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Conoco Reiterated at Neutral

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We reaffirmed our Neutral recommendation on ConocoPhillips (COP - Free Report) on Sep 3, 2013. We appreciate ConocoPhillips’ emphasis on creating shareholder value through operational excellence, strong project execution and dividend payout. However, the company’s growth and returns picture will likely be hindered by its productivity decline due to divestitures. ConocoPhillips carries a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold).

Why Maintained?

ConocoPhillips’ leading position in both natural gas and heavy crude oil in North America,as well as legacy position in the North Sea and growing exposure to lucrative international regions are expected to replace reserves and sustain production growth over the long term.

ConocoPhillips’ initiatives toward liquids-rich plays are gaining momentum through the Eagle Ford, Bakken and Permian plays. The company is also poised to benefit from a pipeline of projects in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), Malaysia, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Australia, the U.K., Norway, and the Canadian oil sands, apart from the US Lower 48 liquids-rich plays. Oil sands expansion projects are also on track. In July, Christina Lake Phase E witnessed first yield and the output is expected to accelerate over the next six to nine months. These ramped up activities are expected to aid in meeting its long-term production growth target.

ConocoPhillips remains on track with its divestment program, with a total of about $14.1 billion being completed. The company has generated $1.7 billion in proceeds from asset sales during the first half of 2013 and expects to raise an additional $9 billion from the disposition program by the end of 2013. In this regard, ConocoPhillips is trying to shed part of the Surmont and APLNG projects this year. This is expected to enable ConocoPhillips to generate a healthy cash surplus in 2013. The proceeds are also expected to be utilized for portfolio optimization and increasing shareholder value.

However, with the completion of the spin-off, the company has shifted its total focus to upstream operations and thus oil and gas prices play a major role in determining its performance. In addition, natural decline and downtime in the fields are also expected to result in weak production. Moreover, the company remains vulnerable to unstable movements in crude oil and natural gas prices.

Other Stocks to Consider

While we prefer to remain on the sidelines for ConocoPhillips, Zacks Ranked #1 (Strong Buy) stocks – China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (SNP - Free Report) , SM Energy Company (SM - Free Report) and Range Resources Corp. (RRC - Free Report) are  good buying options for the short term.

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