Just like the rest of the oil and gas industry as of late, shares of Total (NYSE:TOT) have not been spared as the oil market has turned south. There have been so many stories as to why oil prices are where they are today that it almost seems too hard to keep track of all of them. Cheap oil and gas will take its obvious toll on Total's earnings, but there are a few items independent of oil and gas prices that investors should watch to see if Total is staying on the right track for after this blip in the commodity cycle. Here are two questions in particular you should look to have answered this quarter:
Is management meeting its cost-cutting goals?
One thing that management wholly recognized as oil and gas prices started to decline was that the company was spending way too much money -- not just on capital expenditures but on the everyday operational expenses as well. So to adjust to the lower commodity price environment, management has set out a goal of drastically cutting costs including reducing its upstream day-to-day budget by $1.2 billion annually on top of a 30% reduction to exploration expenses and a greater than 10% cut to other capital expenditures.
All of these moves, on top of an accelerated asset sale program, are intended to produce an $8 billion swing in free cash flow. This would definitely help to put the company's cash shortage problems behind it. However, that estimate also makes some assumptions about cash coming in the door from operations based on oil prices a bit higher than where they are today.
So investors who are concerned with Total's cash shortage over the past several quarters should probably keep an eye on the progress it has made on this cost cutting effort. It will likely be a ways off of that $8 billion goal, but any progress should certainly help put a dent in the difference.
Can it actually increase profitability in times like this?
Over the past several years, Total has lagged many of its integrated oil and gas peers in terms of generating returns on capital employed, as seen in this chart.
There are two primary reasons that this has been the case: (1) It's downstream segment has been a poor performer relative to its peers, and (2) it has a lot of capital tied up in not-yet-producing projects. This year, though, Total is hoping to change a lot of that. Management has been taking large steps to correct this, and 2015 should be the year where the rubber hits the road with these efforts.
Total is in the middle of reducing its European refining segment by as much as 20%, while focusing more on its refining and chemical production in the Middle East. These efforts alongside some general cost-cutting measures, are expected to increase returns on capital employed in the downstream segment from 6% back in 2011 to at least 13% this year if everything goes to plan.
On the upstream side of the business. Total had 55% of its upstream capital tied up not-yet-producing assets. That is head and shoulders more than any of its peers, but this year the company expects to bring eight of those major projects online in addition to its 40-year, 1.8 million barrel-per-day concession contract with the United Arab Emirates. At the beginning of the year, management expected these new projects to increase operational cash flow by $1.5 billion annually, but that assumption was also made using a Brent price of $70 per barrel.
So, it would be worth checking in to see if (1) the company is on track to execute its plan for the refining and chemical side of the business, and (2) if it has kept its new upstream projects on time and on budget to reduce its capital in non-producing assets. It may not be at the numbers it estimated earlier in the year, but any progress would be a welcome sign.
What a Fool believes
Of all the big oil stocks out there, Total might actually have the greatest upside potential. Its big backlog of projects slated to come online coupled with some serious cost savings could help offset at least some of the poor results related to oil and gas prices. That potential, though, is predicated on the company's ability to lower its costs and boost its profitability, because there is no point in producing oil just for the sake of producing it. If you have Total on your radar -- and you probably should -- then look to see how the company is answering the two questions above. The right answer might mean that it's more than just time to watch the stock and possibly time to buy.