Market Overview

Not Chesapeake: One Company Cash-Rich Chevron Should Buy

The energy patch has been abuzz over the past couple of days on speculation that Dow component Chevron (NYSE: CVX), the second-largest U.S. oil company, could be in an acquisitive mood. Chevron has $21 billion in cash, a large enough sum that puts plenty of companies in play.

Eager investment bankers and investors in the companies that would make for logical takeover targets for Chevron can dream the oil giant will come calling, but there are no guarantees. The company might be hoarding cash to deal with its legal woes in Ecuador and Brazil.

That is one factor to consider, but assuming the amounts Brazil and Ecuador are seeking from Chevron dwindle significantly, which should happen, the California-based company could do some shopping. If it does, the candidates could surprise analysts and investors.

Not The Usual Suspects The names popping up as the most credible Chevron takeover candidates have been Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) and Hess (NYSE: HES). Chesapeake's status as a takeover target is nothing new. Something else that is not new is how much some market observers are missing the mark on what companies would really be willing to get involved with the tangled web that is Chesapeake.

Chesapeake currently has a market capitalization of $12.44 billion, but getting CEO Aubrey McClendon to go along with a takeover bid will be easier said than done. Yes, financier Carl Icahn holds more Chesapeake shares than McClendon, but both men could demand a premium that values Chesapeake closer to $20 billion.

That is a lofty valuation at a time when U.S. natural gas prices are depressed. Chevron has been preferred by some investors because it is viewed as "oilier" than Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM). In other words, Chevron has plenty of international gas exposure and does not need Chesapeake. For that matter, nor does Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. gas producer.

Regarding Hess, Chevron could afford the company and Hess' Bakken Shale footprint is certainly alluring. If nothing else, it makes more sense for Chevron to target a deal that brings in more oil than one that is gas-focused as acquiring Chesapeake would be.

There is a sticking point with Hess, though, and it is one Chevron probably will not gloss over. Hess has been on the wrong end of controversy in Russia, Forbes reported earlier in 2012.

Chevron, itself no stranger to the complexities of Russia's energy industry, might not want to voluntarily take on Russian problems no matter how much oil the country has.

Easily Affordable In terms of companies that Chevron could easily afford without straining the balance sheet too much, Range Resources (NYSE: RRC) is an idea. The company has frequently been mentioned as a possible target for one of Chevron's big rivals and Chevron could use Range Resources as an avenue for bolstering shale acreage acquired in the 2010 purchase of Atlas Energy.

On the other hand, Chevron's U.S. shale profile is by no means small (three million acres) and Range is a "gassier" play than Chevron might be willing to take on. Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE: COG) and Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL) also fit the affordability profile for Chevron, but both are heavy on natural gas as well.

In an effort to bolster its oil production and reserves through acquisition, one name stands out as a logical target for Chevron. It is one Chevron shareholders would approve of not only because the company could possibly be acquired for a decent price, but also because of what the company would add to Chevron's petroleum profile.

That company is McMoRan Exploration (NYSE: MMR), with a market cap of just over $2 billion, McMoRan resides barely outside of small-cap territory. The two firms are partners on potentially lucrative projects in the Gulf of Mexico. In recent years, the Gulf has turned into one of Chevron's most important areas of production.

McMoRan is one of the dominant players in the Gulf's Davy Jones prospect, a shallow water ultra deep field in which is Chevron holds a royalty interest. Getting Davy Jones to payoff has not been easy for McMoRan and investors have had nagging questions about the company's financial ability to do so, according to Forbes.

In 2011, rumors swirled Chevron might shell out $26 a share for McMoRan. That would be more than double the stock's closing print on Tuesday, but with McMoRan down almost 15 percent this year, Chevron might not need to pay a 100 premium to get its hands on operational control of Davy Jones. Amid speculation McMoRan cannot afford the per well costs it needs to absorb to truly exploit Davy Jones, a takeover of the company by an oil major such as Chevron appears all the more likely.

Noteworthy is the fact that legendary energy investor T. Boone Pickens loaded up on McMoRan in the second quarter, acquiring more than 678,000 shares of the stock. Perhaps Chevron will be the next big energy name to see value in McMoRan. Bottom line: A Chevron acquisition of McMoRan delivers attractive assets at a better price than a deal for Chesapeake would.

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