When Syria uses chemical warfare or Iran threatens to launch missiles, it puts the collective world on edge, pushes stock markets over the edge and launches oil prices off the charts. The mere mention of Middle East mayhem has been known to spur investors to sell and seek shelter from a potential storm of profit-taking.
Unrest in oil-rich parts of the world has been a part of history seemingly forever. Although Syria, the latest Middle Eastern country on the global radar, accounts for just 0.5% (half a million barrels per day) of world production, it's the domino effect that has investors on pins and needles.
Syria's allegiance with Iran, a potential civil war in Iraq, and continuous tension in Egypt--home to the oil-transporting Suez Canal -- puts about 3.5 million barrels a day at risk. Any escalation could trigger economic sanctions, sending the price of oil back to the $150 mark or more.
But you don't need to let it wreak havoc on your portfolio.
Why not grab the oil bull by the horns and invest in stocks with nothing at stake should someone stick a cork in the Suez Canal, and everything to gain from panic-driven oil prices? Let's look at a couple of oil companies that stand to profit amid either peace or war in the Middle East -- and deliver hefty dividends to boot.
For our first gem, we look to Canada. A Canadian energy trust operating as a real estate investment trust (REIT), Enerplus (NYSE: ERF) is the largest conventional oil and natural gas income fund in North America. The Calgary-based company typically invests in mature properties located in Western Canada -- far from any upheaval in the Middle East.
Here's something you may not know: Our Northern friends are one of the top oil exporters to the United States; Mexico and Venezuela are the others. It's a misconception that the U.S. imports most of its oil from the Middle East. Last year, an average of 2.8 million barrels per day came from Canada, double what the U.S. imported from Saudi Arabia last year.
There is little doubt that Enerplus has benefited from the recent increases in energy prices. The price of oil hit a year-to-date low of $97 per barrel on April 17 and increased 10% to $107 per barrel in September. Since mid-April, shares of ERF have shot up 31%.
Enerplus said in its second-quarter earnings report that daily production rose 10% year over year and that it remains on track to meet or beat analysts price targets of $22.50 this year. Add to that a meaty 6.4% yield, and I think we've found a way to sleep well at night.
The next opportunity takes us across the Atlantic. French supermajor Total (NYSE: TOT)) is the world's fifth-largest publicly traded oil and gas company. Like Enerplus, its stock performance is strongly correlated with the price of oil and is highly likely to benefit from further spikes. Over this summer, Total's stock rose from $47 to $57 in just three months on the back of high oil prices.
That's not even the best part.
2012 Proved Reserves By Region
In late August, China National Petroleum (NYSE: SNP) finalized an agreement with Total and Tethys Petroleum (OTC: TETHF) to develop petroleum assets in Tajikistan in Central Asia. According to a Woods Mackenzie report, China will spend $500 billion a year on crude oil imports by 2020 and overtake the U.S. as the biggest consumer by 2014. Total also recently secured new developments in Africa and Australia.
But -- and this is a big "but" -- Total also just bought retail and commercial fuel operations in Egypt from Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX). It may be risky to buy anything with ties to Egypt right now, but the company's exposure is small: About 8.5% of production is in "high-risk" countries.
With Total's dividend yield near 5%, I can look past the Egyptian connection. Only Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) exceeds Total's ability to extract cheap oil and achieve higher earnings per barrel of produced oil. Total's sales grew 8% from the previous year to $266 billion in 2012, and its operating income increased 2.4% over the same period.
Looking ahead, Total has a target of 3% annual production growth up to 2015, backed by geographically diverse pipeline of new projects. The company expects output to reach about 3 million barrels a day in 2017.
Risks to Consider: Commodities and volatility go hand in hand. It's never a good idea to devote a large percentage of your portfolio to oil stocks. Should oil take a turn south, you might want to limit any exposure to 10% or less.
Actions to Take --> Both Enerplus and Total are trading above their 50- and 200-day moving averages and have strong upside potential. If oil appeals to you, these stocks might also.