Dividend Aristocrats In Focus Part 5: Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM) by Bob Ciura

Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM) has a long and illustrious history, which goes all the way back to its predecessor company, Standard Oil.

Standard Oil is quite simply one of the most legendary success stories of American business, and could be viewed as the “founding father” of the U.S. oil industry.  In 1904 (near its market share peak), Standard Oil controlled 91% of oil production and 85% of final sales in the United States.

Standard Oil was founded back in 1870, by John D. Rockefeller. It started out as a two-man partnership between John D. Rockefeller and his brother William.

Standard Oil grew at such a rapid pace, that in 1911 it was dissolved by the U.S. Supreme Court on antitrust grounds. Standard Oil was separated into 34 smaller companies, which include many large companies today, such as Exxon Mobil and its close competitor Chevron Corporation (CVX).

Today, Exxon Mobil is the largest oil corporation in the world based on its market cap of $359 billion.  For comparison, the 2nd largest is Royal Dutch Shell (RDS-A), with a $208 billion market cap.

Exxon Mobil and Chevron hold a special distinction that shows their durability.  They are the only two Dividend Aristocrats in the Energy sector.

Being a Dividend Aristocrat is not some arbitrary distinction, either.  The Dividend Aristocrats Index has performed exceptionally well over the last decade, as the image below shows:

Exxon Mobil

Source:  S&P Fact Sheet

To be a Dividend Aristocrat, a stock must have 25+ years of consecutive dividend increases.  Dividend Aristocrats are often the strongest and most dominant stocks in their industry, as is the case with Exxon Mobil. You can see all 50 Dividend Aristocrats here.

Keep reading this article to learn more about the investment prospects of Exxon Mobil.

Exxon Mobil – Business Overview

The reason why the Rockefellers were so successful was their laser-like focus on keeping costs low and innovative drilling techniques, to separate themselves from the competition.

This strategy allowed them to steadily gain market share. The current Exxon Mobil keeps the same tactics today. This is why Exxon Mobil routinely generates industry-leading returns on capital and has the best balance sheet in the industry.

For example, even though the huge decline in commodity prices over the past two years has caused many oil and gas companies to incur steep operating losses, Exxon Mobil remained profitable last year.

It still earned $16.2 billion in net profit for 2015, thanks to its cost-cutting efforts. Exxon Mobil cut capital spending last year by $7.5 billion. These efforts helped the company generate an 8% return on capital employed last year, solidly above its peer group.

Unfortunately, conditions have not improved much over the course of 2016…

Exxon Mobil’s earnings-per-share declined 62% over the first six months, compared with the same period in 2015. The biggest area of weakness for Exxon Mobil is its upstream operating segment, which is composed of its exploration and production activities.

Upstream is the side of the business that is mostly highly exposed to commodity prices, which is why Exxon Mobil’s upstream profits collapsed by 86% last quarter, year over year.

Exxon Mobil

Source: ExxonMobil Second Quarter 2016 Earnings Presentation, Slide 9

Still, Exxon Mobil earned $3.5 billion in profit over the first half of the year, again due mostly to cost cuts. ExxonMobil slashed its capital spending by 36% in that time, and also suspended its stock buybacks.

The good news is that Exxon Mobil has a large portfolio of high-quality assets and several major projects set to ramp up over the next year, which will help improve its returns on capital, and allow the company to capitalize on any recovery in commodity prices.

Growth Prospects

Like Standard Oil, Exxon Mobil has kept a focus on pursuing the most valuable opportunities.  That is why it has planted its flag in the premier oil and gas producing fields in the U.S., including the Permian Basin and Bakken fields.

Exxon Mobil is the largest operator and driller in these two fields.  The company has significantly reduced its operational costs to help maximize profitability while commodity prices remain low.

Exxon Mobil

Source: ExxonMobil Second Quarter 2016 Earnings Presentation, Slide 19

Going forward, investors can expect Exxon Mobil’s earnings to continue growing at a steady pace. Not only will the company benefit from a recovery in commodity prices, but it also will help Exxon Mobil’s cash flow position simply by no longer requiring such high levels of spending.

For example, Exxon Mobil has huge projects in Papua New Guinea and the Kearl oil field in the Canadian Oil Sands. The Papua New Guinea liquefied natural gas, or LNG, field is expected to produce approximately 6.9 million tons of LNG per year. The Kearl oil field is expected to produce nearly 500,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen at full capacity. Exxon Mobil estimates the field will last more than 40 years.

Once these projects are up and running, they will go from being a use of cash to being a source of cash. This will help Exxon Mobil’s bottom line, even if commodity prices remain weak.

This is in contrast to the company’s 10 year growth numbers – which look bleaker than what investors should expect going forward.  From 2005 through 2015, Exxon Mobil’s earnings-per-share actually declined by 3.2% a year.  Dividend payments per share grew by 9.7% a year over the same time period.

The reason earnings-per-share declined is due to the significant decline in oil prices.  The volatility of Exxon Mobil’s earnings-per-share make dividend growth a far better judge of the company’s long-term growth ability than its 10 year historical earnings-per-share growth.

Put another way, oil prices declined from around $140 a barrel in 2005 to under $50 a barrel in 2015.  That type of decline is not going to happen again over the next decade – in fact, the reverse is more likely to occur.

Competitive Advantage & Recession Performance

Exxon Mobil’s key competitive advantages are:

  1. Its massive scale
  2. Operational efficiencies

This provides the company with the financial strength to aggressively pursue growth opportunities that smaller drillers cannot.

In addition, Exxon Mobil is an integrated company, meaning it has large upstream, downstream, and chemicals businesses. These businesses complement each other well and provide valuable diversification.

When commodity prices decline, it is bad for upstream. But Exxon Mobil’s downstream and chemicals businesses still produce earnings and help the company stay profitable.  Non-integrated energy  businesses do not have the same level of stability.

These qualities helped Exxon Mobil navigate the 2008-2009 recession, which was a period similar to the current environment, in which commodity prices fell significantly. Still, Exxon Mobil remained profitable throughout the Great Recession.

  • 2007 earnings-per-share of $7.26
  • 2008 earnings-per-share of $8.66
  • 2009 earnings-per-share of $3.98
  • 2010 earnings-per-share of $6.22

Oil prices fell by around 50% from 2008 through 2009… But Exxon Mobil remained profitable.  Exxon Mobil is the largest and most powerful oil company in the United States.  It is the ‘black gold standard’ in the industry.

Valuation & Expected Total Return

Analysts expect ExxonMobil’s earnings to grow 68% next year. Its large upstream projects will likely be a major contributor of this

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