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Refiners, transporters surge: Niche energy markets defy oil slump

oil derrick image

Big energy like Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) and Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) are trading well below their highs, while certain sub-industries within the energy sector are performing well.

But as oil prices are falling, what's propelling some specialized areas of energy? 

Crude oil futures were trading at $77.61 per barrel on November 20, down from $104.20 on November 4. 

The Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (NYSEARCA: XLE) is up 1.53% in the past week, outperforming only consumer staples stocks in the S&P 500. 

Some sector gains in the past week have been due to algorithms that sent the broad market higher rather than stock pickers liking the potential of individual securities. 

Within the energy sector in the past five days, Oneok Inc. (NYSE: OKE)EQT Corp. (NYSE: EQT) and Kinder Morgan Inc. (NYSE: KMI) are the top performers.  

Energy transportation less sensitive to oil prices

None are involved as broadly in the energy exploration, production and distribution business like Chevron and Exxon Mobil are. Instead, EQT, Kinder Morgan and Oneok specialize in energy transportation, which is less sensitive to crude oil prices.

Pipeline companies charge fees for transporting oil instead of depending on the commodity's market value. These fees are often structured in long-term contracts, providing a more stable revenue stream than explorers and producers often have. 

This insulation from short-term energy price volatility allows pipeline operators to maintain a steady income, making them less susceptible to fluctuating oil prices.

The Alerian MLP ETF (NYSEARCA: AMLP) has been bullish since August 18, moving gradually higher along its 50-day moving average.

Because of those steady profits relative to the broader energy sector, pipeline transporters can pay healthy dividends.

Higher yield than most sector ETFs 

The Alerian MLP ETF's dividend yield is 7.8%, much higher than you typically find in a sector ETF. 

Energy master limited partnerships, or MLPs, pay high dividends due to their tax structure. That and stable cash flows make them attractive investment candidates even as oil prices decline. 

The biggest companies tracked by the Alerian MLP Infrastructure index and their dividend yields are: 

Dividends and a steady cash flow contribute to oil and gas transport companies. 

The other recent S&P leader among energy stocks is Oneok, which focuses on the natural gas industry. The Oneok chart shows the stock forming a flat base with a 10% correction in the past five weeks, outperforming the broad energy sector. 

It's not necessarily the focus on natural gas boosting the stock's performance, though.

Oneok adding more midstream capabilities

With a market capitalization of $38.97 billion, Oneok is among the biggest midstream companies, along with Energy Transfer, Cheniere Energy, Inc. (NYSEAMERICAN: LNG)Enbridge Inc. (NYSE: ENB) and Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE: EPD). 

Oneok’s services include processing, storing, transporting and distributing natural gas throughout the U.S. The company recently added to its midstream capabilities with its $18.8 billion acquisition of Magellan Midstream Partners.

The oil-and-gas transportation and pipeline sub-industry has been a top performer recently, notching better gains than the broad energy sector by a wide margin. 

It's frequently a good idea to parse sectors into subindustries, as not all sector areas will perform the same way simultaneously. That seems to be the case currently with energy.

Refiners among the strongest sub-industries

For example, in addition to transportation and midstream stocks holding up, pure-play oil refiners, as tracked by the VanEck Oil Refiners ETF (NYSEARCA: CRAK), are up 4.34% in the past week. The ETF measures the performance of the MVIS Global Oil Refiners Index.

The largest U.S.-listed components of that index are Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC)Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) and Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO).

The index is yet another example of a specific thriving niche within energy: With production cuts by Russia and Saudi Arabia, refiners rely more on U.S. light crude, which is more expensive to transform into diesel fuel.

Those higher costs for buyers translate into higher revenues for refiners, raising stock prices. In addition, diesel supply is tighter now while demand is high, contributing to the refiners' ability to fetch higher prices.

The CRAK ETF chart is a good proxy for refiners' performance and shows the index climbing out of a consolidation that began in mid-September. 

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