Investors didn’t take it too kindly, sending Exxon Mobil stock down nearly 16% before all was said and done. Chevron shares fell similarly over the course of the following two weeks. BP plc (ADR) (NYSE:BP), though it didn’t post its Q4 numbers at the same time, fell sharply in sympathy all the same.
The sudden wave of pessimism is certainly understandable. Crude oil prices were up 13% year-over-year at the time, and for the first time in a long time, the energy industry was seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, somehow Exxon Mobil managed to do worse — operationally — in its most recently completed quarter than it did during the same quarter a year earlier.
The culprit for last quarter’s disappointment? Perhaps more than anything else, investments directed by former CEO Rex Tillerson. They’ve simply not panned out as hoped, and in some cases, have ended up costing the company (and by extension, shareholders) even more money.
Regardless of the reason, the matter leaves current and would-be shareholders of XOM stock in a lurch. Was last quarter the shape of things to come for a while, or is Exxon Mobil stock a bargain at still-depressed prices?
A (Kind of) Bold Earnings Outlook
Take prepared statements and slideshows from a company with a grain of salt. They’re as much a public relations tool as they are informative. In other words, companies tend to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, at least as much as feasibly possible.
On the flip side, Exxon Mobil knows better than to try and sugarcoat any issues for a crowd that usually knows better. Translation: The average investor shouldn’t categorically dismiss any points or messages delivered as part of analyst conferences with company chiefs.
To that end, the company told analysts and Exxon Mobil stock holders that it was expecting earnings of $31 billion in 2025, more than doubling its current annualized income rate. For 2017, it banked $15 billion in non-GAAP profits.
It’s a bold outlook to be sure, though not quite as bold as it may superficially seem, in that Exxon Mobil has eight years to get there. It’s even less bold knowing that figure still pales in comparison to its 2014 bottom line of $32.5 billion.
There’s also a caveat: The profit outlook assumes crude oil prices will remain at current levels or rise between now and then.
They likely will do so, to be fair, although nobody can meaningfully handicap the crude market that far out. Remember, forecasters didn’t foresee the 2014/2015 price meltdown. There are simply too many moving parts to oil prices to make meaningful short-term calls, let alone price calls eight years into the future.
Reality Check for Owners of XOM Stock
As encouraging as the long-term picture may be, the outlook offered up with its analyst day event glosses over some very critical “in the meantime” stuff.
And it’s not like Exxon Mobil has the best track record of being forthcoming with shareholders to begin with. Of the world’s five biggest oil companies, Exxon rates as the worst in terms of sharing information with shareholders. As Redburn oil and gas analyst Rob West put it, “Exxon Mobil’s greatest challenge for 2018 might not its valuation, assets or growth, but opening up to investors.”
Wednesday morning’s powwow and subsequent long-term guidance wasn’t a game-changer in that regard.
Even to the extent relatively new CEO Darren Woods can successfully make the oil giant more transparent, there’s little assurance investors will like what they see for the near future. Exxon Mobil also reported it would spend $24 billion in capital projects this year and ramp that figure up to $30 billion by 2025.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Biraj Borkhataria said of the spending plan:
“To us this highlights that there are no easy fixes to rejuvenate Exxon’s portfolio, and it is likely to take time for this investment to flow through into higher earnings, cash flow and returns.”
That’s time not all XOM shareholders are willing to give the company, particularly knowing the $1.3-billion charge the company took on natural gas plays in Mexico and Canada and the $200-million write-down stemming from an abandoned project in Russia may only be one chapter in a long book of such charges.
Bottom Line on Exxon Mobil Stock
Without knowing the company well, today’s headlines might be seen in a bullish light. But there’s a reason Exxon Mobil stock fell more than 2% in the wake of the big profit-growth outlook, and it wasn’t the pullback in the price of oil.
Current and would-be shareholders just don’t have enough faith that the company will be able to do well enough in the meantime en route to the lofty 2025 goal, even if it reaches that long-term target.
Of course, who can blame them for having those doubts?
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.