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A woman walks past a poster showing an offshore work platform from CNOOC Ltd., next to the company's headquarters in Beijing, Dec. 10, 2012. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)
A woman walks past a poster showing an offshore work platform from CNOOC Ltd., next to the company's headquarters in Beijing, Dec. 10, 2012. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)

ENERGY

CNOOC stock: Cheap, poised for growth, with a smart yield Add to ...

Now that CNOOC Ltd. finally owns a piece of Canada, Canadian investors might want to return the favour and own a piece of CNOOC.

The stock, which trades in Hong Kong and New York, is up 17 per cent year-to-date. It trades for less than 10 times earnings, compared to an average of 21 for its peers in the oil exploration and development game. And even though the company slashed its dividend by 40 per cent in August to fund its acquisition of Calgary-based Nexen Inc., it still offers an attractive 2.6 per cent yield.

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All of that adds up to an intriguing opportunity for investors looking for a globe-spanning oil producer with strong growth prospects.

Thirteen of the 32 analysts who follow the company suggest the stock is a buy, while only four rate it a “sell” or forecast it to underperform its peers.

Among the bulls is Neil Beveridge, a senior analyst with Bernstein Research. In a note released after Ottawa’s decision last week to allow the Nexen acquisition, he said that while investors have been lukewarm to the transaction, the growth in returns and production that will result from the deal will be a long-term positive for the Chinese state-owned enterprise.

He calculates that the company is trading at only 8.4 times its estimated earnings for the year ahead and says “valuations remain too cheap for a company with this level of growth.”

Earnings per share will rise 7.6 per cent in 2013 while cash flow will swell 13.6 per cent, he says. He believes the company can continue to grow earnings at a 7 per cent compound annual growth rate to 2020.

Like Mr. Beveridge, David Hewitt of Credit Suisse has an “outperform” rating for CNOOC’s stock. He sees the firm’s earnings per share rising 5 per cent in 2013. The Nexen acquisition will “accelerate and augment” CNOOC’s domestic plays in shale-gas and deep-water exploration, Mr. Hewitt wrote in a note, and help it to boost production by 33 per cent next year.

With the acquisition of Nexen, CNOOC will have operations worldwide from Canada to Uganda to Australia, though Brazil is notably absent. While it has various exploration projects on the go, the company has lately taken a recent interest in growth through acquisition, scooping up companies such as oil sands developer OPTI Canada Inc. in 2011.

Sonia Song, of Nomura Equity Research, is among the less optimistic analysts covering CNOOC, recently downgrading the stock from “buy” to “neutral.” Her concerns centre on the company’s sluggish production growth in China and project delays in the U.S. caused by lower gas prices. She does, however, prefer CNOOC over Chinese competitors China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. and PetroChina Co. Ltd.

Bernstein’s Mr. Beveridge believes that CNOOC’s big challenge will be finding ways to create value from Nexen after paying $15.1-billion (U.S.) for the Calgary company, a 61-per-cent premium on Nexen’s July 20 shares.

The Bernstein analyst projects the Chinese company’s debt-to-equity ratio to shoot up to 33 per cent in 2013 from 12 per cent this year, but says the boost in cash flow per share in the coming years will leave the company in a comfortable position. CNOOC, he says, is but “still the cheapest [exploration and production company] in the Asia-Pacific.”

Hong King-based fund manager Harry Chan, who holds CNOOC in the Fidelity Far East Fund portfolio, said the company’s cheap valuation comes, in part, from a relative lack of interest from Chinese investors.

It also “reflects the risk associated with the operational challenges in its overseas expansion as well as the potential increase in [capital expenditures] next year to undertake oil recovery projects for its mature fields in China.”

Investors shouldn’t look for immediate increases in the dividend, as the company is now funnelling funds into production growth, he said.

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