Consumers are feeling the pain at the pump right now. The average price of a gallon of gas has jumped about 12 cents in the U.S. over the last two weeks to $3.88, with the highest average price for gas tallying $4.27 in Tucson, Ariz.
But one company that appears to be doing just fine in this era of expensive energy is Big Oil poster child Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM). This morning the company reported first-quarter profits that surged 69% over last year. Though some oil and gas players have yet to report their numbers for the period, analysts expect the entire sector will see big gains like this as crude oil creeps above $100 a barrel.
That has many motorists fuming – and Big Oil worried that as it rakes in massive profits like it did in 2008, it can face the same ugly accusations of price fixing and market manipulation.
First, some context. In fiscal 2007, Exxon posted profits of $40.6 billion – the largest number ever for a corporation. This in itself wasn’t exactly shocking, since XOM is the largest stock on Wall Street by most measures. It currently has a market size that tops $430 billion – making it twice the size of Microsoft (NYSE: MSFT) and more than 7 times the size of Ford (NYSE: F). But as oil raced up to a peak of about $145 and the financial crisis eviscerated the American economy, Exxon shattered its own record with a profit of $45.2 billion for 2008. Its cohorts in Big Oil were cashing in, too – Chevron (NYSE: CVX) saw its fiscal 2008 profits leap 28% over the previous year to a new record. Shell (NYSE: RDS.A) and BP (NYSE: BP) announced record profits, too.
That made people take notice. Banks and automakers reported multibillion-dollar losses at the same time, and layoffs were being announced left and right in all corners of the U.S. economy. Why did Exxon, BP and others think they could profit like that while America collapsed? Congress called for hearings about manipulation in the crude market, regulators blamed “speculators,” consumers accused Big Oil of price fixing.
But then just as quickly, the oil bubble burst. Prices tumbled week after week until crude bottomed out under $35 a barrel at the end of the year. Big Oil earnings dried up, too. For fiscal 2009, Exxon’s profits were slashed in half. Chevron’s income fell nearly 60%. BP “only” suffered a profit decline of 27% that year – but the Gulf Oil spill in 2010 quickly weakened its position. It seemed that the 2008 energy bubble had burst, and we were getting back to normal.
But now, massive oil profits are seeping into the news once more. Exxon’s profits are up 69% in Q1 and Shell profits are up 60%. Chevron reports earnings tomorrow, and you can bet it will see a big boost, too.
So where does this leave motorists in 2011? It’s too soon to tell. Oil prices are notoriously volatile and we could very well see another collapse that sends gasoline prices tumbling in kind. Oil peaked on July 11, 2008, before plummeting some 70% in the next several months. Maybe in the fall and winter, things will be better for consumers.
But even if energy prices do roll back, Big Oil may have already made its fortune. Crude oil prices have jumped over 20% in the last three months so second quarter profits may be even bigger than the ones were hearing about this week. In fact, if you multiply Exxon’s $10.65 billion quarterly profit by four, looking at $42.6 billion for the whole fiscal year. That’s pretty close to that high-water mark of $45.2 billion.
In short, it’s not unrealistic to expect record-breaking profits from big oil in 2011 as $4 gas returns in the summer months. That means it could be deja vu for motorists — and big oil — as the tensions of the 2008 energy bubble return.
Jeff Reeves is editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks or funds named here. Follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.