Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.
For big oil, it requires an almost unfathomable amount of capital expenditures to maintain current production numbers. Today, though, shareholders in these giants are becoming disgruntled because so much money is getting poured back into the business rather than back to shareholders. The slightly ironic facet of this trend, however, is that big oil companies like Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) are returning value to shareholders -- shareholders in companies like Seadrill (NYSE:SDRL) and Core Labs (NYSE:CLB) that is.
The burden of big oil
Shareholders and analysts may not like it, but big oil companies need to spend gobs of money on mega-projects if they have any hope of growing their production and revenue streams. Chevron and Exxon's Gorgon project that will ship LNG to the Asia-Pacific market is a perfect example of this. The project is estimated to come in at $54 billion and will not be online for a few years. Once it does, though, it will still take years for it to generate a healthy return, even though it will net Chevron 400,000 barrels per day of oil equivalent production. Even more discouraging is the Kashagan oil project, in which Exxon is a partner. The company estimates that it will need to be involved in one of the worlds largest oil finds well past 2040 to make a return on all the investments the company made in infrastructure and exploration to bring the project to fruition.
For investors in these companies, therein lies the problem. For years, these companies have been spending loads and loads of cash, but there has yet to be any significant change in revenue or profitability. This is causing a bit of a rift between big oil managers and its shareholders who would like to see that capital go into share buybacks or a dividend hike. At a recent speaking event, Total CEO Chistophe deMargerie lamented the recent "drama" over free cash flow and how it doesn't allow for long-term growth strategies at these companies. Also, Royal Dutch Shell's CFO recently said that it's in "nobody's long-term interest" to simply slow growth spending to return it to shareholders.
Like it or not, we may need to start referring to Big Oil as Big Spending, because these big capital budgets will be necessary to not only grow production but simply maintain the production it has today.
Change the game
The beauty of being an individual investor is that no one is forcing you to invest in big oil. Even better, why not follow the money that big oil is spending and invest in those companies instead? Based on the outlook for companies like Seadrill and Core Labs, it looks like it could be a pretty lucrative way to go.
For the integrated majors, offshore oil is becoming an ever larger part of the equation. Between now and 2017, the seven largest integrated majors are projected to spend about $835 billion on offshore oil exploration and production. A large chunk of that will go toward day rates for rigs, and Seadrill has already secured a sizable chunk of it. The company's order backlog between today and 2017 stands at $19 billion, and more than two-thirds of that backlog is dedicated to those seven big oil companies. With a massive expansion plan underway on top of a 7.9% dividend, Seadrill is turning big oil's spending habit into a shareholder-friendly proposition.
Another aspect that investors could consider is that big oil isn't going to spend that much money on a whim. So these companies are turning increasingly to Core Labs' reservoir analysis methods to get a better idea of what they can expect in terms of production and ultimate oil recovery from a well. These types of analyses are letting big oil make better investment decisions on prospective plays. Chevron, Exxon, Total, Shell -- all of these companies are employing Core Labs, and the work on many of these mega-projects has translated into four straight quarters of record-breaking profitability. Also, work in emerging, complex oil formations such as in Russia and the coasts of Brazil and West Africa will provide ample projects over the next several years in this field.
What a Fool believes
There are two ways you can view big oil's lack of shareholder-friendliness: Bemoan management for not returning enough value to its shares or choose to invest where that money is flowing instead. Luckily, as individual investors, we have that choice and we should use that advantage to the greatest extent possible.