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With Oil and Gas Down Huge This Year, 4 Quality Stocks to Buy Now

All you need to do is look at the scoreboard. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) is down 26% from its mid-year highs and natural gas is down 6% for the year. Many Wall Street pundits are joining the growing chorus of “lower for longer” and energy investors have been shellacked. A new comprehensive research report from Merrill Lynch takes a hard look at who can benefit as investors wait for an increase in spot prices.

Production is slowly dropping, and the Merrill Lynch team actually think that at some point WTI can trade at a premium to Brent crude, breaking a long trend of Brent trading higher. Recently the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee voted to approve a bill sponsored by Senator Murkowski of Arkansas that would lift the 40-year old ban on exports of crude oil. That could be a game changer in a world that may see production from Iran come back on the market.

We screened the Merrill Lynch research for stocks to buy that make sense now and could really move when the pricing picture improves.

Anadarko Petroleum

The Merrill Lynch team likes this company on the steep pullback in price since May. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC) is one of the world’s largest independent exploration and production companies with operations in all major domestic drilling areas, as well as in South America, Africa, Asia and New Zealand. As of year-end 2014, the company had approximately 2.86 billion barrels-equivalent of proved reserves, making it one of the top nonintegrated companies.

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The company reported very solid earnings numbers on stronger production and lower exploration costs. The oil company posted revenue of $2.64 billion in the period, surpassing Wall Street forecasts of $2.57 billion. Anadarko reported second-quarter profit of $61 million, and $0.12 per share. Earnings, adjusted for non-recurring gains, came to $0.01 per share. With liquids growing as a greater percentage of the overall business, and savings being redeployed to add more wells, the analysts feel the stock remains a very compelling buy.

Anadarko investors are paid a 1.45% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target on the stock is very impressive $116. The Thomson/First Call consensus stands much lower at $99.42. The stock closed Friday at $74.35.

ConocoPhillips

This company may offer investors some of the best total return possibilities, and the Merrill Lynch analysts see it as a top yield play. ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) is a large integrated that has spent the past five years divesting assets, and although it is cash rich, they have somewhat dampened earnings and growth expectations all year long. At this juncture, with oil looking for a bottom, and the market watching events in the Middle East, many analysts may feel more comfortable with the stock. The company’s big production ability in the Eagle Ford could bode well for the future.

The Merrill Lynch analysts feel Conoco can accelerate growth from reloaded portfolio depth in the Bakken and Eagle Ford, with visibility on future growth from a newly disclosed sizable position in the Permian. The analysts applaud the company’s recent positive earnings report, cuts in unnecessary spending and the possibility of increased sales of non-core assets.

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Conoco investors are paid a very strong 5.88% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target on the company is $85. The consensus price target is posted at $72.40. Shares closed Friday at $50.34.

Helmerich & Payne

This primarily operates as a contract drilling company in South America, the Middle East and Africa. Helmerich & Payne Inc. (NYSE: HP) provides drilling rigs, equipment, personnel and camps on a contract basis to explore for and develop oil and gas from onshore areas and fixed platforms, tension-leg platforms and spars in offshore areas. Its contract drilling business operates through three reportable segments: U.S. Land, Offshore and International Land.

The drilling giant beat on fiscal third-quarter 2015 earnings. Earnings per share from continuing operations (excluding special items) came in at $0.27, surpassing the consensus estimate of $0.12. Revenues in the quarter came at $659.7 million, down 30.7% from the third quarter of fiscal 2014, but the top line surpassed the consensus estimate of $593 million. The Merrill Lynch analysts acknowledge that pricing weakness will remain a struggle, but note that land drillers typically lead the sector off the bottom.

Helmerich & Payne investors are paid a very big 4.76% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target is $76 and the consensus figure is $69.77. Shares closed Friday at $57.74.

Range Resources

This is a defensive natural gas stock that the Merrill Lynch team likes now. Range Resources Corp. (NYSE: RRC) holds interests in developed and undeveloped natural gas and oil leases in the Appalachian and Southwestern regions of the United States. The company owns 7,582 net producing wells and approximately 1.4 million net acres under lease in the Appalachian region, as well as 653 net producing wells and approximately 383,000 net acres under lease in the Midcontinent region.

Some Wall Street reports suggest that the company will be sending more gas to the Midwest and Ontario as it likes the large in-place pipeline system, significant storage and additional coal to gas displacement opportunities. While Range Resources reported second-quarter earnings lower than consensus, the analysts point out that very low natural gas liquids pricing was a main culprit. They also think that the company could achieve double-digit growth in 2016.

Shares have been walloped to the tune of almost 40% this year. Range Resources investors are paid a small 0.4% dividend. The Merrill Lynch target is a gigantic $86, and the consensus target is much lower at $64.49. The stock closed Friday way below those levels at $39.34.

Three of the four Merrill Lynch ideas beat earnings estimates in a very difficult environment, and while the near-term road could remain rocky, when thing do turn these companies may be in the best position to reward patient shareholders.

By Lee Jackson


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