Market Overview

Exxon May Not Want It, But Gulf Keystone Could Have Several Suitors

News broke Sunday that Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), the largest U.S. oil company, may be mulling an almost $11 billion bid for U.K.-based Gulf Keystone Petroleum, which has a significant footprint in Iraq's semi-autonomous oil-rich Kurdistan region.

That speculation has been refuted today with the British company saying in a statement "Gulf Keystone notes the continued unfounded press speculation regarding a potential offer for the Company. The Board of Gulf Keystone ("the Board") does not normally comment on speculation, but confirms that it remains committed to creating value for shareholders, via the continuing 2011/2012 exploration and appraisal programme on its world-class assets in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Whilst there is clearly increasing interest in the region in which Gulf Keystone operates, the Board is not in discussions with regard to a sale of the Company."

For its part, Dow component Exxon declined to comment, but traders believe Gulf Keystone remains an attractive takeover target. After all, by some estimates the Kurdistan region may be home to over 40 billion barrels of oil reserves. And that's onshore drilling we're talking about, not riskier, costlier offshore drilling.

So while Exxon may pass on Gulf Keystone (the U.S. company already has a Kurdistan presence), the following companies may very well be interested in the British oil junior.

Sinopec (NYSE: SNP): As we mentioned on Sunday, China's Sinopec has already been said to be monitoring the situation between Exxon and Gulf Keystone. We know this much: Sinopec and larger Chinese rival PetroChina (NYSE: PTR) have been active in Iraq and in global energy mergers and acquisitions. The reality is China is so desperate to get its hands on oil reserves, geography doesn't matter. Chinese oil majors will go anywhere to find new reserves.

Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A): Europe's largest oil company already has a significant presence in Iraq and one unidentified trader cited by the Wall Street Journal today said the Anglo-Dutch oil giant and rival BP (NYSE: BP) could be mulling counter bids for Gulf Keystone. Even if it were forced to pay $11 billion to $12 billion for Gulf Keystone, Shell could easily afford it. The company has a market cap just south of $220 billion.

Chevron (NYSE: CVX): Wherever Exxon may be looking for a deal, Chevron may not be far behind. The second-largest U.S. oil company is having a tough go of things in Brazil so that may tempt the company to look for other avenues for international growth. Plus, Chevron is already working with the Kurdistan government to bolster its exploration and production there. Indeed, buying Gulf Keystone would make sense for California-based Chevron.

Those are three of the obvious potential suitors for Gulf Keystone. Now let's look at two that may be flying under the radar at the moment.

Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY): As we noted last week, Occidental only drills onshore. The fourth-largest U.S. oil company has a bigger Iraq presence than many oil sector novices realize and yes, Occidental can afford an $11 billion price tag for Gulf Keystone.

Total SA (NYSE: TOT): The French oil major hasn't been mentioned as a potentials suitor for Gulf Keystone yet, but it may want to consider at least a bid for the British firm. If nothing else, that could keep Shell or BP honest and maybe drive the price higher for Total's two larger European rivals. Or Total could just buy Gulf Keystone because it can afford to and wants to expand in Iraq.


ACTION ITEMS:

Bullish:
Traders who believe that energy sector M&A is going to pick up might want to consider the following trades:
  • SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (NYSE: XOP). This ETF is loaded with potential targets and buyers.
  • SPDR S&P International Energy Sector ETF (NSYE: IPW). This ETF is more applicable for the Gulf Keystone situation as it is home to Shell, Total and friends.
  • Short Exxon Mobil if speculation increases the company is going to make a big acquisition that could drive the shares down in the near-term.
Bearish:
Traders who believe that energy M&A is going to cool off may consider alternative positions:
  • Long Exxon Mobil because that means the company won't overpay for a big deal and it will keep more cash on hand.
  • Long the ProShares UltraShort Oil & Gas (NYSE: DUG). Less energy M&A could suppress oil stock prices.
  • Long the energy Select Sector SPDR (NYSE: XLE). This ETF is loaded with potential buyers and if they're not making deals, it's not all bad because that's more cash for dividends and buybacks.
Neither Benzinga nor its staff recommend that you buy, sell, or hold any security. We do not offer investment advice, personalized or otherwise. Benzinga recommends that you conduct your own due diligence and consult a certified financial professional for personalized advice about your financial situation.

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