$50 oil winners and losers: Premier Oil plc is up 385% against just 11% at BP plc

A rising tide may float all stocks, just not at the same speed. Big companies carry much more ballast than smaller ones, and typically rise and fall at a more leisurely pace. That has definitely been the case for speedy oil explorer Premier Oil (LSE: PMO) and slowboat BP (LSE: BP) in recent months.

Premier’s attraction

On 12 January, in the heart of the global market meltdown, Premier’s share price briefly slumped to a low of 19p. That same day, BP slumped to just 323p. If you had known what would happen next, you would have remortgaged your home – and put all the proceeds on Premier. The stock now trades at 73p, an incredible 385% more than in January. BP’s share price has also fought back bravely and it now trades at 360p, a rise of a huge, um, 11%.

If you’d staked your house on Premier recovering you would be a wealthy investor by now, if all those sleepless nights hadn’t killed you. This was a truly risky play, hence the outsize rewards. The company has group net debt of £2.68bn, not the sort of thing you want hanging over your head amid a long-term oil price slump. Don’t kick yourself for missing out because few were predicting a gallop towards $50 a barrel in January. In fact Standard Chartered warned the price could plunge to $10.

Float on

Premier has also been helped by its recent upbeat trading update, which put it on track to deliver “at or above upper end of 2016 guidance of 65-70 kboepd“. Fortune favours the brave and you’ve left it late to get some Premier action. While $50 a barrel is better than $27 a barrel, it isn’t enough to make the company’s future completely secure. Premier has been furiously renegotiating banking covenants and needs the oil price to climb even higher. If oil retreats from here, and it can’t be ruled out, confidence could sink just as quickly as it rose.

Nobody would expect BP to shoot up as rapidly as Premier, because its future was never in serious doubt (unlike its dividend). But you might have expected it to have fared slightly better in the recovery stakes. Management reckons it can make its sums add up at $60 a barrel, so maybe investors are waiting for the oil price to hit that nice round number. It isn’t so far away now.

Sail away

Maybe investors are so wary of the long-term share price disaster that is BP – the stock is still 43% lower than it was a decade ago – that they can’t rouse themselves to believe in the company until they see surer signs of recovery.

BP’s dividend, currently yielding a mind-boggling 7.42%, has been living on borrowed time and although it isn’t secure yet, things are looking up. At today’s price, even if the dividend was slashed by half it would still pay 3.7%, with management hell-bent on reviving its former glories. Premier will offer more short-term excitement if oil continues its recovery, but BP may offer greater long-term rewards. You’ll sleep better too.

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Harvey Jones has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended BP. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.