Energy stocks continue to underperform despite oil price stability

US oil prices are holding stable following a rebound from the pandemic’s demand shock that left crude oil valued at sub-zero figures. Despite this, energy stocks have continued to underperform the market this year as producers struggle to break even and investors remain tentative about the impact of a potential Joe Biden presidency.

Over the past three months, the West Texas Intermediate oil price — the US benchmark — has hovered around $40 a barrel, but in the same period energy stocks have dipped by almost 14 per cent, despite a bounce in the past week.

Energy has been by far the worst-performing sector in the US this year. The combined market capitalisation of companies in the S&P 500 energy sector index has almost halved since the start of 2020, to $598bn.

The two biggest US energy companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, have experienced a drop in market value of about 50 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively, this year.

Stewart Glickman, senior equity analyst at CFRA, said although oil prices had picked up, they have gone only from “awful to mediocre”, leaving “many US shale [companies] simply skirting break-even”.

Demand for oil remains subdued. People and goods are still less mobile than they were before the pandemic began, meaning the oil supply glut that began to overwhelm the US market at the end of March is yet to disappear.

Energy the laggard: sector loses half its value since the start of the year

Traditional energy stocks have also suffered from a switch by many investors to clean energy stocks, which are up almost 80 per cent this year.

“The energy sector has entered a consolidation phase, which will see many firms either shrink their balance sheets or disappear,” said Bob Ryan, chief commodity and energy strategist at BCA Research. “The survivors will have to navigate a rapidly changing landscape in which renewables are gaining market share and the long-term viability of fossil fuels is being questioned.”

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Some analysts believe investors are wary of the impact a Joe Biden election victory might have on the oil and gas sector — despite energy stocks performing better under previous Democratic administrations than they have under Donald Trump.

Mr Biden’s plans to address climate change, which include ambitions to electrify the transport sector and limit methane emissions, could have significant cost implications for oil and gas companies. He has also expressed his opposition to any extension to fracking, which has been a driver for energy groups in recent years.

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