The Investment Column: The case for staying in oil

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The Independent Online
SINCE JANUARY, shares in some of the leading oil exploration and production companies have more than doubled. As the price of Brent crude nudges nearer and nearer the $20 mark, should investors hold on for more, or is now the time to take profits?

British Borneo, which acquired Hardy Oil and Gas in the consolidation wave prompted by last year's oil price crash, has led the rally. It has climbed up from 83.5p and hit 228.5p yesterday. Enterprise Oil has soared from 224.5p to 496p.

The performance of Lasmo, Enterprise's former suitor which later merged with Monument Oil and Gas, seems sluggish by comparison - it's only just doubled in value, from 87.5p to 172p.

These may seem dramatic gains, but to some extent the sector is playing catch-up - the oil price has been recovering steadily over a longer period. Whether there's more to go for depends largely, but not entirely, on the oil price and there are signs it will hold firm.

In the first six months of the year it averaged just under $14. Most analysts have pencilled in an average for the year of $17; its recent strength means many are on the verge of revising that upwards.

Opec has implemented production cuts and, with the benefits showing through, it seems unlikely to breach its commitments. The suspension of drilling projects following the oil price collapse creates the possibility of stock shortages later this year.

A cold winter would further exacerbate demand.

Recent talk of $30 per barrel looks wild, but a price of $22 at the year-end is not impossible.

Newsflow from drilling is what is needed. The recently-merged explorers offer the most upside and Borneo is most likely to deliver here as its expanded drilling programme gathers apace.

Within two years it is expected to quadruple production and US oil companies interested in its Gulf of Mexico assets may even launch a bid.

The enlarged Lasmo has been relatively left behind in this year's rally. That looks unfair given it now has a far stronger balance sheet and a management perceived as adopting a new commitment to shareholder value. Expect the shares to top 200p.

There are risks. Borneo could suffer technical problems with its drilling. And if the oil price hits the key $20, that would automatically prompt some speculators to take profits. But less testy investors should hold, not bail out of the sector just yet.