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Should You Follow Carl Icahn into Transocean's Deep Waters?

John is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Hello and welcome, Motley Fool readers. If you weren’t familiar with Carl Icahn before last week, you probably are aware of him now given the high-profile spat on CNBC between Icahn and fellow billionaire Bill Ackman. CNBC’s approval rating among viewers is at the lowest level since 2005, so maybe the Icahn/Ackman lunch hour soapbox is just what the network needed.

In any event, Icahn reported on January 13 that he had begun to accumulate shares of Transocean (NYSE: RIG), a Switzerland-based entity that provides offshore contract drilling services for oil and gas wells.

My initial encounter with Transocean occurred in the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. The stock had fallen from a high of $90 in April 2010 to a low of $46 in early June 2010. Shares traded as high as $150 in summer 2008 when the world economy endured record oil prices.

For those who aren’t aware, Deepwater Horizon is the actual name of the oil rig owned by Transocean, which entered into a long-term lease with BP from 2001 through September 2013. I followed value investor Karen Finerman’s advice to step in and buy calls on the stock in May 2010, believing the knee-jerk selloff had been overdone. Both of us were wrong, and the calls expired worthless.

Let’s fast forward to January 2013, and Transocean has announced a firm $1.4 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The settlement puts the potential for further legal action from DOJ in the rear-view mirror for shareholders. Clearly, the market sees the settlement as a huge positive, as the amount of overhang on the stock is quickly disappearing.

<img src="http://media.ycharts.com/charts/b59b8dfeaae2724798097151dcb35d35.png" />

Shares of Transocean have rallied a massive 27% from Wednesday, January 2 through Friday, January 25.

Is the stock still worth buying at current levels? Let’s dive in and take a closer look.

  • Earnings strength at Transocean is positive. Operating earnings per share have increased consecutively over the past 5 quarters from $1.49 for the December '11 quarter to an estimated $3.72 for December 2012.
  • Transocean’s valuation is attractive, with the stock trading at the bottom of a five year range based on Price-to-Book (P/B), Price-to-Cash-Flow (P/CF), and Price-to-Sales (P/S). Until the settlement with DOJ, there was good reason for the low valuation. However, now that the incident is behind, there is longer a justification for overhang on the stock.
  • Activist investor and billionaire Carl Icahn has entered into conversations with Transocean management and is pressing for the company to declare at least a $4 per share dividend. It is worth noting that under Swiss law, a shareholder has the right to propose a dividend at an annual meeting, and if a majority of shareholders support the proposal, the dividend is declared regardless of the board of director’s support.
  • Barron’s spoke positively on Transocean with an article titled Ready to Rise from the Depths in its Saturday, December 2 issue. I don’t always agree with Barron’s, as evidenced by my article Why Barron’s is Wrong on PNC Financial, but author Jacqueline Doherty correctly anticipated Transocean’s settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice a full month in advance.
  • On January 18, equity research firm Argus stated it believed the rally in Transocean is in its infancy and maintained a Buy rating on the shares. Shares of RIG have risen approximately 5% between Friday, January 18 and Friday, January 25. Argus was founded in 1934 and does not seek to do business with the companies it covers, thereby increasing its objectivity.


Ancillary Plays in Offshore Drilling

Transocean owns the world’s largest offshore drilling fleet, but it’s not alone in the oil well services industry. The Houston, Texas based Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO) owns 49 offshore rigs, mainly off the coast of Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico. DO received a downgrade to Neutral from Outperform at Credit Suisse on January 22, as the company receives a substantial amount of business from Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. This South American customer recently announced significant cuts to capital expenditure for offshore drilling. Noble Energy, which also operates offshore rigs near Brazil, is being hurt by Petrobras’ actions as well. I believe Transocean is more attractive for readers than either Diamond Offshore or Noble Energy.

For investors looking for small-cap speculation, shares of Hercules Offshore (NASDAQ: HERO) have risen 50% in the last 52 weeks, with a substantial portion of the gains coming in recent months. This $1 billion dollar company provides independent shallow-water drilling to the oil and gas industry within the Gulf of Mexico. The stock has risen as confidence is being restored to drill in the Gulf, particularly in underexplored shallow-water areas. The mean (average) price target on HERO is slightly above $7, while the highest target on Wall Street is all the way up at $11.

Foolish Bottom Line

Despite the recent run in shares, Transocean is still extremely attractive. The company has positive earnings momentum and with the U.S. government off its back, shares are the cheapest they’ve been in five years.

Furthermore, does anyone remember when Carl Icahn went on CNBC in fall 2012, stating he was buying shares of Netflix because the stock was undervalued? Both Karen Finerman and I were wrong then, too. The stock has rallied more than 100 points from a low of $60 in late October when Icahn went on TV. Finerman recommended that viewers “Sell Netflix” as her Final Trade on October 31 due to the seemingly high valuation, and I agreed by default as I do not watch enough television to give an investment in Netflix further consideration.

In conclusion, readers are presented with a fresh opportunity for the 2013 calendar year. I recommend that investors heed Carl Icahn’s advice this time around and consider buying Transocean. I own shares of the company in my individual and managed accounts.

Transocean is scheduled to release fourth quarter 2012 earnings during the week of February 24, 2012. The specific date and time have yet to be announced.

Thanks for reading, and consider subscribing to my posts for more Fool ideas on outperforming the market. Requests for future articles may be submitted to fool@johnmacris.com.

johnmacris owns shares of Transocean in his individual and managed accounts. The Motley Fool owns shares of Transocean. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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