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Big Oil, Big Profits

There was a certain inevitability to the December results at ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) . With crude oil prices effectively doubling last year, including briefly touching $100 a barrel in the last quarter, anyone could have seen the companies' earnings would leap.

But the dual effect of the pair both reporting the same day could have interesting consequences. With this year's presidential race roaring and absorbing the lion's share of the media's attention, big profits at big oil almost certainly will set off shrieks from the campaign trail.

Exxon's huge numbers
In any event, ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded company, has checked in with the highest quarterly profits ever recorded by any company in any industry at any time. Its net income climbed by 14% in the quarter to $11.66 billion, or $2.13 per share, compared to $10.25 billion, or $1.76 a share, for the last quarter of 2006.

And while the direction of the company's earnings were predictable, the size of the per-share number surprised even Wall Street types, who had formed a consensus expectation closer to $1.95. Revenues were up 30% to, gulp, $116.64 billion.

As even Forrest Gump might have predicted, the exploration and production end of the business boomed, contributing $8.2 billion to Exxon's earnings, up from $6.2 billion a year ago. At the same time, liquids production was down, while gas output rose. Regarding the former, if you allow for a number of definable factors, including the company's lost production in Venezuela and OPEC quota effects, the decline was about 3%.

With an international contribution more than compensating for a 34% slide in the U.S., the company's downstream profits actually were up 16%, while chemicals earnings fell just more than 10%. And for the sake of added perspective, for what Exxon spent on share buybacks during the quarter -- $7.9 billion -- you could have purchased a majority stake in fellow old-school industrial Ford Motor Co.

And then Chevron
On a pure percentage growth basis, Chevron actually outdid Exxon. Its quarterly profits rose to $4.88 billion, up 29% from the $3.77 billion a year earlier. The per-share numbers looked like $2.32, vs. $1.74 for the December 2006 quarter, $0.06 above the dart throwers' reckoning. Revenues for the company increased by the same percentage as net income.

Chevron also more than doubled Exxon's 32% growth upstream, posting exploration and production profits 66% higher than a year ago. Unfortunately, it also saw its downstream profits dip by a somewhat thunderous 79%. Chemicals earnings were also on the downside to the tune of 44%.

And despite Chevron's choosing not to tell Hugo Chavez to buzz off and exit Venezuela completely at the time of that country's nationalization of its Orinoco basin production -- as Exxon and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) did -- Chevron's worldwide liquids production slipped by about 3.5% from a year ago. Its global natural gas production was up about 4.8%, however.

The takeaway
My Foolish friends realize that the slide in liquids production by these two big companies is of some concern. That's especially the case, since crude prices have pulled back by about 10% of late, and there are those who believe that softening economics in the U.S. -- and perhaps globally -- will dampen demand and further affect prices to the downside.

That clearly was the thinking of the OPEC ministers on Friday when they rebuffed President Bush's request for higher oil output from the cartel. The organization's next scheduled meeting to consider the issue won't occur until late March.

In any event, I want to appear clear and not wishy-washy in my assessment of the investment attractiveness of Exxon and Chevron, along with the likes of BP (NYSE: BP  ) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) .

In the shorter term, barring a jolt to crude prices from, for instance, a geopolitical blowup, those prices are apt to slip further. As such, despite a possible strengthening of downstream earnings, the companies' shares aren't apt to move appreciably higher for now. That's the biggest reason I'm currently more partial to the service side players, such as Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) .

On the other hand, I remain convinced that the world's growing oil demand and relatively fixed supply will eventually result in a slurping sound, much like a straw at the bottom of an empty soft drink glass. On that longer-term basis -- and only if Fools approach it that way -- any of the above companies could permit investment participation in that somewhat daunting scenario.

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10/26/2016 4:00 PM
CVX $101.19 Up +0.42 +0.42%
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BP $35.85 Down -0.19 -0.53%
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COP $41.80 Down -0.01 -0.02%
ConocoPhillips CAPS Rating: ****
HAL $47.62 Down -0.15 -0.31%
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SLB $80.02 Down -0.20 -0.25%
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