New York's "Gift" to ExxonMobil Corporation Investors

Activist investors might be about to persuade New York City's pension funds to dump a large block of ExxonMobil shares on the market for purely political reasons.

Daniel Jennings
Daniel Jennings
Apr 10, 2014 at 8:20AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

New York City's pension funds and environmentalists might give Warren Buffett and other investors that like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) a huge gift come September: a large amount of ExxonMobil shares at a really good price.

New York's comptroller's office, which controls pension funds that own $1.02 billion worth of ExxonMobil, has filed a shareholder resolution demanding details of the company's fracking operations. ExxonMobil has agreed to make a report about fracking and put it on its website in September in an attempt to appease the comptroller.

It is easy to see how this could benefit those who like ExxonMobil stock. If the comptroller doesn't like what ExxonMobil has to say and starts dumping shares, it could drive down the price. There could be a few more shares on the market at a lower price. That might be a good time to buy ExxonMobil.

Classic value investing is to buy good companies when they're in trouble. Buffett already likes ExxonMobil, which had a rough time last year. In November, Berkshire Hathaway disclosed a new $3.45 billion stake in ExxonMobil. So, it's likely Berkshire will make a big ExxonMobil purchase in September.

Pension fund activism may not have much effect on ExxonMobil's price
Such pension fund activism can grab headlines, but it may not have that much of an effect on ExxonMobil. The $1.02 billion might sound like a lot of money to average people, but it only comes out to a tiny fraction of ExxonMobil's shares.

The stake Buffett bought in November represented just 0.09% of ExxonMobil, or around 40.1 million shares. Since the New York pension funds' stake is around $1 billion, or but one third of what Buffett purchased, it only controls around 0.03% of ExxonMobil.

Even if the Big Apple's pension funds sold all of their shares, its effect on the share price could be minimal. The real danger might be a sort of domino effect; if environmentalists don't like what's in the report come September, they could talk pension funds all over the country into selling ExxonMobil.

That, of course, raises serious questions about ExxonMobil's response to the New York Comptroller's office. Perhaps it would be have been better if the company had simply ignored the fracking complaints. The public reaction to the fracking report could have a worse effect on the share price than the pension funds' actions.

Is Exxon still a good buy?
Now it's time for the $1.08 billion question: Is Exxon still a good buy? 

ExxonMobil is still the world's largest oil and gas company by a big margin. It also has some very interesting future prospects. Among other things, ExxonMobil's subsidiary is developing three new oil and gas fields off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan.

Japan needs large amounts of natural gas because it is slowly shutting down its nuclear power industry in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. ExxonMobil is developing natural gas fields just a few hundred miles north of Japan. And that's only one of the plays ExxonMobil is making in Russia.

The bottom line is that ExxonMobil is still a good company, and a really good value play no matter what politically motivated moves the New York City pension funds make. Perhaps the workers and retired workers of the Big Apple need to start asking for new leadership in the Comptroller's office. They might be about to lose a lot of money because of political correctness.

One more thought, here: If the September report turns Americans against fracking, it could be a good thing for ExxonMobil. All of those gas fields it controls in Russia could be far more valuable because of limited U.S. natural gas exports. ExxonMobil's executives might be far cleverer than we thought. They may have figured out how to use the fracking controversy to increase the value of their investments in Russia.