Lately, big oil has been a big disappointment, and the energy-industry landscape is littered with slashed dividends, sunken share prices, and red ink. But the industry is starting to show signs of life.
Oil prices seem to have stabilized around $50 a barrel, and some companies' cost-cutting moves are finally bearing fruit. Here are three top big oil stocks that look like good buys right now: ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Total SA (NYSE:TOT), and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) (NYSE:RDS-B).
The big dog
Of course, the biggest name in big oil is the giant ExxonMobil. The industry juggernaut has a massive $340.4 billion market cap, dwarfing its publicly traded peers. (No. 2, Royal Dutch Shell, only has a $229.2 billion market cap.) But more importantly, it has a long history of rewarding shareholders.
ExxonMobil has increased its dividend annually for the last 34 years. That's much, much longer than most big oil companies -- only Chevron comes close, at 29 years. And in an era of dividends being slashed by industry heavyweights like ConocoPhillips ($0.74/share to $0.25/share in 2016), it's nothing to sneeze at. And the current 3.6% yield isn't too shabby, either.
ExxonMobil has rewarded its shareholders in other ways, too. The company's return on capital employed (ROCE), return on invested capital (ROIC), and return on equity (ROE), are among the industry's highest, indicating that management has an excellent track record of generating shareholder value through the company's operations and investments.
But it isn't just the company's past that looks bright: Its future also looks strong. It's the only integrated major with positive free cash flow, and maintains best-in-class credit ratings of Aaa from Moody's and AA+ from Standard & Poor's. The company is also increasing its capital spending, and has a vast number of active exploration and production projects around the world to keep the money rolling in. All this indicates Exxon is a top big oil stock.
The scrappy one
Everything about ExxonMobil is big, big, big, but there's another big oil company -- one that isn't quite so big -- that investors will want to consider. In fact, it's beating ExxonMobil on just about every metric other than size right now.
That company is Total SA. Total is the only integrated major that's currently beating ExxonMobil's returns, with its ROCE, ROIC, and ROE all higher than any of its peers. Also, despite producing only about half the oil and gas that ExxonMobil does, Total managed to nearly match its bigger rival's performance in 2016, posting $8.2 billion in adjusted net income compared to just $8.4 billion for ExxonMobil.
Much of this has to do with Total CEO Patrik Pouyanne's ability to cut costs to the point that the company can break even -- including maintaining its dividend -- with oil at less than $50/barrel. That's in stark contrast to fellow integrated oil major BP (NYSE:BP), which recently saw its breakeven point rise to $60/barrel. More incredibly, Pouyanne managed this feat while simultaneously increasing production by 14.3% over the past two years.
You might expect that, between the cost-cutting and the production increases, the company would have had to slash its dividend, as well. But you'd be wrong. In fact, Total raised its dividend, which now sits at a healthy 5.3% yield. In spite of all this, Total's stock hasn't significantly outperformed its peers, meaning now may be an excellent time to pick up some shares.
The question mark
Investors who feel like they can handle a little bit more risk may want to consider Royal Dutch Shell. While the company isn't quite as profitable as ExxonMobil and doesn't have quite as high returns as Total, it still has some advantages that make it worth a look.
First of all, the company's dividend yield of 7.1% is the best in the industry. Only BP's 6.9% even comes close. But it's not clear whether the company will be able to maintain that hefty yield if oil prices continue to stagnate.
Shell's CEO Ben Van Beurden has not given a clear breakeven price point for oil, saying in a recent CNBC interview that Shell must remain competitive "at every oil price level, and that means that we have to continue to work on reducing our breakeven price of the company." The company has been able to generate sufficient free cash flow to fully cover its dividend in the past two quarters, however.
Shell is also just finishing the integration of its recent major purchase, gas giant BG Group. This gives the company additional exposure to the booming liquefied natural gas market, for which global demand is expected to increase by 4%-5% per year through 2030. The flip side is that the BG purchase is going to require Shell to sell off more than $30 billion in unspecified assets by 2018, so there's quite a bit of uncertainty here.
If uncertainty doesn't bother you, that sweet dividend yield will certainly tide you over while Shell's next chapter unfolds.
ExxonMobil, Total, and Royal Dutch Shell may be the best big oil stocks to buy now, but anyone buying into this industry needs to remember that the price of oil is still stubbornly stuck around $50, which means that the truly juicy returns may be months -- if not years -- away. But with their solid dividend yields and decent returns, these three companies are best positioned to pay off for investors when that time finally rolls around.
John Bromels owns shares of BP. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Moody's. The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.