The past year has been somewhat disappointing for Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) shareholders.
In the past 52 weeks, XOM has gained only about 3% to lag far behind the broader market. Though, in fairness, it’s not the only large energy major to show signs of sluggishness — in the same time period, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A, RDS.B) has fallen by about 6% and BP (NYSE:BP) is flat.
Still, Exxon has been kind to investors over the longer-term, with the stock returning more than 10% annually in the past decade.
So, heading into Exxon’s earnings report tomorrow morning, should you buy Exxon hoping now’s just a lull and that better things will be sparked soon, or should you just avoid this sluggish giant? To see, let’s look at the pros and cons:
Financial Strength: Last year, XOM’s earnings increased by 9% to a whopping $44.9 billion — and actually 15% once share buybacks were factored in. In fact, since 2008, XOM has distributed $145 billion to shareholders via dividends and repurchases. During this time, the dividend has improved by 59% (XOM has boosted its payouts for 30 consecutive years) to its current 57-cent quarterly payout yielding 2.6% annually.
Mega-Trends: According to XOM, global GDP is expected to double over the next 30 years. That almost guarantees we’ll see a continued (and increased) demand for energy; right now, forecasts are for 35% growth in that time. Natural gas likely will be the big winner, with forecast growth of 60%. XOM is one of the largest producers in the industry thanks to its $41 billion acquisition of XTO Energy in 2010.
Production: This is critical for Exxon, and thanks to its vast resources, it has been able to keep improving its reserves. Exxon has leading-edge technologies like 3-D seismic systems, lasers and Big Data software. At the same time, the company has great expertise in deepwater, oil sands, Arctic environments and unconventionals. When it comes to projects, XOM has a wide global footprint, including areas like Iraq, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Columbia and Norway. But perhaps the most interesting play is in Russia, with a massive partnership with Rosneft (PINK:RNFTF) that allows it to explore 150 million acres in the Arctic — an area six times larger than the Gulf of Mexico region that might contain up to 90 billion barrels of oil, or a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil.
Oil Prices: These can be volatile, and we’ve already seen crude prices take a big hit so far this year. Some factors at play include a global economic slowdown and a moderation of geopolitical pressures. As seen with the financial crisis of 2008, the global economic system is vulnerable to shocks. All it will take is another implosion — say a hard landing in China — and things could get even more problematic for crude.
Secular Changes: Following years of relatively high oil prices, the globe has been increasingly moving toward energy alternatives and conservation systems. These factors — trends that are likely to continue — could easily keep a cap on oil price growth, too.
Disasters: This is the big X-factor of the oil business. The fallout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is evidence enough of the potential for calamity. In BP’s case, it had to reserve about $40 billion for related costs. Granted, XOM has stringent safety and risk management systems (resulting from its own massive spill, the Exxon Valdez, in 1989), but there’s no guarantees in this business.
Exxon Mobil is a standout in the energy industry, with a massive footprint that goes well beyond production and into refining and marketing across 150 countries. Not to mention it’s also one of the world’s largest chemical companies.
It also has strong management that has always taken a long-term tack, which has meant huge investments; currently, XOM plans to invest $38 billion annually for the next five years to find new opportunities.
Lastly, it’s a highly efficient organization, boasting a 25.4% return on equity that’s the envy of its peers.
So should you buy Exxon Mobil? Yes — short of a disaster in tomorrow’s earnings report, the pros will outweigh the cons on XOM in the near-term.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook. He is also the author of High-Profit IPO Strategies, All About Commodities, and All About Short Selling. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.