For Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees' irrepressible catcher of yesteryear, it clearly could be termed déjà vu all over again. That, at least, is what it feels like watching the investment community become all atwitter over Thursday's news that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has accumulated a 40-million-share position in energy kingpin ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM).
You may recall that in the summer 2008, as crude prices headed for their highest ever price point at $147 per barrel, it became clear that, in what Buffett still calls a mistake, Berkshire Hathaway became the biggest shareholder of ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP). In those days, the company was the third-largest member of the U.S.-based integrated majors contingent. As Buffett accumulated his position in June 2008, Conoco's shares reached a then high near-$72. By the following February, however, with crude prices having plummeted into the $30s, those same shares temporarily became worth less than $30, costing Berkshire Hathaway a king's ransom.
A solid company
Things change, however, and the Oracle of Omaha and his minions obviously have their reasons making Berkshire the sixth-largest shareholder of ExxonMobil. Further, and more importantly, none of this is to imply that Exxon's shares are on the verge of rolling over. Crude prices appear unlikely to decline into, say, the $70s, and ExxonMobil's shares have tacked on a more than 10% price increase in just over a month.
My "druthers," however, have moved somewhat away from the integrated model toward greater comfort with the larger independent producers, such as ConocoPhillips has now become. In mid-2012 the company spun off its refining and marketing operations. It also continues to high-grade its upstream operations, having sold off billions of dollars of non-core producing assets in the past couple of years.
I haven't turned completely thumbs down on Big Oil, however. But were I to build a position in the group these days, I'd opt for Chevron (NYSE:CVX), the U.S. majors' California-based second in command. Indeed, it appears that I'm in league with the analysts who follow the majors, and who have accorded Chevron nearly a solid buy rating, while their consensus sentiments toward ExxonMobil sit the midpoint between a buy and a hold.
But let's get more specific. ExxonMobil is a solidly managed company, with obvious technological expertise. Beyond that, it's powers that be have succeeded where the likes of BP and Royal Dutch Shell have failed: They've gotten on relatively smoothly with the Russians.
Which just might turn out to be a problem I suspect with scores of other investors. I am quietly watching the unfolding of ExxonMobil's new partnership with Russia's behemoth state-controlled oil company, Rosneft. The pair is joining hands in the Russian Arctic, the Black Sea, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, onshore in the U.S., and in Canada. The combination may yield a windfall for Exxon, but dealing with the Ruskies is frequently dicey and all too often expensive.
And then there's the gas drag. With its expensive 2010 purchase of XTO Energy, ExxonMobil became the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. That occurred as prices for the commodity dropped dramatically, a phenomenon that most industry seers don't expect to change for years to come.
Chevron's array of strengths
For its part, Chevron possess a number of somewhat subtle, but key, strengths. From the perspective of operating locations, its hot sports include the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, Canada, Australia, and relatively stable Angola. It's distancing itself from the tinderbox that is Nigeria. And it remains the only major company working upstream with Saudi Aramco in the kingdom. Thus far it's managed to eschew direct involvement in Russia or increasingly chaotic Iraq.
The company's balance sheet includes about $22 billion in cash, a figure that reduces the prospects for heartburn over its plans to spend $36 billion or $37 billion this year. Most will be directed upstream in an effort to increase production by 3.3 million daily barrels of oil equivlaent over five years.
Like Exxon, Chevron counts as a technological leader in the industry. For instance, its development of arcane new dual-gradient drilling increases safety and efficiency in the burgeoning world of deepwater operations. And I'm betting that many green energy aficionados would be surprised to learn that the company has developed several successful solar photovoltaic projects, and that it's the world's biggest producer of environmentally advantageous geothermal energy.
I could continue, perhaps noting that Chevron is oilier than its peers, which is a bad thing in dermatology but good in energy. I think you get the picture, however. Warren Buffett obviously has bestowed something of an imprimatur on the integrated model of Big Oil. That's fine. But if it provides you with an increased impetus to examine the group, don't neglect the compelling aspects of Chevron.