How ExxonMobil's Share Repurchases and Dividends Are Game-Changers

In the world of investing, cash is king. Companies that reward their shareholders with high levels of cash returns, usually through a combination of dividends and share repurchases, are extremely valuable. That's especially true in unsteady economic times such as these.

For a perfect example, look no further than oil and gas giant ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) . Its status as the largest energy company in the world means that each and every year, ExxonMobil generates high returns on invested capital and prodigious cash flow. This allows the company to return billions of dollars to investors every year in the form of buybacks and dividends. In fact, other energy majors like Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) do this as well, although Chevron maintains a different mix of dividends and buybacks than ExxonMobil.

These cash returns have made up a large percentage of ExxonMobil's total return over the past several years. And, thanks to its impressive project lineup, there's plenty more where that came from in the future.

Unmatched shareholder distributions
That's how ExxonMobil described its policy of cash returns in its 2014 annual meeting presentation. ExxonMobil's core mission is to supply shareholders with reliable and growing dividends, maintain a strong balance sheet, and provide billions in share repurchases every quarter.

ExxonMobil has distributed 50% of every dollar generated since 2009. Its shareholder distributions as a percentage of cash flow stand well above the industry. For instance, Chevron distributes less than 40% of its cash flow to investors.

ExxonMobil has distributed $46.5 billion to investors in dividends over the past five years. And, it does a great job of raising its payout every year. ExxonMobil recently increased its dividend by 9.5%, representing the 32nd straight year of dividend increases.

In the realm of share repurchases, ExxonMobil is second to none in the oil space. Since 2000, ExxonMobil has reduced its shares outstanding from 7 billion to slightly more than 4 billion. In all, ExxonMobil has bought back $84.2 billion of its own shares over the past five years. Since the merger between Exxon and Mobil, the combined entity has reduced its share count by an impressive 37%. This includes $13 billion in share repurchases last year alone.

This is far higher than Chevron's rate of share buybacks. Chevron's repurchases totaled just $5 billion for all of last year, which is barely more than what ExxonMobil averaged each quarter. Chevron's policy is to pursue more modest levels of share buybacks, instead opting for more generous dividend payments. Like ExxonMobil, Chevron recently increased its dividend, by 10%. At recent prices, Chevron pays a higher yield than ExxonMobil.

Upcoming projects to fuel future distributions
Fortunately, ExxonMobil has a full project lineup, packed with opportunities to increase production and cash flow in the years ahead. The company maintains a high-quality portfolio, which resulted in a 17% return on capital last year. This was an industry-leading performance and better than many of its peers. For example, Chevron's return on capital stood at less than 15% last year.

Two of ExxonMobil's biggest initiatives are its Kearl expansion in the Canadian oil sands and its liquefied natural gas project in Papua New Guinea. These are both huge undertakings that should greatly enhance the company's production.

The Kearl project involves the production of diluted bitumen. Initial production should total 160,000 barrels per day. At full development, management believes this project alone could produce almost 500,000 barrels per day.

ExxonMobil just shipped first cargo from the $19 billion Papua New Guinea project. This project will serve the rapidly growing demand for natural gas in the emerging economies in Asia. And, since liquefied natural gas is cheaper and easier to store and transport, the project should be highly accretive to earnings. Total production capacity is pegged at 9 trillion cubic feet of gas, including 6.9 million tonnes of LNG per year.

The bottom line is that while ExxonMobil's production and profits fell last year, it still continued returning billions to investors in dividends and share buybacks. The company has returned enormous amounts of cash to shareholders for many years, and that should only continue based on its impressive project lineup.

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