Friday's 143-point drop for the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) added to anxiety levels among investors, with many watching closely for signs that the bull market might be coming to an end. Losses for the week that totaled 385 points still left the Dow far from levels that would indicate even the mildest of corrections, but many anxious market participants looked at results from JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and projected forward to a glum first-quarter earnings season universally. Yet, today's gains in Chevron (NYSE:CVX), and only modest declines for ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), suggest that some investors are seeking refuge in the energy sector for protection from potential losses. Is that strategy likely to work?
Are energy stocks safer than bank stocks?
Looking at the earnings report this morning, problems at JPMorgan Chase were widespread and, although shareholders had expected weakness in areas like mortgage originations, net income at its consumer banking and corporate and investment banking divisions both fell by roughly a quarter from year-ago levels. Plunging returns on equity called into question the wide profit margins that have sustained overall market earnings growth in recent years, and if margin pressures start appearing in other areas of the stock market, then the negative impact on corporate earnings could exacerbate the pullback we've seen so far in the Dow Jones Industrials.
At first glance, Chevron and ExxonMobil might appear to share a common challenge with JPMorgan Chase and the rest of the banking industry: how to keep revenue up. Just as JPMorgan Chase's quarterly revenue fell 8.5% from the year-ago quarter, both Chevron and ExxonMobil have had great difficulty finding ways to grow production quickly enough to overcome the natural lifecycle decline of existing wells, and to offset what has been a relatively poor pricing environment for energy products. Deals like the one Chevron signed earlier this week to provide greater development in Argentina will definitely help, but Chevron has already said that it expects weaker results in the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2013, and it will take constant vigilance for ExxonMobil and Chevron to sustain production levels.
Still, many see ExxonMobil and Chevron as being more defensively oriented stocks than JPMorgan Chase and its banking peers. Although their earnings valuations are similar, big energy stocks have an element of predictability in their revenue and earnings, with their size helping them avoid short-term shocks. By contrast, JPMorgan Chase is in the business of assuming risk, and its recent results call into question whether the bank will be able to find growth in an increasingly hostile regulatory environment.
Finally, the energy industry remains in a state of expansion overall. Even if Chevron and ExxonMobil can't organically grow their businesses, smart acquisitions could go a long way toward adding production and sustaining their long-term prospects. At the same time, lucrative dividend yields and immense share buybacks reward shareholders dramatically -- and neither ExxonMobil nor Chevron has to get approval from the Federal Reserve just to boost a dividend or repurchase a share.
As 2008 showed, energy stocks aren't a panacea for a stock market plunge. But it's easy to understand why many investors have looked at Chevron and ExxonMobil as being relatively safe places to park money in stocks, and any positive influence they wield could help the Dow Jones Industrials limit its losses in a further correction.