ExxonMobil's New High Still Lags the Dow's Best Stocks

Shares of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) hit a 52-week high yesterday. It's not the only Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI  ) component that's enjoyed strong gains over the past year, but neither is it the best performer. Does ExxonMobil's consistently steady performance portend greater long-term success, or is this Dow stalwart doomed to being just another steady stock in a pack of superior indexed alternatives? Let's look at what's behind this stock's recent movements to better understand what might happen in its future.

How it got here
ExxonMobil's outperformed the Dow over the last five years, but not as much as fellow Dow oil giant Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , which has posted five times as much five-year stock growth as Exxon. Even then, the oil companies haven't been running away with it since 2007, as there's another Dow component doing even better:

XOM Total Return Price data by YCharts

Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) has been a boon to the Dow, even though the housing crash should have taken out its supports. It's been an especially strong performer over the past 52 weeks, handily trouncing Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , 2012's best Dow component:

XOM Total Return Price data by YCharts

It's only once you extend these charts out to 10 years that ExxonMobil starts to look like a superior investment, and it still trails Chevron by over 100 percentage points in full-decade gains. So what does it all mean? The price of oil certainly has an outsized impact on an oil producer's fortunes, but many analysts (including myself) feel that the era of cheap oil is over for good.

If we can expect oil prices to stabilize at these higher levels, does that mean we can expect ExxonMobil to again become a better investment than the Home Depots and Bank of Americas of the Dow? Or will ExxonMobil find itself tracking the index while superior stocks lap it on the track? Let's look at how each of these companies stack up on some key financial metrics to find out.

What you need to know
ExxonMobil's been a steady performer for years, and it looks to continue that trend in 2013, as analysts expect it to improve its earnings while Chevron's decline:

Company

P/E Ratio

Price to Levered Free Cash Flow

Net Margin (TTM)

Projected Growth Rate (2013)

ExxonMobil

11.1

18.7

9.0%

6.0%

Chevron

8.4

20.8

11.6%

(3.0%)

Home Depot

21.7

18.7

6.0%

14.2%

Bank of America

10.1

NM

13.3%

175.8%

Source: Yahoo! Finance. NM = not material due to lack of results.

However, it seems clear that there are other Dow stocks with higher growth expectations for next year, especially beaten down Bank of America, which is slowly returning to a state of consistent profitability. ExxonMobil and Chevron have closely tracked each other for dividend increases over the last five years, but both companies have higher cash-flow payout ratios than either Home Depot or Bank of America, which has been paying out a penny since being forced to cut its dividend during the crisis.

ExxonMobil is one of the Dow's cheaper stocks, but its reliance on the cost of oil (and to a much smaller extent, on the cost of natural gas) could leave it vulnerable to a global downturn, which will almost certainly depress oil prices, as happened in the last recession when consumers and businesses all simultaneously tightened their belts. Home Depot and Bank of America face macroeconomic risks as well, but Home Depot stands to benefit from an uptick in housing starts and a rise in household creation, which both seem to be in recovery mode after multiyear weakness.

What's next?
While it seems unlikely that ExxonMobil shareholders will find their shares beset by a long decline, it's also quite possible that this giant oil company is no longer the guarantee of consistent index outperformance it once was. The Motley Fool's CAPS community disagrees, giving ExxonMobil a five-star rating. Only 6% of our CAPS players expect the company to underperform the index going forward, and thus far the bulls have been correct. Will they be right in the years ahead, or are ExxonMobil's years of Dow-beating gains behind it?

Interested in tracking this stock in the months and years ahead? Add ExxonMobil to your Watchlist now, for all the news we Fools can find, delivered to your inbox as it happens. If you’re looking for an energy play with more upside, the Fool’s found one natural gas producer that could explode as nat-gas prices finally recover. What’s behind this stock’s big potential? All the details are outlined in our exclusive free report. Just click here to get the information you need for another great buy, at no cost.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Exxon Mobil and Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron and The Home Depot. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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