Falling oil prices have wiped out trillions of dollars in shareholder wealth, and some industry stalwarts are struggling to hold on. Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU) is one such example. The company is one of the biggest players in the Canadian oil sands, where high crude prices once made it profitable to squeeze oil out of the tar-like fields of bitumen.
However, the turmoil in energy markets has called those investments into question. Can Suncor make it through the industry's current doldrums? For clues, let's take a look at the company's most recent quarterly report.
Is now the time to bail on Suncor?
Canadian energy investors are getting a tough lesson in leverage. Squeezing bitumen out of the Alberta oil sands is costly. Because of this, operators run on razor-thin profit margins.
When oil prices rise, their thin margins (along with share prices) can skyrocket. But when energy prices drop, this leverage works the other way. That's why the S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index, a good barometer of the Canadian oil patch, is off 25% during the past year.
In spite of its size, Suncor has not been spared from the carnage. On Thursday, the Calgary-based company said it lost $341 million or $0.24 per share during the first three months of the year. That compares with a profit of $1.45 billion or $1.01 per share during the same period last year.
The results reflect oil prices that dropped by more than half since last June. However, Suncor also attributed the swing to a $940 million foreign exchange loss on the value of its U.S. dollar-denominated debt.
"These are certainly interesting times in our industry," CEO Steve Williams said on the company's conference call. However, he emphasized that executives are "continuing on our operational excellence journey, which means steadily improving reliability, reducing costs, and profitably growing our production."
Where are oil prices going next?
For the most part, Suncor is looking past the swings in oil markets and instead focusing on what's within management's sphere of influence. "To be honest, I'm not overly concerned with crude prices, at least not short-term spot prices," Williams told analysts. "Suncor has no impact on global pricing and I'd rather concentrate my efforts on the things which we can control."
The company is taking advantage of the current industry doldrums to shape itself into a lean, mean operating machine. Suncor can now play hardball with suppliers, demanding discounts on everything from labor to materials and construction. We're also seeing cutbacks on little luxuries like employee parties and catered lunches.
Since the start of the year, Suncor has announced 1,200 job cuts, slashed its 2015 capital budget by $1 billion, and delayed projects to weather collapsing prices. Going forward, management remains focused on further driving down costs, and avoiding operational upsets that can take production off-line.
Those efforts are starting to pay off. Operating expenses are down 20% year over year, and Williams says oil sands operations ran "almost flawlessly" in the first quarter.
There is a similar theme across the oil patch. Unlike many of its peers, Imperial Oil (NYSEMKT:IMO) has not announced any major layoffs -- nor does it intend to. But in his report to analysts, CEO Rich Kruger said his company is now choosier about where it spends money, scrutinizing every expense, and leaning on suppliers for better deals.
"The truth is, no one knows" where oil prices are heading, Kruger said Thursday at the company's annual meeting. "So, at Imperial, we are approaching our business as if we may be in for a sustained period of lower prices."
Here's what you need to know
Suncor shareholders need to look past this week's disappointing report. Oil sand investments are generally made with a 50-year time frame in mind, so investors have to expect a number of bumps along the way. However, the company is taking the steps needed to survive the industry's current downturn, and could very well exit this period even stronger than before.