Louisiana stocks once again performed worse than the U.S. stock market, thanks to the continued low prices for crude oil.
The 25 stocks in The Advocate’s Pelican State Portfolio, which is made up of public companies based in Louisiana, were down 3.6 percent for the fourth quarter.
In contrast, the Dow Jones industrial average, an index of 30 top businesses, increased by 9.5 percent during the three-month period ending Dec. 31. The S&P 500, which tracks 500 large companies, was up 6.2 percent for the quarter, and the Russell 2000, which follows small-cap stocks that have an average market capitalization of $1.3 billion, was up 3.5 percent during the quarter.
The sustained low oil prices, which have been in effect since the third quarter of 2014, have taken their toll on the Pelican State Portfolio. For the 12-month period ending Dec. 31, the index has fallen by 16.2 percent. In contrast, the Dow was up 2.3 percent, the S&P fell less than 1 percent and the Russell 2000 dropped by 5.7 percent.
Peter Ricchiuti, a finance professor at Tulane University who tracks regional stocks across the South through the university’s Burkenroad Reports, said while most Louisiana stocks were OK, the energy sector still stunk.
“The losers are just so gigantic next to the winners,” he said.
The best-performing stock during the quarter was Albemarle. The specialty chemical company, which is moving its headquarters from Baton Rouge to Charlotte, North Carolina, in June, was up nearly 28 percent for the quarter.
Ricchiuti said Albemarle has benefited from the low prices for crude oil and natural gas. Petrochemical firms use natural gas as an energy source and as a feedstock.
“All those chemical companies you drive by when you’re going along I-10, this is nirvana for them,” he said. “They have to pinch themselves. There’s good world demand, and a big cost of doing business for them has disappeared. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on that side.”
During the fourth quarter, crude oil prices went from $45.54 a barrel to below $37 a barrel, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Prices have continued to slip in 2016, and some analysts have suggested the bottom for prices could be around $10 a barrel. That’s down from summer 2014, when oil was selling at more than $100 a barrel.
“It’s been a bloodbath for energy investors,” Ricchiuti said.
One sign of how bad the market is for oil companies: gigantic multinational firms such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell aren’t dipping into their cash reserves to scoop up energy businesses on the cheap.
“If the energy industry had any confidence, there would be a massive amount of mergers,” he said. “Instead, they’re all hiding under their desks.”
The biggest loser during the quarter was PetroQuest Energy, the Lafayette-based oil and gas production company. PetroQuest was down more than 57 percent for the fourth quarter and nearly 87 percent for the 12-month period ending on Dec. 31. Its stock ended the quarter trading at 50 cents a share.
Accounting firms are beginning to re-evaluate the oil reserves that production companies have, ratcheting down the price and causing companies to see significant write-downs.
If oil prices remain low for another year, Ricchiuti warns that some companies “may fold up the tent.”
Other big losers during the fourth quarter were Tidewater, the New Orleans-based company that provides service vessels to offshore rigs, which was down more than 45 percent for the quarter. Hornbeck Offshore, the Covington company that handles offshore transportation, fell by 26.5 percent.
Oilfield service companies have tried to hold off large-scale layoffs as long as possible, in the hopes that prices will rebound. “The only thing that’s worse than letting people go is when the phone finally rings and having to tell customers, ‘We don’t have anyone to do that,’ ” Ricchiuti said.
The low oil prices are continuing to ripple into other fields. Lafayette-based MidSouth Bank saw its stock price fall by nearly 22 percent over fears that the company may have too many loans to businesses in the energy industry. “Wall Street perceives them as a big energy lender as a percentage of loans,” Ricchiuti said.
“That’s what everybody is looking for. How much energy lending do you have?”
There has been one benefit to the low crude oil prices. Consumers are now paying less to fill up their cars, trucks and SUVs, giving them more money to spend. According to one study cited by Ricchiuti, the low prices for gas amount to a $200 million tax cut for shoppers.
That’s helped some businesses, such as Lamar Advertising, which has seen more activity from car dealerships. Shares of the Baton Rouge-based billboard company were up 16 percent for the quarter. The other factor is the vote by Lamar shareholders in 2014 to convert the company into a real estate investment trust, which means the bulk of profits are being paid out as dividends.
Covington-based Pool Corp. was another winner, with shares increasing by 12 percent.
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.