A Far-Flung Frenzy
Investors are scouring the globe for the next hot energy stock.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - The e-mails are quite tantalizing, if a big familiar: "I have done extensive research on this company and believe it to be a huge opportunity to make five to ten times my money...." Or: "Have gotten all my children into the stock because I think it has such great potential." Of course, I've gotten this kind of reader mail before, back in the late 1990s, when exuberant stock tip sharing was helping fuel the market for hotsy-totsy tech companies. These days the buzz is all about energy stocks.
As the price of oil and gas has spiked over the past two years, industry heavyweights such as Exxon, Sunoco, and Valero have been huge market winners. But adventuresome investors have thrown money at more speculative plays too--tiny drillers prospecting in exotic locales. The shares are more volatile, but potentially even more rewarding. Consider Toreador Resources, a company with a market cap of $346 million, which is exploring in Turkey. Since the beginning of 2004, Toreador's stock has shot up from $5 to $37 and back down to $22. Then there's TransMeridian Exploration, a company worth half a billion that has set up shop in Kazakhstan. Its stock more than tripled over the past year, from under $2 to $6.50. The small- cap sensation that seems to have caught the eye of Street Life readers, however, is FX Energy, a small driller with an unusual backstory.
FX Energy is on the prowl for natural gas in, of all places, Poland. (As the recent kerfuffle between Russian energy giant Gazprom and Ukraine over gas pricing shows, Europe could use alternate suppliers.) Based in Utah, FX Energy was founded by brothers David and Andy Pierce, who first began drilling for oil and gas in Montana in the late 1970s. "I had been a lawyer," says David, a Princeton and Stanford graduate, "but we were pretty successful right off, so that was the end of my law career." They continued putting down small wells and wildcatting in the Western U.S. until the early 1990s, when they met Polish geologist Jerzy Maciolek. "Jerzy told us he liked what we were doing and that we should bring our exploration tools to Poland," explains David.
Poland? It's far away from cowboy country, but not necessarily far-fetched. As it turns out, Poland has a long history as a modest producer of oil and gas. For decades the energy infrastructure was dominated by the Soviets. So, yes, the country had been explored, but only with outmoded Soviet technology and tools from the 1950s and '60s. FX hired Maciolek and wooed the Polish national energy company, PGNiG, eventually securing rights to drill in Poland along with a British partner, CalEnergy (a company controlled by MidAmerican, which is in turn owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway). FX also brought on English geologist Richard Hardman, who was instrumental in developing the massive North Sea fields. No one seems to dispute that there is gas in Poland. According to a 2003 U.S. Depart- ment of Energy estimate (the most recent available), Poland has reserves of 5.8 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to supply the U.S. for about three months. That sounds paltry. But at current spot prices of $14.20 per 1,000 cubic feet, it's worth a cool $82 billion. Even in a best-case scenario, FX would get only a sliver of that. Still, you can see what the excitement is all about.
FX began testing in Poland 2Â½ years ago, and drilled its first wells last year. Bingo! It hit gas in three out of three sites. The company's stock went from low single digits to more than $16. Investors eagerly awaited the next set of tests, and all through 2005 the message boards burned with speculation and rumor. Readers began to e-mail me. Then, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, at 7 A.M., came word: "FX Energy Inc. announced today that test results on the Lugi-1 well in western Poland were determined to be uneconomic and that the well will be plugged and abandoned." It was only one well--and the company's first goose egg--but the market response was quick and brutal: The stock plunged 20% in a single day. In early January another well tested poorly, and the stock fell again. It now trades under $6.
"These are not lay-up prospects," says analyst Eric Hagen of First Albany, who dropped his "strong buy" recommendation after the second setback. So true. As with the tech stars back in the day, many of the hot energy plays have a compelling story. A few of them may even pan out.