ExxonMobil (XOM 2.97%) has struggled in recent years. Shares are down about 20% over the past three years because of continued volatility in the oil market and the company's struggle to grow production and earnings.
Exxon, however, has a plan to turn things around. Because of that, the company could be a big winner in the coming years. Here's a look at the bull and bear cases for buying the oil giant.
The bull case for ExxonMobil
In early 2018, ExxonMobil launched a long-term strategy to boost its production, profitability, and cash flow. At the time, the company believed its output would rise from slightly less than 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (BOE/D) up to more than 5 million BOE/D by 2025. Fueling that growth was its plan to invest in high-return projects in places like the Permian Basin and offshore Guyana. Because of that focus on returns, Exxon believed that its earnings and cash flow would double from 2017's level with no improvement in oil prices.
Exxon updated its outlook earlier this year. It now sees its Permian position alone pumping more than 1 million BOE/D by 2024 -- an 80% increase from its prior forecast. Driving that more optimistic view is better-than-expected drilling results on the land it acquired in 2017. Because of that and the company's outperformance elsewhere, Exxon now sees earnings growing 140% by 2025 from 2017's baseline.
Given that stocks trade at a multiple of their earnings, Exxon's forecast suggests that its shares could more than double from 2017's price point, assuming oil cooperates. Meanwhile, there's ample upside to Exxon's plan if oil prices improve. Crude prices are already 15% higher than they were at the end of 2017 and could further improve by 2025 if supply growth doesn't outpace demand.
The bear case for ExxonMobil
ExxonMobil's plan makes a lot of sense on paper. However, several issues could potentially derail its strategy, including underwhelming well results and oil prices.
So far, Exxon's well results in both the Permian Basin and offshore Guyana have outpaced expectations. In the Permian Basin, for example, production surged 20% sequentially in the second quarter and is now up 90% in the past year. However, Concho Resources (CXO), one of the region's largest drillers, reported in the second quarter that a well spacing test underperformed expectations.
Concho noted that it spaced its wells too close, which caused reserves to deplete faster than anticipated. That suggests drillers might be running out of top-tier drilling inventory. If Exxon runs into similar problems with its acreage, it could negatively impact the company's ability to achieve its bold growth plan.
Meanwhile, the company is still in the early stages of development in offshore Guyana, and the first phase is not expected to come online until early next year. Exxon and its partners expected to develop five production platforms by 2025, which would enable them to pump 750,000 barrels per day. However, given how early the company is in development, a lot could go wrong. Delays in getting equipment or approvals, as well as poor well results, could impact Guyana's ability to deliver the growth and returns that Exxon expects.
The other potential issue that could derail Exxon's strategy is oil prices. Oil has been quite volatile since Exxon launched its plan and will likely continue to fluctuate in the coming years. However, an even greater concern for the oil market is the continued disruption by alternative energy sources.
While electric vehicles, for example, currently represent a small percentage of new car sales, adoption is accelerating. If that trend continues, it could dent oil demand growth, which would likely weigh on oil prices. If crude drifts below 2017's level in the coming years due to an oversupply, Exxon's growth will be a waste.
Verdict: ExxonMobil is a buy
Exxon is growing increasingly confident in its long-term growth strategy. The oil giant's success in the Permian and offshore Guyana now has it on track to more than double its earnings by 2025, with no improvement in oil prices.
While several risks could derail its strategy, Exxon remains on track to create significant value for its investors in the coming years. That makes it one of the more compelling oil stocks to consider buying for the long haul.