If you want a quick outlook on whether U.S. gas prices are likely to return to pre-Covid levels, a good place to start is earnings reports from Chevron and Exxon in the last week.
The outlook: Don’t count on it. In their fourth-quarter earnings reports, both companies showed clear signs of Big Oil’s renewed focus on managing costs, widening profit margins as oil prices stayed relatively high even after coming down considerably from last year’s highs, and confidence that they will be able to keep passing the rewards back to shareholders.
On Jan. 25, Chevron announced a $75 billion share buyback, which will allow it to use excess cash flow to cut the number of shares by up to as much as 20% — over multiple years and contingent on shares also used for employee options programs and M&A rather than just earnings per share increase. Chevron also raised its dividend to about 3.4%, double that of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. On Jan. 31, Exxon announced it had spent $15.2 billion to acquire stock in 2022 – up from $155 million a year earlier, and authorized another $35 billion this year and next.
The moves are the latest page in the industry’s post-2020 playbook: To satisfy investors who pushed energy stocks down more than 40% in a rising stock market between 2014 and 2019, oil companies slowed down drilling overinvestment that had caused cash-flow losses estimated as high as $280 billion. With the conserved cash, they raised dividends and boosted stock buybacks – moves that helped oil stocks double in the year after the 2020 election, as U.S. gasoline prices rose by more than half.
Rob Thummel, senior portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors, which advises mutual funds on energy investing, said Chevron and Exxon are in position to increase the dividend, increase production, and buy back stock. “They are doing what mature companies do – generate a lot of cash and return it to shareholders,” he said.
Big oil sees political pushback on buybacks
The industry’s reallocation of money to shareholders from new drilling comes as political leaders, including President Joe Biden, criticize oil companies for not restraining the price of gasoline as crude oil rose from $53 when Biden took office in 2021 to $77.50 now. Exxon’s fourth-quarter profit margin of almost 14% of revenue compares to 11% a year ago.
“My message to the American energy companies is this: You should not be using your profits to buy back stock or for dividends,” Biden said in October. “Not now. Not while a war is raging. You should be using these record-breaking profits to increase production and refining.”
The White House attacked both companies again this week after the buyback announcements.
In the market, and at the oil companies headquarters, it seems the opinions issued from the White House aren’t much of a factor in setting financial priorities. The price of oil is set on world markets, rather than by individual producers, Thummel said. The role of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Saudi Arabia, in limiting production is the biggest factor in world prices. U.S. oil production, which does not have a central organization setting prices, has rebounded from a post-Covid low reached in April 2021, and reached 383 million barrels per month in October, closing in on the all-time high of 402 million in December 2019, according to U.S. government data.
Gas prices are also being hit by a loss of refining capacity. Part of this is longer-term, as refiners phased out less profitable facilities during the Covid-related demand drop, and following a wave of mergers forced by declining cash flow and share prices. And part of it stems from temporary shutdowns for maintenance made necessary by the cold wave in much of the country in December, CFRA Research analyst Stewart Glickman said.
Of the two biggest U.S. oil producers, Chevron made the more dramatic changes in the fourth quarter earnings releases, since Exxon had announced its buyback acceleration earlier, Glickman said.
The benchmark now is to spend roughly a third of operating cash flow on capital investment, a third on dividends and a third on stock buybacks. The buybacks can be dialed back if oil prices fall, and would likely be the first big cost cut oil producers would make if crude fell back to $60 a barrel from the current range about $77, he said. Buybacks, unlike dividends, aren’t treated as a “must” by investors each quarter, while cutting a dividend can lead to mass selling by investors.
Chevron is pretty close to Glickman’s recipe, with $49.6 billion of 2022 cash flow yielding $11 billion in dividend payments, $11.3 billion in share buybacks that were accelerating as the year ended to the $15 billion annual pace, and $12 billion in capital investment – enough to boost U.S. production by about 4% even as its international production dropped. Exxon made $76.8 billion in operating cash flow, invested $18 billion back into the business, spent $14.9 billion on dividends and $15.2 billion in stock purchases, according to its cash flow statement.
“What we learned from [earnings announcements] is that the industry is very committed to a conservative approach to spending,” Glickman said. “They could [drill more], but they would have to sacrifice their return thresholds, and neither they nor their shareholders are interested. I don’t blame them.”
Oil production is increasing
Despite the push to pay out more money, the companies have begun to produce slightly more oil in the U.S.
Chevron said its U.S. oil production gain was led by a double-digit increase in the Permian Basin of Texas. Exxon also said Permian production led its U.S. results, rising by nearly 90,000 barrels per day.
“Growth matters when it’s profitable,” Chevron CEO Mike Wirth said on the company’s earnings call on Jan. 27. Chief Financial Officer Pierre Breber said the company’s four major financial goals are dividend growth, buyback growth, capital spending and reducing debt.
Slower growth and cash distribution is the right path for an industry that is growing more slowly, Thummel said, especially since the government is prodding utilities away from relying on natural gas to make electricity and offering consumers tax credits to swap gasoline-powered cars and SUVs for electric models.
In the early part of the last decade, investors applauded energy companies for investing more than their entire operating profit in new wells, believing that hydraulic fracking would propel the sector to a new wave of growth, Glickman said. And while U.S. production more than doubled during the fracking boom, it failed to produce the expected profit. Today, politicians are trying to foster a transition away from fossil fuels, making it dicey for Big Oil to invest in large offshore drilling plans that may need decades to pay off, he added.
“Why on earth would these companies agree to play ball with that kind of attitude?” he said.
The oil companies’ new approach stands in sharp contrast to that of EV maker Tesla, which has resisted shareholder pressure to begin buying back stock as it begins taking share in a market entwined with the oil companies. Tesla has hung on to its cash flow even as it completes a major factory-building campaign that has seen it add new plants in Texas, China, and Germany to its initial production facility in California. The company also produces batteries for its vehicles in Nevada.
That path works for Tesla because it is addressing a fast-growing market for EVs, while oil companies are trying to milk the cash from their existing, low-growth businesses and invest in new ones like carbon capture before current sources of cash flow like gasoline sales begin to shrink, Glickman said. But even Tesla should be returning cash to holders after a sharp decline in shares last year, Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said.
“Our view is that it’s a no-brainer that Tesla should do a buyback now,” Ives said. “Tesla is in a robust position financially and this would send an important signal. The biggest capital spending is in the rearview mirror for now.”
But Tesla’s most obvious short-term use of its $22 billion cash hoard might be preparing for any possible impact on profits of the price cuts it announced Jan. 13.