When Warren Buffett makes a move, the financial world pays close attention, and for good reason. The Oracle of Omaha is one of the most famous and successful investors in the world, and recent news that his firm Berkshire Hathaway took a large stake in energy behemoth ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has shaken the investing world.
By several measures, ExxonMobil has the look of a classic Buffett stock. But, at the same time, there are lingering pressures on ExxonMobil that have put a dent in the company's underlying results this year. Should you follow Buffett into ExxonMobil? Or, on the other hand, would one of Exxon's peers better suit your investing preferences?
Securing the Buffett seal of approval
According to an SEC filing, Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway added about 40 million shares of ExxonMobil, which at a recent price of $90 per share works out to a stake valued at more than $3.5 billion. As previously mentioned, there are plenty of reasons to believe ExxonMobil makes for a classic Buffett play. ExxonMobil has lagged both its industry and the broader market in year-to-date returns, and as a result trades for a pronounced discount to the market valuation.
This is because ExxonMobil has had a slew of operating issues this year, mostly involving its refining business. Narrowing spreads have severely affected refining margins, and profitability of refining activities has dropped off considerably this year. Consider that ExxonMobil's earnings fell 18% in the third quarter and are down 31% year to date.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil's biggest U.S. competitor, Chevron (NYSE:CVX), has held up much better by comparison this year. Chevron is also suffering from the poor refining environment, but it was nevertheless able to post just a 4.5% decline in third quarter earnings. Year to date, Chevron's earnings are down a manageable 13%. That's because Chevron isn't as heavily reliant on downstream earnings as ExxonMobil.
Curiously, Berkshire Hathaway simultaneously trimmed its holdings of ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) almost in half. Buffett cut his stake from 24 million shares down to about 13.5 million shares, despite the fact that ConocoPhillips has performed much better than ExxonMobil this year (after spinning off its refining business).
ConocoPhillips generated 6.5% growth in adjusted earnings in the third quarter, and posted 9% growth in adjusted earnings over the first nine months of the year. Conoco is reaping huge benefits in particular from its booming U.S. operations. Production in the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Permian regions soared 40% in the third quarter versus the same period last year. Going forward, even greater domestic production will be attained, as ConocoPhillips is currently selling assets in high-risk geographies and using the proceeds to reinvest in more promising U.S. fields.
Shareholder rewards likely caught the Oracle's eye
While it's true that ExxonMobil is struggling this year, management remains entirely confident that the company's troubles are short-term. In addition, ExxonMobil is an industry leader in terms of providing returns to shareholders. Exxon distributed $5.8 billion to shareholders in the third quarter alone, through dividends and share repurchases, and has increased its dividend for 31 consecutive years.
ExxonMobil repeatedly buys back billions of dollars of shares outstanding, which likely gave Buffett confidence that the stock offers a wide margin of safety, something the famed investor often looks for. ExxonMobil bought back more than $12 billion of its own shares through the first three quarters of 2013.
ConocoPhillips and Chevron maintain less aggressive buyback policies, instead favoring higher dividends as the means to provide cash to shareholders. ConocoPhillips and Chevron yield 3.7% and 3.3%, higher than ExxonMobil's 2.9% yield. But, for investors interested in an energy super-major that has the backing of the most famous investor in the world, ExxonMobil may be worth considering.