ExxonMobil: It's Not So Bad

As my colleague Seth Jayson has explained ("You're Full of It"), we Fool writers get some colorful email in response to the articles we write. I'm no exception, and after I recently included a mention of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) in an article, I heard from a fellow named Jim who took issue with me.

Permit me now to share his thoughts and some of my own -- not in order to attack him, but to reinforce an investing lesson. Some stocks you hold may not seem like they're on fire, but if you take the time to look closely, they may be doing rather well for you. (Note that the article of mine he was responding to is " I Turned $3,000 into $210,000.")

Jim said:

I am not sure how you figure 15% yearly growth on Exxon Mobil (XOM). But this stock perplexes me. The company makes plenty of profit, buys back a ton of stock yearly (which I believe they do not pay dividends on), Paid a VERY VERY small premium to Mobil stockholders when Exxon purchased Mobil, pays a puny dividend (1.8%) and this stock has not SPLIT since 2001. Please do not hype underachieving stocks. Exxon Mobil could be showing much better results or at least throwing some pearls at the feet of it[s] stockholders instead of giving Lee Raymond that obnoxious $400 million pay off. My family has owned stock since Exxon Mobil was called Socony Mobil (1957) and we surely are not millionaires nor are we happy with the company over the past 5 years. I understand the point of your article, diversify, but please be careful when describing how wonderful certain stocks are.

First off, let's look at some numbers. In the article, I said, "Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil stock has gained some 15% per year, on average, trouncing most mutual funds ." Jim questioned that. I simply used the Fool's Quotes and Data nook, where, after typing in the ticker XOM, I was able to access historical stock prices for the company, courtesy of Yahoo! Finance. The article in question was from July, so I probably grabbed roughly the following prices: $67.43 for July 2006, and $3.71 for July 1986. Divide the earlier number by the latter one, subtract one, and you get 17.18, showing that the stock has appreciated more than 17-fold over 20 years. That amounts to an annual gain of 15.6%.

I'll also point out that Jim's family has held on to these shares since the 1950s, which is very impressive. Too often, we trade in and out of stocks, impatient for quick riches. It's frequently smart just to hang on to our strong, growing performers, even through periods of stock-price sluggishness -- which is what Jim was perceiving over the past five years. (The stock is actually up about 70% over the past five years ending in July, averaging 11% per year.)

Jim also expressed dissatisfaction with the company's dividend: ". [The company] pays a puny dividend (1.8%) and this stock has not SPLIT since 2001." Well, the truth is, a 1.8% dividend isn't so puny, really. It's not as high as some big blue chips, such as Altria Group (NYSE: MO  ) with its 4% or oil peer Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) with its 3%, but 1.8% is respectable. Plus, it's growing. The dividend has grown an average of 5% annually over the past 20 years.

That said, 5% annual growth isn't too impressive -- I'll side with Jim on this count. Companies like Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) have hiked their dividends by an annual average of 27% over the past decade. (For a close look at lots of growing companies paying hefty dividends, take advantage of a free trial of our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter, which is beating the market by more than 6%.)

Lastly, like many investors, Jim is unhappy about a dearth of stock splits. Many investors don't realize that splits are usually rather meaningless. If you have 100 shares worth $80 each, your stake is worth $8,000. If it splits 2-for-1, you'll have 200 shares worth about $40 each, or . $8,000. It can be more exciting to own more shares, but when they're reduced in value in proportion to the split, it doesn't really affect your bottom line.

We agree
I agreed with Jim on several matters, too. First off, he noted that "the company makes plenty of profit, buys back a ton of stock yearly (which I believe they do not pay dividends on) ." Right he is. When stock is bought back by a company, it's essentially retired, and no longer exists. When buybacks happen to undervalued stock, they can be wonderful for investors. As the number of existing shares decreases, it means that each of our remaining shares is worth more.

He also said, "Exxon Mobil could be showing much better results or at least throwing some pearls at the feet of its stockholders instead of giving Lee Raymond that obnoxious $400 million pay off." I can't argue there. $400 million does seem rather excessive -- and Fool contributor Glen Kenney agreed, penning "ExxonMobil's $400 Million Insult." Read part 1 and part 2.

So before you write off a company like ExxonMobil, or any other firm that seems like it hasn't surged or split lately for you, dig deeper. Take some time to crunch a few numbers and see exactly how well it's been doing. The results may surprise you.

If you'd like to read some other Fools' thoughts on the company, check out the following articles:

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Home Depot, which is aMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendation. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.


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