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Have you noticed how our world seems to be changing at warp speed? It was just a quarter ago that those of us who follow energy closely were wide-eyed at the news that Warren Buffett, through his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) , had become ConocoPhillips' (NYSE: COP ) biggest holder.
And then, late last week came the news that, with the economy and commodity prices still sagging, Conoco will lay off about 4% of its workforce and take $34 billion in fourth-quarter noncash charges. It'll also shrink its 2009 capital budget below last year's level.
Further, when the company reports its final 2008 results, it'll tell us that its reserve replacement rate is down to a paltry 25%-30%. However, Conoco assures us that it has replaced 80% to 85% of what it produced and that current SEC rules prevent it from counting some North American reserves.
This isn't to imply that Buffett misfired with Conoco. When crude blew through $145 a barrel last summer, a six-month price drive to today's levels was completely unexpected.
Beyond that, most of Conoco's writedowns will be tied to goodwill from recent years' acquisitions, when crude prices were moving steadily higher. As such, they won't affect cash.
The biggest such purchase was the 2005 buyout of major independent Burlington Resources. And beyond that, Conoco will trim $7.3 billion from the value of its 20% share in Russian oil producer Lukoil (OTC BB: LUKOY).
Management now expects this year's capital spending to be in the vicinity of $12.5 billion, down about 18% from 2008. More than 80% will go to exploration and production activities, while the refining and marketing side will be handed only about $2.0 billion in capital expenditure funding.
So the obvious first question involves the extent to which Conoco's situation will spread to other producers like Marathon (NYSE: MRO ) , not to mention bigger players like BP (NYSE: BP ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) . Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, should Foolish energy investors now avoid Buffett's favorite oil company?
My responses to those two questions are (1) I can't tell yet, although Conoco has generally been especially active on the acquisition trail in recent years and thus would be more subject to writedowns; and (2) no.
As to sinking your pesos into Conoco, do so only if you're patient. But for my money -- and Warren's -- this is a quality company, and the plethora of industry cutbacks will almost certainly lead to a rise in commodity prices sooner than is generally expected.
Conoco wears five stars in the Motley Fool CAPS investor community. Is your vote included in the company's rating?