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ExxonMobil: What's Shakin' at Earnings Time?

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On Thursday, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) will become the first in line of the U.S.-based major integrated companies -- a contingent that's now shrunk to two -- to inform us about its results for the third quarter. In reality, however, since big oil's quarterly earnings essentially rise and fall with fluctuations in oil and natural gas prices and the refining crack spread, the real question involves the longer-term direction in which energy's big enchilada appears to be headed.

Oh sure, it's relatively important to realize that the company's per-share earnings consensus expectation for the quarter is $1.96, down 8% from $2.13 for the third quarter of 2011. In addition, revenues are anticipated to come in near $112.4 billion, a 10.3% reduction year-on-year. But with a company like behemoth ExxonMobil -- or Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , the second-largest U.S. integrated, which will report on Friday -- there simply are too many moving parts for analysts to create financial models that provide investors with any sort of dependable compasses.

A passel of items to monitor
Rather, to my way of thinking, it's significantly more important to focus on such other aspects of the integrated companies as the countries in which their activities are concentrated, the geopolitical circumstances of those countries, and the amount of strategic flexibility accorded to management by the companies' balance sheets. Beyond those considerations, I'm inclined to take note of the timeframe in which sizable new projects will come on stream, along with the oil-gas production and reserves balance, and management's ability to avoid political or operating hot water.

This quarter I'll be looking carefully at a few non-earnings metrics for ExxonMobil. For instance, oil-equivalent production was down 5.6% year-on-year last quarter -- flattish if you back out quota effects and divestments -- and so I'll be watching for an unlikely reversal of that trend. Beyond that, I'll carefully note both liquids and gas production. I'm probably more sanguine than many about an expanding role for natural gas, both in the U.S. and internationally, and so I view positively Exxon's role as the largest natural gas producer in the U.S., just ahead of Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK  ) .

Finally, I'll be interested in the company's level of capital and exploration expenditures, which dipped by 9% last quarter. Especially in today's challenging world, it requires spending to boost reserves and production.

Russian encroachment?
But there are other events, contingencies, and possibilities of importance that I'll be attuned to. For instance, I'll welcome additional news on Exxon's new partnership with Russia's big state-controlled oil company, Rosneft. As you know, Rosneft is acquiring all of TNK-BP, the partnership of which BP (NYSE: BP  ) has been a 50% owner, and I'm somewhat wary of the growing role of President Putin and his pals in the global oil scene.

I trust that we'll learn more about the Kizomba Satellites project, offshore Angola. Early in the quarter, Exxon initiated production from the project, which is expected to ultimately produce about 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

Also, following the close of the quarter, Exxon said it would acquire 545,000 net acres in the liquids-rich Montney shale in Alberta, Canada, along with 104,000 net acres in the country's Duvernay shale, all from Celtic Exploration. Current daily production from the acreage is about 72 million cubic feet per day of natural gas and 4,000 barrels of crude.

Two major targets
There are a couple of other possibilities that likely won't be mentioned Thursday, but merit monitoring. For instance, ExxonMobil apparently is shopping its 60% interest in repair efforts on Iraq's West Qurna-1 field. Iraq has cut chintzy deals with the big companies that are working there, and Exxon, which leads the industry in a willingness to stand up for itself, apparently has decided to pick up its marbles and move on to a more lucrative arrangement with the Kurds in the North.

Among the difficulties in this situation is the statement such a move would make about the oil program of Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and in fact, the entirety of the shaky Maliki government. Beyond that, it's possible that Exxon's Qurna-1 stake could be acquired by a company from either Russia or China, thereby further diluting the role of the U.S. in the oil-rich post-war country.

Finally, with ExxonMobil struggling to increase its fossil fuels output significantly, it appears possible that the company could attempt to take up some of the slack through a major acquisition, possibly involving Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC  ) or EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG  ) , one of my favorites. Anadarko would contribute success in several areas, including gas production in Mozambique and an interest in the Jubilee field, offshore West Africa, where Exxon attempted to gain a stake three years ago. EOG has been noteworthy for its program in Texas's hot Eagle Ford play.

The Foolish bottom line
While the last-mentioned subject is unlikely to be broached on Thursday, energy investing Fools would be well-advised to monitor all aspect of the big company. Indeed, given all that's occurring at the big company, along with its ability to serve as a proxy for the industry, I'd urge virtually all Fools to find a place for ExxonMobil on My Watchlist.

David Lee Smith owns shares of BP. The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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