Why Exxon and Chevron Helped Lift the Dow Today

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

The stock market continues to be held hostage to goings-on in Washington, as changing moods took the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) from an opening triple-digit drop to a closing gain of 64 points. Despite the failure of lawmakers to reach a deal in time for a White House meeting originally scheduled at 3 p.m. EDT, investors seemed willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as leaders of both parties assured the public that they are close to an agreement and are still making progress.

Most of the Dow's components rose, with both members of its energy contingent posting gains. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) climbed three-quarters of a percent, defying weakness in the oil market that sent West Texas Intermediate prices down $0.16 and Brent crude down almost $1 per barrel. Recently, the spread between domestic and foreign crude prices has started widening again, reaching $8.50 per barrel today after having come close to parity in recent months. That's good news for Exxon's integrated oil operations, as it still benefits from spreads that promote higher prices for refined products like gasoline, heating oil, and diesel fuel.

Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) also posted gains of about 0.8% even as it goes to trial this week in efforts to avoid having an international judgment from a court in Ecuador enforced in U.S. court. With $18 billion at stake, Chevron is still dealing with the fallout from its purchase of Texaco 12 years ago, as authorities in Ecuador argue that Texaco cause environmental contamination in the country's Amazon jungle region.

One challenge that both Exxon and Chevron face is how well the world oil markets can handle soaring production. In particular, the International Energy Agency noted late last week that production outside OPEC has risen sharply, reflecting greater activity in North America and other areas that used to be relatively insignificant. That could pressure prices in the long run, although OPEC production levels are far from guaranteed in light of the ever-present threat to exports from countries experience civil unrest.

Yet another important question remains whether these companies can eventually handle the transition from oil and gas to other forms of energy. Within the Dow, General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) has made big forays into both sides of the energy industry. Its purchase of Lufkin Industries has boosted its exposure to the traditional oil-and-gas services niche, complementing its well-established pedigree in wind and its billion-dollar investment in solar giant First Solar. Even traditional oil companies are getting into the game, with Total (NYSE: TOT  ) enjoying the fruits of its major stake in First Solar archrival SunPower. (NASDAQ: SPWR  )

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