Very rarely do you see surprises from Big Oil during an earnings release, and ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) quarterly release was no exception. Sure, the company beat Wall Street expectations by posting a quarterly profit of $1.56 per share compared to analyst guidance of $1.34 per share. Other than that, though, the things you would expect from ExxonMobil's earnings came to be.
By the numbers
Unless you take analyst estimates as the gospel of what you should expect from a company's earnings report, then the numbers from Exxon shouldn't really surprise you. Both revenue and earnings declined compared to last year's quarter, which is mostly a result from the lower price realized on crude oil. Earnings from the upstream side of the business took the biggest hit -- down $1.3 billion. At the same time, though, some of those lower production earnings were partially recovered from improving chemical manufacturing.
The one small surprise was that ExxonMobil's refining segment didn't do as well as one might expect when crude prices fall. Part of that was a result of the company doing a little more maintenance work than normal on its refining assets, but overall the fall in crude wasn't as great for refining as one might have expected.
ExxonMobil wasn't the only one to post predicable results in the Big Oil space, either. Chevron's (NYSE:CVX) quarterly numbers that were released on Friday also showed the company's earnings taking a big hit from the drop in crude oil while chemical manufacturing and refining covered for some of those losses compared to year-ago numbers.
Looking ahead, don't be surprised if this trend continues into the next quarter. Prices for crude so far this quarter have been even lower than the fourth quarter, so lower production earnings partially recovered by the business segments that consume petroleum products will likely remain the norm.
Beyond the numbers
It can be hard to judge any Big Oil company on a quarterly earnings report alone since so many of the decisions they make today are based on what is supposed to happen years from today. Some little nuggets of information in these earnings reports, however, can give a small indication of what that future may look like. Based on what ExxonMobil and Chevron said in these press releases, here are two things that we can expect to see.
Strong activity in deepwater production, but with more attention to cost: Both Chevron and ExxonMobil announced in their press releases that deepwater will remain an integral part of their production portfolios. ExxonMobil announced that it had acquired three major exploration blocks off the coast of Newfoundland and continues to develop in the Black Sea off Romania. Meanwhile, Chevron expects to continue exploration of its successful drilling program in the Gulf of Mexico.
One thing that we will likely see different, though, is some industry consolidation or cooperation on the development of adjacent projects. Prior to its earnings announcement, Chevron announced that it, BP, and ConocoPhilips will trade some of their Gulf of Mexico acreage to optimize development as well as consolidate production of these 24 leases to a single production gathering facility to reduce costs. As offshore development becomes more prominent in large basins such as the Gulf of Mexico, these kinds of consolidated programs may be much more common.
International shale opportunities are there, but fewer than before: Geologically speaking, there are plenty of opportunities for shale drilling outside of the U.S. Based on profits, though, those opportunities aren't looking as promising as they previously did. As part of Chevron's plan to pare its exploration budget, its plans to develop shale gas in Poland have been discontinued. The numerous technical and political challenges were simply too much to make it a possibility now considering all the other development projects it can pursue.
At the same time, though, both Chevron and ExxonMobil are continuing their shale development programs in the Vaca Muerta shale in Argentina -- one of the largest tight oil formations in the world. While progress on these project has been considerably slower than U.S. tight oil development, the size of the potential reserves there mean that both of these companies aren't willing to give up on the potential of this one quite yet.
What a Fool believes
If a quarterly earnings report deeply impacts your investment thesis, then probably owning big oil companies isn't for you. Each big oil company's progress needs to be evaluated over a time horizon of several years, and the minutiae contained within an earnings report can detract from the bigger picture with these companies. This quarter was just another example of how Big Oil's earnings are relatively predictable, and in some ways a distraction from what is important. For the individual investor looking to build wealth over the long term, these companies shares remain some of the best investments you can make, and it will take a lot more than a single quarter's results to change that.