Even Investors in the World's Largest Oil Companies Should Remain Cautious

French oil giant Total (NYSE: TOT  ) is encountering a slew of difficulties, including labor strikes and geopolitical turmoil, that could make 2014 a problematic year. Total has performed well this year, in comparison to its peers. Unfortunately, these new complications could derail its momentum.

Total's geographic positioning and ongoing labor problems present unique challenges for the company, which you would be wise to closely monitor.

Significant headwinds for 2014
Unfortunately, Total is having problems in its own backyard. Recently, five Total refineries around France shut down production due to ongoing labor strikes. In all, these five refineries account for nearly one-million barrels per day in throughput capacity. This is surely a disappointment, since Total's ability to produce strong downstream results, amid such a poor environment for refining, was one of its best qualities.

Consider that Total's refining and chemicals segment grew net operating profit by 7% through the first nine months of 2013, compared to the same period last year. This has allowed Total's overall earnings to decline by just 8% in U.S. dollars. Total's results are extremely solid, especially when compared to the widespread refining woes afflicting the entire energy sector. For example, other integrated majors that have significant refining businesses, including ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , saw profits suffer mightily this year.

ExxonMobil's combined earnings dropped a whopping 31% through the first nine months of 2013, due almost entirely to its downstream difficulties. Upstream earnings were down just 9% through the first three quarters. Overall production, excluding the impacts of one-time items, actually increased 0.4% during this period. Downstream earnings, meanwhile, collapsed by 78% through the first nine months.

Chevron's refining woes aren't as severe as ExxonMobil's, but it's clear that refining is dragging down its business. Chevron's upstream earnings dropped by just 6% through the first nine months of the year, but its downstream profitability fell by 45% in the same period.

The fact that Total is seeing resilient refining operations is a credit to its management. However, management has a unique set of challenges to deal with if 2014, if it is to be a profitable year.

Upstream initiatives need to pay off
Any potential complications that could harm Total's otherwise-successful downstream operations will need to be offset by Total's upstream project line-up. Total points investor attention to several upstream initiatives, but the concern there is that many of these projects are located in high-risk geographies.

For example, Total is plowing considerable resources into Africa, where pronounced geopolitical risk presents a significant concern. Supply disruptions are a constant threat, meaning Total's projects carry a higher level of risk than U.S.-based projects carried out by Total's competitors.

Africa now accounts for Total's biggest geography in terms of gross capital expenditure and oil and gas production, as well as its second-biggest in terms of number of service stations. To be exact, Total has more than 7 billion euros in gross capital expenditure plans for Africa, far ahead of its next largest geographical area of investment, which is Europe, at just under 6 billion euros. Furthermore, Total produces 713,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in Africa.

A well-run company with a unique set of challenges
Total's strong performance in 2013 is notable. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Total kept profits relatively steady, even in its refining business, where other integrated majors are hurting. That said, Total has a unique set of difficulties that management needs to tackle in order for 2014 to be a good year.

Specifically, Total's labor strikes that have shut down production at five of its refineries could significantly impact production. These refineries hold a capacity of just under one million barrels per day, meaning their function and efficiency are critically important to the companies' success.

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