The Value Play on BP

Over the years, I have invested so much time wildcatting in the oil patch that I will never be wanting for great steaks at Nick & Sam’s in Dallas, skyboxes at Cowboys games, and personally signed 8 X 10 glossy photographs of George W. Bush. So to get the skinny on the BP mess, I spent the weekend catching up with old friends who live with a permanent oil stain under their fingernails.

Some of the chatter that came back was amazing. BP has discovered the largest and most powerful well in history, and control of it may be outside existing technology. The previous record gusher was Union Oil Co.’s Lakeview well in Maricopa, California, which spewed out a staggering 100,000 barrels a day at its peak in 1910, and created an enormous oil lake in the central part of the state. My grandfather worked there for Standard Oil during the Great Depression, and 2o years later, oil was still everywhere.

Estimates for the BP well now range up to 50% more than that. The pressures at 18,000 feet are so enormous, that drilling two more relief wells might only result in creating two more oil spills. If Obama doesn’t want to take the nuclear option, (click here for my piece at ), then there will be no other alternative but for the spill to continue until the field exhausts itself or becomes capable, possibly some time next year.

This is not the end of the world. Less than 1% of the spilled oil is ending up on the beaches. Watch TV, and that is not 150,000 barrels on the beach in Pensacola, Florida. Most of the crude is being moved parallel to the coast by the current and will eventually end up in the mid-Atlantic, where it will break down or dissipate. Tropical sunlight, salt water, and crude are all highly corrosive, and the three don’t last together long.

Using the high end estimates, and assuming that it takes a year to run out, possibly 36 million barrels will end up in the sea (pressure is declining). This is the same amount of oil that was dumped into the Atlantic during WWII, when 452 tankers were sunk by German U-boats, mostly along the US east coast, and when tar balls on the beach were a daily occurrence. This is on top of the 1.5 million barrels a year that leak into the Gulf through natural seepage, which no one ever notices.

One way or the other, this will end, and Western civilization will survive. And by the way, the crude price rise brought by the spill also marked up the value of BP’s reserves, easily allowing it to cover the cost of the clean up, no matter how big it is. This is how profitable this company is, and why they were so generous with a $20 billion contingency fund.

No sooner did I put out the call the buy the pariah stock at $29, than I hear Whitney Tilson of T2 Partners, one of the giants of the value corner in the hedge fund universe, is doing the same. Whitney has come up with a few more arguments which I haven’t thought of, which I will happily pass on.

For a start, no company has ever made more mistakes than BP, and panic is rife. Great time to buy. BP has the fourth largest revenue of any company in the world after, guess what, three other energy companies, Gazprom (GZPFY.PK), Exxon Mobile (XOM), and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS/A). Pre crisis Q1 operating profit estimates were at a staggering $34 billion, and the net at $22 billion.

While the environmental damage is substantial, it is nowhere near as bad as when 11 million barrels of crude poured into the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm in 1991, which is one sixth the size of the Gulf of Mexico. The spectacular estimates for the federal fine are based on top end flow estimates at the well head. The real number will come in closer to the actual amount landed on the beach, which could 0.1% of the headline figure, or so BP lawyers will argue.

While the cleanup cost may come to $2 billion plus and is payable up front, there may be 20 years of litigation before a payout is ordered for punitive damages. The Exxon Valdez incident in the end only cost $3.5 billion.

The best historical analogy is not asbestos or tobacco, but the 2004 Vioxx disaster at Merck. The stock halved and then more than doubled, once the initial liability was shaved by 90%. It all harks back to my belief that there is way too much fear priced into this stock than the fundamentals justify.

Keep in mind that in these emotionally charged conditions, BP stock is not for widows and orphans, but for those with 24 hour global trading desks, rigorous risk control, and the ability to cross hedge against other oil companies and sectors. I would be scaling in too, and not bet the ranch. This stock will either go to zero, or more likely, double. Better to buy BP ultra high yielding debt, which at this point may bounce as much as the stock, but with a fraction of the downside risk with its senior credit position.

For a fascinating peak on how BP’s management initially responded to the Gulf oil spill, watch this video taken by a secret camera inside their board room, which I obtained from a confidential source on pain of death. Brace yourself. And you wonder how it got so bad. .

To see the data, charts, and graphs that support this research piece, as well as more iconoclastic and out-of-consensus analysis, please visit me at . There, you will find the conventional wisdom mercilessly flailed and tortured daily, and my last two and a half years of research reports available for free. You can also listen to me on Hedge Fund Radio by clicking on “This Week on Hedge Fund Radio” in the upper right corner of my home page.