HOUSTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Oil giants Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp posted higher-than-expected quarterly earnings on Friday as refining profits helped offset a steep decline in crude oil prices.
Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded company, said fourth-quarter earnings fell by a third, but full-year profit of $45.2 billion set a new company and U.S. record.
“The results speak for themselves,” said Fred Burke, president of Johnston Lemon Asset Management in Washington, D.C. “I still think Exxon is a low-cost producer, and at some point the price of oil will increase. They are doing all the right things right now.”
The sector has been hit hard by the twin blows of plunging energy prices and the credit crunch. But the financial depth of the top oil companies means they can spend through the slump, having learned a lesson from past cycles, when under-investment left them exposed once oil demand recovered.
Exxon’s fourth-quarter net profit fell to $7.8 billion, or $1.55 per share, from $11.7 billion, or $2.13 per share, a year earlier. Analysts, on average, had expected $1.45 a share from the Irving, Texas-based giant, according to Reuters Estimates.
Sales fell 27 percent to $84.7 billion, but Exxon had $31 billion in cash at the end of the quarter.
The company will spend $7 billion buying back stock this quarter, down from $8 billion in the fourth quarter. Chevron, its nearest U.S. rival, said it would halt buybacks this quarter.
Patricia Yarrington, the new chief financial officer of San Ramon, California-based Chevron, said her priorities were the dividend, the capital program and staying flexible. “So we’ve always seen the share repurchase program as sort of the discretionary part of that,” she said on a conference call.
Chevron’s profit rose to $4.9 billion, or $2.44 per share, from $4.88 billion, or $2.32 per share, helped by $600 million from an asset swap in which it received stock for a producing field. Excluding that one-time gain, it earned $2.23 per share, down from a year earlier but topping analysts’ average forecast of $1.79.
On Thursday, European major Royal Dutch Shell Plc said profit fell 28 percent to $4.79 billion. Britain’s BP Plc is due to report earnings on Tuesday.
Exxon’s refining operations benefited from the drop in crude prices versus the price for products such as gasoline and diesel, widening its profit margins and boosting quarterly profit from refining by $147 million to $2.41 billion.
But in oil and gas production, profit tumbled $2.57 billion to $5.63 billion as crude prices averaged about $59 a barrel in the fourth quarter, down from $90 a year earlier. Including natural gas, production fell to 4.11 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boed) from 4.25 million a year earlier.
“Exxon’s production decline was less than what it has been in previous quarters,” said Brian Youngberg, senior energy analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis. “That’s been a concern so far this year. But hopefully the ramp-up in capital spending over the last few years will bear fruit down the road.”
Exxon’s 2008 exploration budget was $26.1 billion, up 25 percent from 2007.
Chevron’s production from fell about 70,000 boed to 2.54 million boed, largely from reductions in the Gulf of Mexico due to the hurricanes that hit the region in September.
That knocked down earnings from production by 35 percent to $3.15 billion, but the decline was more than offset by a jump in refining profit to $2.08 billion from $204 million.
Chevron aims to produce 2.63 million boed in 2009, assuming oil at $50 a barrel, but said it would not meet a 3 percent compound annual production growth goal for 2005 to 2010.
Exxon shares rose 1.3 percent to $77.80 in late trade on the New York Stock Exchange, while Chevron rose 0.4 percent to $70.90.
Asked by an analyst about challenges for Chevron, Chief Executive Dave O‘Reilly identified growing government pressure for carbon management as a leading one -- political pressure also keenly felt by Texas-based Exxon.
Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs key energy panels in the House of Representatives, criticized Exxon for buying back shares and paying bonuses instead of investing in “job-creating industries like renewable energy.”
“If Exxon won’t do its part to help recover our economy by investing money back into consumers and into the American economy, we will have to compel them to do so,” he said.
Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis and John Wallace