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ExxonMobil is Actually Performing Much Better Than You Think

By many measures, 2013 was a very poor year for integrated energy behemoth ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) . Its profits fell significantly due to under-performance across both the upstream and downstream sides of its business. In addition, ExxonMobil tapered off its share repurchases over the course of the year, which indicated its troubles.

However, when presenting at its 2014 Analyst Meeting, ExxonMobil struck a tone of optimism about its core operating performance last year. That's because management focuses on deeper metrics than just headline profits and earnings per share, and wants investors to understand and appreciate these measures as well.

Here's an overview of the figures ExxonMobil management uses to evaluate itself, and why it still believes it dominates the oil and gas landscape much more than integrated rivals Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) .

Headline numbers suggest a lot of trouble
There's no doubt that the integrated majors saw profits suffer last year as compared to the prior year. On the upstream side, field declines offset project ramp-ups, and in the downstream, a terrible environment for refining marked by shrinking margins resulted in collapsing profits. Put it all together, and integrated energy companies across the board posted poor numbers.

On the surface, ExxonMobil's results last year look really bad. Profits clocked in at $32.5 billion, a 27% drop from the prior year. Oil equivalent production fell 1.5%, and downstream performance was even worse. Downstream earnings were $3.4 billion, which declined by nearly 75% from the previous year.

Focus on more positive core metrics
However, ExxonMobil prefers to focus instead on a few core metrics which it believes strip away volatility in energy markets and provide a clearer picture of its performance. One of these is return on capital employed, or ROCE. This describes how efficiently energy companies deploy investments, and last year, ExxonMobil generated a 17% return on capital employed.

Management considers this to be satisfactory performance, and the company has a well-established track record of leading its industry on investment efficiency. Consider the results from Royal Dutch Shell by comparison. Royal Dutch Shell's return on capital employed stood at just 7.9% at the end of 2013, down significantly from 13.6% at the end of 2012.

Over the past several years, the disparity between ExxonMobil's and Royal Dutch Shell's returns on capital becomes even more apparent. Between 2008 and 2012, ExxonMobil generated approximately 25% return on capital, whereas Royal Dutch Shell's came in at 13%. In a sense, Royal Dutch Shell was about half as good at allocating investment capital as ExxonMobil over this period.

Another key metric management takes great pride in is its level of reserves replacement, which measures the amount of proved reserves added to the company versus the amount of oil and gas produced. Last year, ExxonMobil generated 103% reserves replacement, 76% of which were liquids. This represented the 20th consecutive year of a reserves replacement ratio greater than 100%.

ExxonMobil handily beats its peers in terms of reserves replacement. Integrated major Chevron posted a sub-100% reserve replacement level last year. Looking back further, ExxonMobil has made a habit of outperforming its industry on this measure. ExxonMobil's reserve replacement from 2009-2013 is significantly above 100%, and stands well above Chevron's, which just hits 100%.

Why ExxonMobil did better in 2013 than the headlines suggest
If you go strictly by the numbers that get most widely circulated, such as revenue and earnings per share, you may miss ExxonMobil's true value proposition. The company suffered on these headline numbers due to an extremely poor refining environment and production field declines. But management wants you to know the company still performed strongly on deeper metrics that analyze its underlying performance.

On return on capital employed and reserves replacement, ExxonMobil is still the industry leader and outperformed both Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron. As a result, despite its disappointing production and profits last year, ExxonMobil believes its future is entirely bright.

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Bob Ciura

Bob Ciura, MBA, has written for The Motley Fool since 2012. I focus on energy, consumer goods, and technology. I look for growth at a reasonable price, with a particular fondness for market-beating dividend yields.

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9/2/2015 1:02 PM
CVX $77.85 Down -0.34 -0.43%
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ExxonMobil Corp CAPS Rating: ****