Big Oil Earnings Will Be as Boring as Ever
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Some headlines related to Big Oil never change.
President Obama says Exxon Mobil (XOM) and its peers make way too much money and are getting away with the equivalent of tax break murder.
The press highlights just how big those Big Oil profits really are with comparisons to various GDP equivalents. This week it was The New Yorker's turn to note that Exxon Mobil's annual revenue is equal to the GDP of Norway.
|Big Oil companies will post the usual big profit numbers in the first quarter, but it won't matter much to the Big Oil investment story.|
Then there is Big Oil earnings season, which is about to begin. The headlines will focus on the huge numbers posted by the world's biggest oil companies but there is a better way to trade these behemoths.
Big Oil stocks remain best played as dividend yield investments -- and as a less volatile way to play the energy sector than the independent exploration and production companies. For investors, earnings day is usually a bigger headline than the actual event merits. Big Oil earnings tend to be "blah" at best.
In fact, it's much more likely that a negative catalyst in any production hiccup or downward revision of production guidance will spark a sell-off during earnings season than it is that a big beat buoyed by high crude prices will send Big Oil shares higher.
It's reached the point where Big Oil earnings lead to a "broken record" from Wall Street analysts: Earnings just isn't a needle-moving event for these companies, where long-term production growth can't be budged quarter to quarter, and any short-term outperformance from the downstream segment -- refining and marketing -- is part of a cycle that can swing back around from quarter to quarter.
To recap fourth-quarter results, high crude prices lifted the bottom line, but the downstream segment took a turn for the worse as the refining sector constraints hit margins across all of the companies. This quarter, even higher crude prices than last quarter -- and versus last year -- will drive profit growth, and a turnaround in the downstream sector will make for better comparison sequentially from refining. The refining rebound will be somewhat offset by the fact that higher crude prices will limit the margin improvement.
Chemicals business performance within downstream will be a particular standout, with ConocoPhillips noting in its interim earnings update that downstream earnings will benefit from ethylene margins being among the highest experienced in the past 20 years -- in part because of the historic slide in the price of natural gas, an input for the business, to a decade-low.