The global economy is beginning to reopen, and that is very good news. Oil stocks were under pressure even before the pandemic hit, but things got worse as lockdowns began. Demand fell of a cliff, and even Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) stock took a plunge.
At one point, Exxon Mobil stock was trading at levels not seen in 20 years.
But, hope springs eternal. That hope is the only reason I can think of for investors to even consider buying Exxon Mobil stock today. Oil prices are rising. But it’s hard to see prices moving to levels that would justify a long-term investment.
If you were brave enough to buy shares of Exxon Mobil on March 23, you’ve been rewarded with a nearly 40% gain. However, that gain can be chalked up to fishing in a barrel. While oil demand is likely to remain suppressed for some time, nobody expected prices to stay as low as they were.
The questions seem to be how high will oil rise and how long will it take to get there? But if you’re thinking of using rising oil as a reason to buy Exxon Mobil stock, you may want to reconsider.
Don’t Count on Oil to Save Exxon Mobil Stock
If you look at the historical track of XOM stock with oil prices, a pattern emerges. When oil prices are low, there is a larger delta between the two prices. However, that delta narrows significantly the higher that crude prices go.
So let’s put it in simple terms. Crude prices have risen nearly 200% in the last month. In that same period of time, Exxon Mobil shares have climbed about 40%. And as of this writing, Exxon trades about 50% higher than the price of a barrel of oil.
But if you look back to April 2019, when crude was trading around $65 per barrel, shares of XOM were around $80. It’s a premium for sure, but much less than what you’re getting today.
But that’s just one data point. Let’s look at another. At the beginning of October 2018, crude oil was trading at around $76 per barrel. Investors could have snagged shares of Exxon Mobil stock for around $85. Do you see the point I’m trying to make?
The conventional wisdom says that the rising price of crude is a tide that will lift all boats. And while that may be true on some levels, it has not been the case in terms of the price of Exxon Mobil stock.
The Juice Isn’t Worth the Squeeze
But wait you say, crude prices wouldn’t have to rise that much higher for XOM stock to reach $60. And that would be a nice gain from its current level. Sure, all of that is true, but it’s also relying on a lot of things to go right.
JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon recently predicted a “fairly rapid” recovery for the U.S. economy. But that is no guarantee that the price of oil is set to return to anything close to the kind of juice Exxon needs for growth. First of all, there is still a glut of oil on the market. Then you have to look at headwinds on the demand side.
First, it’s hard to estimate how many workers may decide that they want to continue working from home. And that number may increase if kids aren’t allowed to go back to school in the fall.
Second, business travel is likely to decline in the short term. And even for those companies that want to do business overseas, they may find that international destinations are not available. Will domestic travel be enough to overcome that? What about if airlines are required to enact strict social distancing protocols?
And then there is the question of what demand will be for taking a cruise. All of these questions will have a profound effect on the direction of oil prices. And the futures market is saying not so fast. At the time of this writing, the highest price for crude on the futures market is the March 2021 contract which is currently at $35.93.
The Bottom Line: It Costs Too Much to Get XOM Wrong
At times investing can be very simple. In the case of Exxon Mobil stock, the fundamental question is, what is the cost of being wrong? Exxon recently froze its dividend. That in itself is not the problem. It’s a prudent move in uncertain times. However, Exxon is borrowing money to pay for the existing dividend. That rarely works out well. And, even if oil does move higher, the cost of servicing the debt will be an additional anchor on stock prices.
But once again ask yourself this question: Would a company freeze its dividend if it expected revenue to increase?
Exxon Mobil has one of the lower debt-capital ratios in the oil industry. And unlike other oil stocks, there’s little doubt that Exxon Mobil will live to fight another day. But even if you believe that the worst is over for Exxon Mobil stock, less bad is no reason to buy.
If you’re an investor that’s looking for capital growth, you have probably missed your window. And now with a dividend freeze, I expect value investors will start looking for the door. If you’re currently investing in the stock, I suggest you do the same.
Chris Markoch is a freelance financial copywriter who has been covering the market for over five years. He has been writing for InvestorPlace since 2019. As of this writing, Chris Markoch did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.