By Cyrus Sanati
FORTUNE -- If it wasn't clear before, it certainly is now: Big Oil has got some big problems.
In a year in which oil remained near historic highs at around $100 a barrel, ExxonMobil (XOM), the all-around best-in-class energy company, said on Wednesday at its analyst meeting in New York that its return on capital employed (ROCE) for 2013 was 17%. Let me repeat that -- 17%. This is bad, people.
Admittedly, achieving a 17% ROCE is something many companies would kill for -- even other energy companies. But this is ExxonMobil. No other energy company is as skilled or as adept at maneuvering the political and economic quagmire that comes with drilling for fossil fuels than Grandpappy Exxon. In the 2000s, ExxonMobil's ROCE, which is a measure of profitability and efficiency of how capital is employed, was legendary for its strength and power, with 35% considered the internal benchmark. Achieving a level below 30% was considered failure among Exxon's conservative lot, according to a long-time engineer at the firm.
But the financial crisis put an end to ExxonMobil's profit party. Oil and natural gas prices plummeted, and, as one would expect, so did Exxon's ROCE. It still stayed in the mid 20% range, which, while disappointing, wasn't the end of the world. But investors cut the company some slack. They thought that once the tumult was over Exxon would again reign supreme.
And now we have this -- 17%. Even amid high oil prices, the company couldn't even hit 20%? Even more embarrassing, Chevron (CVX), the other big U.S. energy company, is expected to beat Exxon hands down when it comes to ROCE -- it has done so every year since 2010.
This must be very disturbing for Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive. On Wednesday, Tillerson took action, which he believes will boost Exxon's legendary profitability -- spend less. In a surprise move, Tillerson said that 2014 will see a $4 billion, or about 10%, decrease in ExxonMobil's ridiculously large $40 billion capital expenditures budget. Spending less capital means that the ratio will go up, provided that profits stay level. That's probably a good bet considering that it takes years, even decades, for a project to start paying off.
So is Tillerson making the right move? The markets don't think so -- Exxon's stock price sank 3% after the announcement, dragging the entire Dow Jones Industrial Index down with it. Tillerson must be very confused. He is doing exactly what he thought shareholders and analysts wanted -- delivering a higher ROCE.
But while ROCE is an important metric, it isn't the only thing investors care about. People who invest in ExxonMobil tend to be conservative value players, more interested in consistent cash flow with long time horizons than with hitting some financial target. For example, Warren Buffett, the king of value investing, disclosed last November that he had accumulated a nearly 1% stake in ExxonMobil during the second quarter of 2013, equating to some $3.45 billion.
At the same time he bought Exxon, Buffett slashed his relatively large stake in dimming energy giant ConocoPhillips (COP), which, at the time, was going through a major reorganization. Some investors found his choice strange as ConocoPhillips' stock was up 27% for the year at that point, while Exxon's stock was up only 8%. But it plays to the theme of value investing. Exxon's earnings are stable, with defined long term earnings potential, while COP's future had been up in the air. Uncertainty isn't ideal for value investors, even if it means giving up some of the upside.
Exxon has made a point to be as consistent as possible with its returns, despite, of course, the volatility in oil prices. When it says it is going to invest $40 billion, investors trust that the company will deliver world-class returns on that money over the next few years.
That's why when Tillerson said on Wednesday that he was cutting the CapEx budget, investors ran for the exits. They had projected that Exxon would continue to plough money into new projects and that those projects would yield strong and consistent 20% to 30% returns over time. Sure, it is nice to have that extra $4 billion returned to shareholders, but that's just this year. Value investors are in it for the long haul and cutting CapEx means that they should expect decreased revenue down the road.
To be sure, no one is saying that Exxon should invest in unprofitable ventures just to keep busy -- too many companies already do that. It was just disappointing for investors to hear that the company doesn't believe it can deliver a strong enough return to justify their carefully planned CapEx budget.
Then there is the big fear -- did Exxon think a 17% ROCE was a strong enough return to justify last year's massive capital expenditure outlay? If so, what exactly does Exxon think its future projects will yield if they can so easily slash so much off of it -- 15%? Maybe 10%? You can see how this might have caused a bit of a panic.
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