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Energy Sector Enthusiasm Outweighs Recent WTI Price Correction, Say Analysts

Crude oil prices fell below $50/bbl last week, sharply impacting energy stocks, but the decline failed to shatter the send of optimism across the energy industry, considering oil prices were hovering around $35 a year ago, analysts said Monday.

Last week Raymond James & Associates Inc. hosted its 38th annual institutional investor conference, where it was able to take the pulse of about 300 companies and investors. The annual energy dinner, with about 130 participants, also gave analysts perspectives on various topics -- and heightened confidence in its call for higher oil prices, said analyst J. Marshall Adkins.

"In the face of collapsing oil prices during the week, we gained even more confidence that our uber-bullish 2017 oil price call is still on track," he said. The industry chatter is about the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production cuts and U.S. supply growth but "the actual global supply demand fundamentals have actually turned more bullish over the past few months."

The consensus view from a survey taken at the annual dinner gravitated toward West Texas Intermediate averaging $56/bbl this year. Raymond James forecast that 2017 oil prices will hit $75/bbl late this summer and retreat modestly through 2018.

"While oil prices have recently dipped below the psychological $50/bbl mark, we do not believe the pullback is supported by the fundamentals," Adkins said. "As such, our considerable bullishness remains intact."

The current oil price strip of around $50 would lead to a "massively more undersupplied 2017" versus the firm's current forecast of 900,000 b/d draw and set the oil market up for a "starkly bullish supply-demand picture through 2018," he said.

Beyond prices, many of the questions at the conference centered on oilfield service bottlenecks for labor, fracture capacity, sand capacity and sand logistics. There also were queries about a pricing surge that could result from the bottlenecks.

The Trump administration's impact on the energy regulations also was on the minds of many, with policies "likely to free up more low-cost energy over the coming years keeping longer-term oil prices lower," Adkins said.

Raymond James analysts also believe the market is still underestimating the "magnitude of U.S. oil and liquids production capacity over the next decade or two as well productivities and quality well locations continue to surprise to the upside. That said, it will take time and a lot of investment to realize these production gains," said Adkins.

"Oil prices below $50/bbl are simply not sufficient to achieve this supply growth, so we still think oil prices must move higher."

BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research led by Francisco Blanch also expects oil prices to move higher. U.S. oil inventories will fall as oil exports take off, which may force global crude markets into a steep backwardation in Brent oil and "even WTI."

"With cuts coming from the Persian Gulf and U.S. shale output growing again, Dubai crude prices have led Brent," Blanch said. "WTI has lagged. Similarly, light crude oil prices have fallen relative to medium and heavy grades, while propane and butane have tightened ahead of diesel and gasoline. "U.S. oil exports, in our opinion, as it will help clean up the large North American surplus," Blanch said. "The ramp up is already underway. But to clear the global glut, Brent-WTI spreads at the prompt may need to widen further. With global oil demand still very firm, we still see spot oil prices moving higher."

The recent spike in U.S. natural gas liquids (NGL) prices "is a cautionary tale, in our view, for global oil consumers," Blanch said. "The surge in U.S. propane exports has occurred swiftly. NGL inventory levels dropped at a rate that far exceeded market expectations, leading to much tighter U.S. butane and propane time spreads."

Sanford Bernstein analysts in an updated scenario based on rising U.S. supply generated an unchanged price deck of $60/bbl average in 2017 and $70 in 2018.

"We remain constructive on oil long-term as prices move back toward marginal cost, which we estimate is between $60-70/bbl before cost inflation kicks back in," Bernstein analysts said. "Our Brent and WTI forecasts remain above both consensus and the forward curve."

Meanwhile, analysts with Coker Palmer International (CPI) are not as optimistic about sustained higher oil prices this year.

"With strong U.S. shale supply growth worries and a possible end to OPEC cuts, oil might trade closer to $50 for the balance of 2017," analysts said. "With 2Q2017 perhaps $49/bbl, 2017 WTI might average $51," versus a forecast of $54. "With a slower ramp into 2018, WTI might average $53.50" from an earlier forecast of $55.

However, CPI is maintaining its long-term WTI price of $60/bbl beginning in 2019.

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