Oil prices speed companies to record profits
HOUSTON — Suppose Exxon Mobil decided to return the favor and buy you a tank of gas. Then again, why stop there? The oil giant turned a profit last year fat enough to buy a fill-up for every car, truck and SUV in America — four times.
Beating its own record to rack up the largest annual corporate profit in American history, Exxon Mobil Corp. said Friday it earned $40.6 billion for the year, reaping the benefits of crude-oil prices around $100 a barrel.
Exxon Mobil also topped its own record for profit in a single quarter, posting net income of $11.7 billion for the final three months of the year — about $1 billion more than the same period in 2005, the previous quarterly record.
The annual profit was enough, at $3 a gallon, to buy nearly four 15-gallon fill-ups for the roughly 243 million registered passenger vehicles on American roads. Put another way, it's almost equal to what Microsoft has offered to buy Yahoo outright.
And the quarterly profit alone is about the same as the size of the entire economy of Iceland or Namibia. The previous record for annual profit was $39.5 billion, posted by Exxon Mobil in 2006.
Chevron Corp., No. 2 behind Exxon Mobil among U.S. oil companies, also had its best year ever in 2007, saying Friday that it banked a profit of $18.7 billion.
The results were eye-popping but not a total surprise: For most of the fourth quarter, oil prices hovered around $90 a barrel, 50 percent higher than a year earlier. Crude reached an all-time high of $100.09 on Jan. 3 but has fallen about 10 percent since.
Revenue at Exxon Mobil rose 30 percent in the fourth quarter to $116.6 billion from $90 billion a year ago. For the year, sales rose to $404.5 billion — a figure just slightly lower than the U.S. Defense Department's fiscal 2007 budget.
Exxon Mobil, which produces 3 percent of the world's oil, pegged high commodity prices as the driver for its results but also touted its far-reaching businesses.
"We continued to supply crude oil and natural gas volumes to meet the world's energy needs through disciplined development and operation of our globally diverse resource base," said Chairman Rex Tillerson.
But at a time when many fear the U.S. economy is sliding into a recession — or is in one already — not everyone was applauding the results.
With the economy weakening and the prospect of $4-a-gallon gas looming for spring and summer, the hefty oil profits immediately renewed charges that Big Oil was profiting at the expense of most Americans.
Within hours of Exxon Mobil and Chevron reporting their results, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Finance Committee, urged Congress to repeal tax breaks for the oil industry.
"Congratulations to Exxon Mobil and Chevron — for reminding Americans why they cringe every time they pull into a gas station and for reminding Washington why it needs to act swiftly to break our dependence on foreign oil and roll back unnecessary tax incentives for oil companies," Schumer said.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights called for greater regulation of energy trading markets. The watchdog group has said congressional moves for more market oversight have been blocked by the oil industry's powerful lobbying efforts.
Many analysts believe speculative investors played a role in driving oil prices above $100.
"There's no excuse for continued inaction by Congress and the White House," said Judy Dugan, the consumer group's research director.
The criticism is nothing new to Irving-based Exxon Mobil, which has reported gargantuan profits in recent years during spikes in commodity prices. Those spikes typically make it more costly for consumers to fill their tanks and heat their homes.
In 2005, when the price for a gallon of gas first hit $3, top oil executives were hauled before federal lawmakers to explain profits and assure customers they weren't being gouged.
Industry representatives say it's important to note oil companies invest large portions of their profits back into their businesses. Exxon Mobil, for example, said Friday its spending on capital and exploration projects increased to nearly $21 billion last year, up 5 percent from 2006.
It also noted its U.S. tax bill from 2002 to 2006 was $59.9 billion, and that its worldwide effective income tax rate for 2006 was 43 percent.
What's more, finding new supplies of oil and gas is becoming increasingly more expensive and difficult. The recent boom has pushed up prices for labor and equipment, and forced the companies into more remote, challenging environments.
"These companies continue to face formidable reserve replacement, production growth and cost challenges," Moody's Investors Service said in a recent note.
Higher commodity prices were clearly evident from earnings at Exxon Mobil's exploration and production arm, where net income rose 32 percent to $8.2 billion.
Exxon's production increased nearly 1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2006, driven by higher demand for natural gas in Europe. Excluding Exxon assets that were taken over by the Venezuelan government last year and other factors, production rose nearly 3 percent.
Refining and marketing earnings came to $2.3 billion, up from nearly $2 billion in the same quarter a year ago, as improved refining operations offset lower U.S. refining margins.
Refining margins — the difference between the cost of crude and what the company makes on refined products such as gasoline — have been squeezed in recent months as spiking oil prices outpaced increases in gasoline prices and other refined products.
They also affected Chevron's quarterly earnings, which rose 29 percent to $4.88 billion as higher oil prices offset weakness in the refining sector. Revenue also rose 29 percent to $61.41 billion.
Exxon Mobil declared a quarterly dividend of 35 cents per share earlier this week — in line with its past several quarters.
Neither Exxon Mobil nor Chevron gave an outlook for upcoming financial results, though Chevron said "major" project delays have lowered its outlook for 2008 production by about 150,000 barrels of oil per day to 2.65 million barrels.
Some analysts expect refining margins to rebound as the summer driving season approaches and gasoline prices rise.
John Parry, a senior analyst with John S. Herold Inc., said if crude prices remain in the $90-per-barrel range, oil company earnings are likely to be flat or slightly lower than the most recent quarter.
Despite U.S. urging, OPEC decided Friday against increasing the amount of oil it produces, insisting that supplies were adequate and that speculators and geopolitical jitters — not oil availability — were setting prices. It said it was focused on near-term expectations.
Exxon Mobil shares fell 45 cents to $85.95 on Friday. They've traded in a 52-week range of $69.02 to $95.27. Chevron dropped 76 cents to $82.49. Its shares have traded in a range of $64.99 to $95.50 in the past year.