The Russians Are Coming!
Energy giant Lukoil is now selling gas in the States. Should Americans buy the stock?
By Janet Guyon

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you live in the Northeast, there's a good chance your corner gas station will soon have a new, just-so-slightly-foreign moniker. Russian oil giant Lukoil recently began rebranding with its own name roughly 2,100 Getty and ConocoPhillips stations it has acquired in the U.S. over the past few years . About 300 are complete already, and Lukoil expects to finish by 2008.

But regardless of whether Lukoil pops up in your neighborhood, investors looking for new ways to play $60 oil should consider the company's stock. Why? For starters, Lukoil (LUKOY.PK, $35) has more reserves than any company on the planet save Exxon Mobil. Profits are surging: In late June the company said its first-quarter earnings rose 44%, to $1.18 billion. And experts say Lukoil, which trades in London and over the counter in the U.S., is the safest bet in the Russian oil patch. Lukoil CEO Vagit U. Alekperov, a onetime Soviet oil minister, appears immune to the hubris that brought down Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch owner of Yukos. The CEO vows that Lukoil won't be affected by back tax claims that have hit rivals Sibneft, TNK-BP, and Yukos. "We have always paid more taxes than our competitors," says Alekperov.

As always in Russia, the biggest risk to the company's future is political. The Duma is poised to pass a law in the fall that could restrict exploration rights of companies less than 51% owned by the government. If that happens, Lukoil will suffer--along with practically every other Russian energy company except Gazprom. But it's already cheap. Beaten down by the Yukos debacle, all Russian energy stocks are priced at a discount to Western shares. Lukoil, for instance, has a trailing P/E of just over seven, half that of Exxon Mobil. Valued per barrel of reserves, Lukoil costs a tenth as much as any of the Western majors. At that price, the stock appears undervalued despite the risks. "Lukoil has assets that can deliver growth for a very long time," says Andrei Machanskis, Citigroup Smith Barney's oil analyst in Moscow. That sounds like a bargain by any name. --Janet Guyon