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When it comes to surviving the plunge in oil prices, timing is everything.
While many oil companies large and small are reducing, postponing or outright abandoning costly future projects to save money, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A)(NYSE:RDS-B) and ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) are nearing completion of their most expensive initiatives, and therefore aren't committed to heavy spending in the future.
No energy company is immune to the blight of negative cash flow in the coming year, and as a result many have made deep cuts in capital expenditures in efforts to survive the price plunge, assuming prices ever rebound. These cuts are steep, 10 percent to 15 percent lower in 2015 than they were last year.
But some companies are at favorable points in their spending cycles, making those cuts easier to live with. Two prime examples also happen to be two of the world's most prominent oil companies, Shell and Exxon, whose biggest enterprises are close enough to completion that spending on them has declined appreciably.
"Both had already entered a lower spending phase, with major projects reaching completion and coming on stream over the next two years," Moody's rating company said in a report.
That doesn't mean Shell and Exxon have only a few irons in the fire. In 2014, Shell began four large drilling projects in the Cardamom and Mars B oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, along with start-ups at oil fields in Malaysia and Nigeria. At the same time, Exxon began eight large oil and gas production projects in several countries, including Papua New Guinea, Abu Dhabi and the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of the drop in oil prices, Exxon was forced to cut spending on new projects in 2015 by 11 percent to about $34 billion, yet this didn't cause much of a cut in production. Shell, meanwhile, cut overall spending by $15 billion during the next three years without affecting output.
By luck, Moody's said, two other oil giants, Total and Chevron, are caught in the middle of spending cycles for development projects and will have to rely on loans, not revenue, to remain viable.
And BP has cut spending and jobs and frozen salaries, but still faces expenses arising from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the cost of owning nearly 20 percent of Russia's government-run oil company Rosneft.
But Moody's says Shell and Exxon probably will be able to avoid borrowing to maintain their high dividends as long as oil prices don't go below their current price of around $60 per barrel. They'll also have the opportunity to buy valuable assets from hard-pressed competitors at bargain prices.
All this adds up to companies like Exxon and Shell having a much brighter future than their peers.
"Those who have stronger balance sheets would be able to acquire more assets in the downturn, for example distressed and cheap US shale producers," Kirill Pyshkin at Mirabaud Asset Management in London told the financial news website Fin24. "If oil prices recover, [Exxon and Shell] won't have to sacrifice their growth budgets and hence will be growing faster than peers in future."
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com. Oilprice has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total (ADR). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.