Marathon Oil, which completed the spinoff of its refining business at the end of June, saw the combined market value of the two new companies increase from $28.9 billion to $37.4 billion, a 30% gain, as a result of the split.
A few weeks after markets rewarded Marathon for its strategic split, ConocoPhillips declared its intention to similarly separate its refining operations from its exploration and extraction business. The split is projected to occur sometime in the first half of 2012.
A successful Conoco spinoff could spur a spate of equivalent maneuvers from its larger rivals, a reversal of the aggressive consolidation in the late 1990s that saw the birth of "Super Major" oil companies like ExxonMobil
According to Sanati, the conditions that provided incentives for mergers over a decade ago, most notably the collapse of oil prices, no longer exist. Instead, high oil prices have squeezed the profits of oil refiners, mitigating the profits of the Super Majors' exploration and extraction units.
"... the exploration side and the refining side of the oil business have little to do with one another. Contrary to popular belief, Big Oil has almost no control over the price of oil these days ... So even though ExxonMobil pumps oil, it can't guarantee that its refining unit will be able to profitably process a barrel into gasoline or heating oil," writes Sanati.
In fact, integrated oil companies have "traded at an average discount of between 11% and 12% compared to their smaller pure play competitors," reports Sanati who cites a study by Citi Investment Research and Analysis.
Because the current climate heavily favors exploration and extraction over refining, integrated oil firms will likely face pressure from its shareholders to either spin off or sell its refineries.
BP has already begun selling, although the firm is in the unique position of having to pay enormous sums for damages caused by last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, Royal Dutch Shell has reduced its refining activities by around 40% over the past dozen years. Shell, however, was the notable exception to the big oil M&A binge in the late 1990s.
Still, the winds of change are likely blowing through the big oil industry. To help you make sense of it all, we crunched the numbers and found the big oil companies that options traders are most optimistic about. Might these firms sidestep or benefit from spinoffs in the coming years? We'll let you decide.
List sorted by put/call ratio. (Click here to access free, interactive tools to analyze these ideas.)
3. Petrobras Argentina
5. Chevron: Market cap of $206.57B. Put/Call ratio at 0.80. Its Upstream operations consist of exploring for, developing and producing crude oil and natural gas; processing, liquefaction, transportation and regasification associated with liquefied natural gas; transporting crude oil by international oil export pipelines; transporting, storage and marketing of natural gas, and a gas-to-liquids project. Downstream operations consist of refining of crude oil into petroleum products; marketing of crude oil and refined products; transporting of crude oil and refined products by pipeline, marine vessel, motor equipment and rail car, and manufacturing and marketing of commodity petrochemicals, plastics for industrial uses and fuel and lubricant additives.
6. Occidental Petroleum
8. ExxonMobil: Market cap of $382.86B. Put/Call ratio at 0.98. It is a manufacturer and marketer of commodity petrochemicals, including olefins, aromatics, polyethylene and polypropylene plastics and a range of specialty products. It also has interests in electric power generation facilities. ITS divisions and affiliates include ExxonMobil, Exxon, Esso and Mobil.
Interactive Chart: Press Play to compare changes in analyst ratings over the last two years for the stocks mentioned above. Analyst ratings sourced from Zacks Investment Research.
Disclosure: Kapitall's Andrew Dominguez does not own any of the shares mentioned above. Data sourced from Finviz and Schaeffer's.