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Valero Energy Corporation (VLO): Why This Refiner Is Too Cheap to Ignore

At a time when many companies seem to be hitting new highs on a daily basis, there are still some bargains to be found. After soaring for most of 2012 and the early part of this year, Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) has been on a steady decline since March. Now down more than 30% since that time, I think Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) may be one of the few great bargains left in this market, and the company has definitely landed itself back on my radar. Let’s take a closer look at this refiner, and see how it stacks up to the alternatives.

A bit about Valero

Valero is one of the largest petroleum refiners in the world, operating 16 refineries in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and the Caribbean. The company also until recently had an extensive retail operation with about 6,800 branded stores, and still has a sizeable ethanol business, with 10 ethanol plants that combine for 1.1 billion gallons of total annual production capacity.

Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO)The company recently spun off its retail operations, which recently began to trade as CST Brands, and Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) investors received one CST share for every nine Valero shares they owned. If you look at the chart, this explains the sharp drop of around $3 at the beginning of May.

Now, Valero is purely a refiner and makes most of its money from its petroleum operations. In fact, the company lost money on its ethanol operations. Going forward, Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) should benefit from higher demand for distillates that should come from the improving economic conditions in the U.S., as well as increasing demand from emerging markets. The company’s leading position on the Gulf Coast should give it the best economies of scale, allowing for a very favorable cost structure.

The numbers

At the current share price, Valero trades for just 7.5 times this year’s expected earnings of $4.85. While growth is expected to be somewhat slow over the next few years, there is a great deal of uncertainty in regards to the level of demand and pricing in the industry, which is partially responsible for the depressed share price. The consensus of analysts who follow Valero calls for about 7% annual earnings growth going forward, but this is far from agreed upon. In 2015, for example, analyst estimates range from a low of $2.09 per share to a high of $8.87, an extremely wide range. Even if earnings simply meet expectations, Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) is trading at an incredible value. However, that is a big if, so let’s see what our other options are…

Alternatives: big and small

Tesoro Corporation (NYSE:TSO) is a very comparable refiner and marketer, and still maintains a retail operation in the middle and western U.S. Tesoro Corporation (NYSE:TSO) has seven refineries, all in the U.S., and derives the vast majority (92%) of its income from its refining business. Tesoro’s chart looks very similar to Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO)’s, and the companies have similar-looking earnings estimates, with the main difference being the more narrow range for Tesoro. In 2015, as I referenced above for Valero, the estimate range for Tesoro Corporation (NYSE:TSO) only varies between $6.24 and $8.67. For this reason, Tesoro trades at 9.5 times this year’s projected earnings; still cheap but not as much of a discount as Valero.

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