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Crude returns for oil patch investors

Besides a trickle of black liquid, there's usually little hint that the ground will soon explode in a black-column gusher of crude oil.

So it goes today with the buried price of oil and the potential for investor profits in the oil industry.

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All market signs - a historically low price, supply glut, and fading demand - suggest that there's little appeal to oil stocks and mutual funds that concentrate in the energy sector.

Indeed, analysts suggest investors stay far away from it. Salomon Smith Barney for months has kept the oil industry on its "avoid" list.

But some analysts say the depressed oil industry offers a classic buy-at-the-bottom play. Although the low oil price is a bane to investors now, it will pay off eventually.

Cheap oil has forced such deep, to-the-bone austerity at oil companies that any significant rise in the price of oil will go straight to profits.

"This year is a year of transition as the industry bundles down for the low oil price," says Angeline Sedita, oil-service sector analyst for A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "The industry will recover, but it will take some time," at least 18 to 24 months, she says.

But many analysts have whistled the same tune for the last six to 12 months. And investors who joined in have hit a sour note.

For example, Fidelity Select Energy Services fund (800-544-8888), considered one the better funds that buys stocks of oil service companies, dropped by 36 percent in the last 12 months. Vanguard Energy (800-662-7447) fell almost 16 percent.

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But as the industry emerges from the overhaul induced by low prices, it could yield promising long-term returns, analysts say.

"This is an industry going through a remake," says George Gaspar, managing director of petroleum research at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee. "It is going through a deep, major consolidation" and will emerge much stronger, he adds.

The proposed $76.4 billion takeover of Mobil by Exxon overshadows several smaller, but still stunning, marriages: British Petroleum with Amoco; France's Total with Belgium's Petrofina.

All told, the industry has seen a dozen major mergers in the past 18 months. And more will likely follow.

Among energy producers, analysts point to Phillips Petroleum and Unocal. Among service stocks, Diamond Offshore Drilling and Rowan Companies often top the list. Through acquisitions, Nabors Industries Inc. is steadily expanding its share of the depressed market in US land-based oil rigs.

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