Deep Dive – $WMB

by Enis January 10, 2014 11:59 am • Commentary

The U.S. petroleum renaissance is gaining steam as more hard-to-reach fossil fuels come online.  The FT outlined the nature of the production increase in a Jan. 7th article:

The government’s Energy Information Administration predicted on Tuesday that the US oil boom would continue, driven by rising production of shale oil unlocked by advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

The EIA forecast that in 2015 US oil output could approach its record high of 9.6m barrels per day, reached in 1970.

Adam Sieminski, the EIA’s administrator, said: “The growth in domestic production has contributed to a significant decline in petroleum imports.”

The share of total US liquid fuels consumption met by net imports is expected to fall to just 24 per cent in 2015, down from 60 per cent in 2005.

Given that broad trend in the domestic energy industry, I’ve been searching for potential beneficiaries aside from simple exploration and production companies partially dependent on higher commodity prices.

The Williams Companies (WMB) is sort of the toll booth of the energy industry, building out the transportation and processing infrastructure that allows the fuel products to get where they’re needed.  Here’s the company’s own description:

We are an energy infrastructure company focused on connecting North America’s significant hydrocarbon resource plays to growing markets for natural gas, natural gas liquids (NGLs), and olefins. Our operations are located principally in the United States, but span from the deepwater Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian oil sands, and are organized into the Williams Partners, Williams NGL & Petchem Services, and Access Midstream Partners reportable segments. All remaining business activities are included in Other.

The shale gas revolution has offered more significant opportunities, as WMB has built out or is in the midst of building out pipelines from various new production areas to the transportation and storage hubs (primarily in the southern U.S., near the Gulf Coast).  Investors have gotten excited about the future potential of the infrastructure build-out, and the stock is now very close to a new all-time high:

WMB monthly chart, Courtesy of Bloomberg
WMB monthly chart, Courtesy of Bloomberg

The stock has not traded above $40 since 1999.  We’ve noted in several TMO posts over the past month the increasing call activity in WMB, particularly for the Jan18th 40 strike calls, as traders watch that breakout level as well.

What about the detailed fundamental picture for WMB?  

Williams’ revenues are split between service revenues and product revenues.  The services side of the business is generally fee-based transportation, gathering, and processing for fuel production partners.  Those businesses are less dependent on overall fuel product pricing, though higher commodity prices generally mean more activity.  The product sales business is Williams selling its NGLs (natural gas liquids), petrochemicals, and other petroleum products into the market.
Williams management has been focused on shifting the revenue split more towards fee-based services rather than product sales.  It has acquired a number of midstream assets and initiated organic projects with that shift in mind.  In their own words:
Fee-based businesses are a significant component of our portfolio. As we continue to transition to an overall business mix that is increasingly fee-based, the influence of commodity price fluctuations on our operating results and cash flows is expected to become somewhat less significant.
In 2013, services did grow revenues, but not enough to offset the fall in product revenues due to lower NGLs pricing as well as an explosion at its Geimar chemical processing plant in Louisiana in June.  The panic selling following that event turned out to be the low for the stock in 2013.  Here was management’s description of reasons for lower product sales (in addition to the plant explosion):
NGL margins were approximately 42 percent lower in the first nine months of 2013 compared to the same period of 2012 driven by reduced ethane recoveries, as previously mentioned, coupled with lower NGL prices and higher natural gas prices. However, our average per-unit composite NGL margin in the first nine months of 2013 has increased slightly compared to the same period of 2012 as the relative mix of NGL products produced has shifted to a greater proportion of higher-margin non-ethane products.
Despite these business woes (WMB earnings were down more than 25% in 2013), investors have maintained their optimism for the stock.  The bull case is predicated on annual dividend growth of 20% as the company’s free cash flow grows around the build-out of the company’s midstream assets.  Investors are also enthusiastic about the long-term secular trend in favor of WMB’s energy infrastructure assets, based on the U.S. fossil fuel renaissance mentioned on the start.
I like the macro story, and management is clearly focused on increasing the number of checkpoints in its “toll” operations through its service business growth.  Yet, the stock’s appreciation has made valuation a serious concern here.  Here is EV/EBITDA (Enterprise Value to Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization), a valuation metric to assess the underlying business value for WMB:
[caption id="attachment_34563" align="alignnone" width="501"]WMB EV/EBITDA ratio, Courtesy of Bloomberg WMB EV/EBITDA ratio, Courtesy of Bloomberg[/caption]

WMB’s ratio is at a 10 year high.  Analysts point to the different macro backdrop, future growth opportunities, and transformed business structure in explaining this valuation.  But I’ll take the numbers over analyst rationalizations any day of the week.

WMB is an interesting business, but the stock is far from interesting at current valuations.  The stock’s technical setup looks interesting as it approaches all-time highs, but I’d rather sell the stock than buy it here all things considered. If the stock pulled back to the low 30’s it becomes more intriguing.