Motley Fool: Oil sector slump one of deepest on record

market forces: Events in the Gulf have had a big impact on oil price volatility. 'Picture: AP Photo/DOD
market forces: Events in the Gulf have had a big impact on oil price volatility. 'Picture: AP Photo/DOD
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You probably don’t need me to tell you how oil has crashed over the past year or so.

Nor will it be breaking news to many of you that the share prices of companies in the sector have followed the oil price down the plughole.

Indeed, in my previous collective about investing in beaten-up sectors, I mentioned how the commodity sector has been coshed to within an inch of its life!

Rubbernecking the oil crash

What you might not realise, though, is just how long and deep this particular oil price slump has been.

Recent research from US firm Matador Resources puts the current calamity into context, by comparing it to other oil price crashes of recent times. For example, during the Saudi market share war in 1986, oil fell by 27 per cent.

The decline in oil was 57 per cent during the global recession/Gulf War in 1991.

The two subsequent global recessions, in 2001 and 2008, saw oil crash by 53 per cent and 78 per cent respectively.

Having started in late 2014, the current decline is already as big as the average of six major oil price corrections since the mid-1980s, in terms of the percentage fall in the price of a barrel of oil. Moreover, at 300 days, its duration is already more than 10 weeks longer than average.

If you’re an investor in any energy sector companies – whether major integrated giants like BP, service companies like John Wood Group or smaller oil exploration and production firms such as Tullow Oil or SOCO International – and you’re wondering why it hurts so much, now you know.

The only way is up

I was fortunate enough not to be holding much in the way of energy-related exposure at the start of this savage downturn.

Three cheers for me!

Well, maybe one and a half…

You see, I’ve since blotted my copybook – and my returns – by investing new money into the sector even as it’s continued to fall.

Now, you might argue that wading into a sector in this much distress is madness.

That doing so was about as sensible as a turkey pardoned by President Obama for America’s Thanksgiving Day waddling over to a hungry mountain lion and gobbling out at a bolshie “double or quits”.

And on current evidence I’d have to agree.

It’s been painful. Oil shares have continued to shed value like ships chucking ballast overboard as they plough towards a shallow reef.

However, the reason I’ve persisted is because I don’t think oil prices will stay this low forever, or even for more than a year or two.

What’s more, if history is any guide the subsequent bounce-back in the oil price is likely to be dramatically buoyant.

To return to those prior oil price bear markets, Matador’s number-crunchers say that the price rebounded strongly in most instances – by an average of 76 per cent.

It’s not unusual for markets to bounce back strongly from their depths, given how irrational despair tends to hold sway at the lows.

For instance, just think how the stock markets around the world surged from the bottom of the financial crisis. However, oil seems to be especially bouncy.

And while I can’t say for certain how each company in the sector would respond to the current oil price recovering from near $40 to nearer $70 in, say, a year’s time, I am prepared to confidently predict that most of their share prices would be a lot higher than they are today.

This time it isn’t different

Of course, nobody knows for sure that the oil price will recover as strongly as it has in the past – or when – or if higher prices will stick should they do so.

History is never a perfect guide to investing.

Past performance does not equal future performance and all that malarkey.

It’s possible the chorus of pessimism that has engulfed the sector just as loudly as oil bulls once cheered prices higher is broadly correct.

Maybe some combination of today’s factors – very low interest rates, shifting politics in the Middle East, improvements in drilling technology, alternative energy, climate change, or the many more factors I’ve heard cited – mean this time it really is different.

But generally it isn’t different in investing.

Global oil demand is still increasing, for one thing.

And I doubt the economics of cyclical investing have been repealed.

Eventually, oil may have its day as one of our most vital resources, but over a billion cars on the world’s roads right now say otherwise (not to mention the other 800 million predicted to come by 2035).

No, over the next year or two we’ll probably discover that the cure for low oil prices was indeed low prices, as global production is curbed, indebted players with poor prospects go bust, and OPEC’s members reassess how long they want to continue trying to support their nations on massively diminished revenues.

Time will tell, but given the impossibility of calling the turn, I intend to keep nibbling away at the energy sector in my portfolio.

I just hope it doesn’t nibble away too much more of me!