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U.S. E&P Investors Bullish Oil, Bearish NatGas, Says Bernstein Survey

Energy investors overwhelmingly think U.S. oil prices will remain in the $50-60/bbl range in 2017, with only 13% forecasting near-time prices of $40-50, according to a quarterly survey by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC.

Each quarter the analyst firm takes the pulse of energy investors via the Bernstein Energy Investor Sentiment Survey; the 4Q2016 survey was conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 7.

More than 75% expect West Texas Intermediate oil prices to average $50-60/bbl in 2017, versus 61% surveyed in 3Q2016, said analysts Bob Brackett, Andrew Pizzi and Jackson Kulas. A forecast of $60-70/bbl received 10% of the votes, versus 7% three months ago. Only 13% expect near-term oil prices of $40-50/bbl.

"Investors' short-term expectations about oil prices were only 1.5% above strip prices this quarter," Brackett said. However, natural gas prices expectations "were 9% below strip prices. Survey respondents stand at 15% above two-year oil price strip and 6% above the two-year gas price strip."

Expectations for natural gas prices have improved, slightly. Nearly 60% expect short-term gas prices to average $3.00-3.50/Mcf, up from 40% in the 3Q2016 survey. For the longer term, 46% see gas prices averaging $3.00-3.50 -- versus 49% in the previous survey.

However, oil-weighed exploration and production (E&P) companies have the most upside, according to 35% of respondents. The upside for natural gas-weighted E&Ps fell to 9% from 14% in 3Q2016.

"There was a dramatic uptick in bullishness on the services sector this quarter," Brackett said. All three categories of oilfield services gained share, with oil services rising to 26% from 18% in 3Q2016, the highest since 1Q2014. Land Drillers climbed to 8% from 5%, while offshore drillers improved to 12% from 4% -- also the highest since 1Q2014.

The "marginal cost of supply" remains the primary driver of oil prices this quarter, while "global spare capacity" was in second place. "Global inventories" garnered the third highest oil price driver, followed by "emerging market growth."

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