Cashing in on the barrel

If $4-or-more-a-gallon gas is what we face this summer, then it's time to find a way to handle it. Here's one way to ease the pain: Invest in something that benefits from high gasoline prices.

What are the best plays on expensive oil?

”I don't think that's a real hard question,“ said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, which is a unit of Wells Fargo. ”Oil stocks will do well or you can play commodities and basic materials because commodities are going up and the dollar's becoming weak.“

True. Oil is the commodity that's sky high. And all the mega oil companies are up strongly. If you've owned any of the major integrated oil companies for a while, it's probably not all that distressing to watch gasoline prices go up.

That group, according to the S&P 500 energy index, has just about tripled in value in the last five years. Some are soaring more than others. Chevron has had a one-year total return of more than 24 percent. Exxon Mobil was also doing well until last week, when it posted a year-to-date decline of nearly 5 percent.

Kentuckians who want to keep their investment cash a little closer to home have some other options, says Tom Dupree Jr., president of Dupree Financial Group in Lexington.

Kentucky coal and natural gas producers are also benefiting from higher energy prices and that has made some of those stocks more attractive, Dupree said.

”We think natural gas is a better way to go,“ he said.

Like coal, gas is produced domestically and the supply is large. Unlike oil, gas does not have to be refined and the potential for environmental problems is usually less than for coal or oil.

Oil, gas and coal stocks can be bought directly or indirectly through energy mutual funds that might reduce risk and volatility.

One Lexington gas producer, NGAS Resources, was recently cited by the writers of The Motley Fool investment column as one of ”7 Stocks Defying the Doubters.“

As of June 18, NGAS had had a one-year return of 16.7 percent and a 30-day return of 17.1 percent, The Motley Fool reported.

A few more affordable and interesting ideas in industries you may not have considered: Bikes, railroads and cement companies.

You can follow Warren Buffett's lead. He's bought 18 percent of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. ”What you have in railroads is a relatively efficient way to move stuff across the country, relative to trucks when diesel prices are going up,“ said Paul Larson, editor of Morningstar StockInvestor, a newsletter from the Chicago research firm.

That's what has made rail stocks attractive to investors who want to be ”green,“ because trains use less energy and cause less pollution than cars and trucks.

In addition, Larson points out that these companies have an enduring competitive advantage: ”Rights of way are very, very difficult to achieve,“ Larson said. ”There hasn't been a new railroad built in God knows how many decades.“

Cheaper than Burlington Northern is Canadian National Railway Co. Like Burlington Northern, it has been trading near its 52-week high, but its 20 percent run-up this year is smaller than Burlington Northern's nearly 36 percent gain.

If, like South Florida money manager Jeffrey Koch at Goldstein Schechter Koch, you think we'll all be pedaling more, then you can go for a good bicycle investment.

”Bicycles, motorcycles will be more in demand than they would have been,“ Koch said. Not to mention helmets and bicycle attire.

A Canadian consumer products company, Dorel Industries Inc., has hit on this niche. Most of the company's products are ready-to-assemble home furnishings, but Dorel has been building its business in bicycle manufacturing. This year, it's buying Cannondale, the high-end maker of performance bicycles. That pads out its line, which includes the Schwinn, GT and Mongoose brands. Dorel stock trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Analyst Airan Friedman of Accountability Research in Toronto says bicycles are growing from about 20 percent of its business to about one-third. And he notes that even though rising commodity prices for metals are pressuring the makers of lower-cost bicycles, it's easier for manufacturers to pass this increased cost along to high-end customers. Cannondale bikes generally sell for $1,000 and up.

Investing in cement companies was an unusual idea from Morningstar's Larson. Transportation is a huge part of the cost of cement. So his idea is that competitors will be less willing to truck their cement to distant buyers. Because there's less competition, the cement companies will be able to charge more.

He recommends Cemex, the world's largest cement maker. Cemex is a Mexican company that last year bought Rinker Group, an Australian firm. Cemex has had strong gains this year.

One thing you don't want to do: Make this your only investment theme.