Here's Why Eni Sees Recovery Ahead After a Bruising Year

Italian oil and gas major Eni (NYSE: E  ) faced a number of industry tailwinds last year, but showed a great deal of resolve. Eni actually held up fairly well, and posted solid numbers in 2013. The energy giant faced challenges in a number of markets, including in its considerable Libyan operations, as well as a stagnating economic climate in Europe.

And, extremely difficult conditions on the downstream side of the business weighed on results. Overall, Eni's earnings last year were nothing to brag about. This was a recurring theme across the integrated space, as peers ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) struggled right alongside Eni. But, what Eni wants its investors to know is that its resilience is a testament to its underlying strength. Moreover, if broad industry trends show any improvement this year, better days surely lie ahead.

Admirable performance in a tough year
Most integrated majors got roughed up last year. Profits across the sector got walloped, due to disappointing production on the upstream side and collapsing refining margins on the downstream side. Indeed, ExxonMobil's production last year fell 1.5%, and earnings per share collapsed 24% versus 2012. Chevron fared slightly better, but still struggled. Its total production dipped by 0.5% and its own earnings per share declined by 17%.

Eni was no different; in fact, it had even stronger headwinds to face because of its greater dependence on European demand and Libyan production, which were both extremely weak last year.

Perhaps the biggest anchor weighing on Eni's production is the continuing calamity in Libya. Eni made a big bet on Libyan production several years ago because its Chief Executive Officer believed it would turn into an oil-producing paradise.

Unfortunately, this hasn't materialized nearly to the extent management had hoped. Civil unrest and labor disputes have significantly disrupted production there. This has really hurt Eni, since it has more operations in Libya than any other oil driller. Total oil production in Libya fell significantly last year to just over 800,000 barrels per day. This is down from a peak of more than double that level as recently as 2010.

On the demand side, it's probably no surprise that Europe's economy remains challenged. This is especially true in Italy, where demand for oil and gas has fallen each year since 2010. Making matters worse is that Eni's realized margin per barrel declined last year to its lowest level in five years.

And yet, Eni takes pride in its performance last year. It's true that the company did relatively well, especially when its performance is stacked up against many of its peers. Eni's cash flow dropped just 11%, to 13.4 billion euros.

Hope for a better future
Fortunately, Eni sees many of the difficult conditions faced last year abating somewhat going forward. Libya is expected to stabilize, and the company projects its downstream unit will start contributing positively to its performance. And, the economy in Italy and Europe more broadly continues its slow, but steady, recovery. As a result, management has some fairly optimistic operating goals over the next few years.

In all, management expects cash flow from operations to grow 40% over the next two years. Growth is expected to reach 55% by 2016. To accomplish this, Eni will lean on production growth, which is expected to increase by 3% compounded annually through 2017.

On the downstream side, Eni's intense focus on streamlining logistics and cost reductions should drive profitability improvements. When combined with cuts in refining capacity, Eni projects its downstream segment will produce 3 billion euros in cumulative cash flow from operations over the next three years.

The bottom line that Eni wants its investors to know is that while the headline numbers last year looked bad, the company deserves credit for surviving such a tough operating climate. Management believes it took the necessary steps to ensure future recovery. While Eni has provided some lofty expectations for itself going forward, management will have a lot to brag about should it accomplish its ambitious goals.

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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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