What Investors Need to Watch When ConocoPhillips Reports First-Quarter Earnings

Photo credit: ConocoPhillips 

America's top independent oil company, ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , is expected to report first-quarter earnings on May 1. For long-term investors this is simply just another checkup along the way to building lasting wealth. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at what matters the most for investors holding for the long term.

A closer look at the numbers that matter
Wall Street analysts estimate that ConocoPhillips will earn $1.58 per share in the first quarter. With history as our guide, the odds are good that ConocoPhillips will meet or exceed those numbers. Over the past four quarters the company has met estimates twice and exceeded them twice for an average of 8%. But for long-term investors, we're not really concerned about it meeting estimates and we won't be upset if the company misses by a penny. We're looking to make sure the bigger picture in still intact.

Given that ConocoPhillips' stated goal is to grow its production by 3%-5% annually, we'll want to make sure it's still on target to hit that goal. Specifically that means production should be growing from last year's base of 1.47 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or BOE/d. Production should be in a range of 1.51-1.55 million BOE/d en route to a 2014 exit rate of more than 1.6 million BOE/d.

What to watch
North American unconventional shale plays are providing a lot of production growth in 2014. Investors will want to look for any signs of weakness in North American shale. In addition to that, we'd hope to see progress in the exploration of emerging shale plays like the Niobrara and Permian Basin as well as Canadian plays like the Montney and Duvernay.

But beyond shale ConocoPhillips also has several major projects overseas that investors need to keep an eye on. Specifically the company has five projects in Europe and Malaysia that are expected to start up this year. In addition to that, the company's Jasmine and Ekofisk South projects are expected to ramp up production throughout the year.

ConocoPhillips/Chevron Britannia Satellites in the North Sea. Photo credit: ConocoPhillips

One of the projects starting up this year is Britannia LTC, which is a field cooperated with Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) . The project includes the installation of a long-term compression module that's designed to extend the life of the Britannia field and enhance the production from existing wells. Investors will want make sure there weren't any issues bringing this Chevron co-venture online.  

In addition to that ConocoPhillips is expected to start up three projects in Malaysia. The Siakap North-Petai field has already achieved first oil while the Gumusut FPS field and KBB gas development is expected to start later this year. The Siakap North-Petai field, which is operated by Murphy Oil (NYSE: MUR  ) , achieved first oil production at the end of February. Peak production from the field is expected to reach 35,000 barrels of oil per day by the middle of this year. The fact that this field is already producing means ConocoPhillips is off to a good start on delivering its major projects for 2014. But investors still need to watch to make sure the company isn't struggling to bring any of its other major projects online this year of if the Murphy Oil led Siakap North-Petai field runs into any trouble as production ramps up.

Investor takeaway
Analysts and short-sighted investors will be looking at ConocoPhillips' first-quarter earnings per share through a microscope. Meanwhile, long-term investors will be more concerned with how the company's major projects are developing. All signs continue to point to the long-term story remaining intact as the company is showing no signs that it won't deliver on its plan to achieve 3%-5% annual growth in production and margin through 2017. 

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