Unlike Airlines, Plains Exploration Updates Hedging Strategy

A press release issued today by Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) shows what smart management teams can do for investors. In prior pieces I have highlighted that mismanagement of oil price hedges has caused the major domestic airlines to lose billions of dollars. A deal announced today by Plains worried me a bit after reading the headline. It said “Plains Exploration to Sell 275 Oil Wells in $350 Million Deal With XTO Energy.”

I wondered why Plains, a stock I own personally and for clients, would be selling oil wells at this point in time. After all, those very wells are the reason I own and like the stock. However, after reading the release I realized how great of a move this was.

Plains Exploration will use the deal’s proceeds of $350 million to eliminate all existing 2006 oil price swaps and collars. You see, all oil companies have some type of hedging program in place, for the sake of some predictability of cash flow. So even if crude oil was $55 per barrel, energy companies rarely get market prices for all of the oil they produce. Plains has 2006 oil price swaps in place involving 15,000 barrels of oil per day at an average price of $25.28 and an average ceiling price of $34.76. With oil in the mid $50 range, you can see that they would have to leave some profit on the table with these hedges in place.

However, eliminating these swaps and collars will cost about $295 million. The proceeds from the XTO deal will more than cover that expense, and the move will tremendously increase future cash flow. “These transactions remove the significant headwind that the company has experienced in 2004 and 2005 from our previous hedge positions, which negatively impacted cash flow,” said Chairman, President and CEO James Flores. In addition, the company has acquired $45 put options on about 40,000 barrels of oil per day in 2006. These options ensure $45 per barrel, whereas the ceiling from their prior swaps was less than $35 per barrel.

Not surprisingly Plains shares are rallying 3% today. Still, shares only trade at 12x 2006 earnings estimates, and those estimates will surely prove too low given the company’s new hedging strategy.