second time, 2017 spending guidance was raised, this time to $2.3 billion-$2.5 billion from a previous $2.1 billion-$2.5 billion. But the company currently believes that 2018 spend will decline versus 2017, potentially helping free cash flow next year.
In the past, Chesapeake has said that it can get to free-cash-flow neutral in 2018 at $50 oil and $3 natural gas. With West Texas Intermediate at $54, and natural gas just under $3, current conditions are good enough to get Chesapeake to that target next year - if it executes.
CHK Stock Still Looks Like a Buy … Right?
The quarter as a whole seems to echo the investment case for CHK at the moment. As InvestorPlace's Aaron Levitt wrote back in August, Chesapeake seems mostly out of the woods when it comes to bankruptcy risk.
That's no small feat given that as recently as early 2016, insolvency appeared a very real possibility. Lower capex spend for 2018 and the likelihood of free cash flow being somewhere around zero seems to support the argument that, at the least, Chesapeake has room and time to continue asset sales and deleveraging.
But even with the CHK stock price under $4, "not going bankrupt" isn't necessarily a bull case. This still is a company with a market cap of $3.6 billion. Asset sales will help the balance sheet - but they also will hurt the earnings and cash flow statements.
CHK simply needs more to drive sustainable upside from even current, depressed levels. That "more" almost certainly includes higher energy prices, including $3-plus natural gas. But cleaner execution and better expense control would help as well.
Overall, the Q3 report doesn't change the long-term bull case for CHK stock. It's a high-risk leveraged play on higher energy prices. It's still a much better choice for energy bulls than a company like Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE: XOM ), whose diversification limits both risk and reward .
Near-term, the third quarter report does suggest that a catalyst isn't on the horizon - barring a spike in energy prices. Chesapeake is making progress - but perhaps not quite as quickly as investors would like. CHK stock bulls are going to need either some outside help - or a lot of patience.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.
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