Big Oil Is in Trouble, but All Is Not Lost

Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are all cutting output forecasts, but this should be beneficial for the companies in the long run.

Mar 19, 2014 at 9:58AM

One of the attractive qualities of big, international oil companies, is the fact that they are predictable and steady in times of turbulence, or at least they have been in the past. Right now however, Chevron (NYSE:CVX), Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-B), and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) are all struggling to grow, and they are being forced to cut lofty growth targets to more realistic, but less impressive figures.

Downward revision
Chevron is the latest oil major to come out and cut forecasts. The world's fourth largest publicly traded oil and gas company told investors at the beginning of March that production for 2017 is now expected to be in the region of 3.1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, down from the original forecast of 3.3 million barrels per day -- that's a 6% decline.

A number of things have contributed to this downward revision. Firstly, thanks to low natural gas prices, the company is slowing development of its holding in the Marcellus shale formation. Secondly, the company has increased its planned asset sales for the next three years to $10 billion, up from the figure of $7 billion reported during the last three years. Most of these sales will be non-competitive assets, or assets with a low margin of profit in other words, so theoretically, the sale of these assets should ultimately improve profitability, although this will be at the expense of output.

Leaving the U.S.
Like Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell is also struggling with low natural gas prices and high exploration costs within the U.S. Shell has invested around $24 billion in US unconventional oil plays during the past few years, and the company has very little to show for it. Specifically, Shell last year lost $900 million in its upstream Americas unit. As a result, Shell is slashing spending within the region and selling up to 700,000 acres of shale assets as it tries to return to growth and turn a profit.

In addition, Shell is cutting the number of permanent staff and contractors it employs within its North American onshore exploration division by 30%. And, once again like Chevron, Shell is planning to slash group capital spending by 20% during 2014 and is planning on divesting up to $15 billion of non-core assets in an attempt to drive up returns and give more cash back to investors. Still, in the long-term the disposal of low-return assets and additional cash returns to investors are a good thing.

Bigger is not necessarily better
Elsewhere, Exxon like its smaller peers has been streamlining operations, or as the company's CEO Rex Tillerson describes it, "we took a set of low margin barrels off the base." Unfortunately, this will mean a year of no output growth for Exxon, but the company does plan to cut capital spending at the same time, reducing its capex budget about 6% to $39.8 billion. Exxon spent $42.5 billion on capital projects last year, but the company has stated that this was peak expenditure.

Exxon's production is expected to return to growth during 2015 and 2017 as new projects come on-stream. Adding an additional 1 million barrels of production, this should boost production by 2% to 3% annually.

Nevertheless, 2014 is expected to be somewhat of an investment year for Exxon, and while the company's output won't expand, it is likely that profit margins will. The company has 10 major projects coming on-stream throughout the year, most of which are targeting more profitable crude with solid economies of scale and are easier to get out of the ground.

Foolish summary
So in conclusion, for those investors who are worried about big oil's current troubles, it would appear that the respective management teams have things under control. It seems as if 2014 will be a year of investment and divestment as companies sell underperforming assets and reconcentrate spending on more lucrative projects, ready for an increase in output over the next few years.

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Rupert Hargreaves owns shares of Chevron. The Motley Fool recommends 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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