Following a somewhat dismal third quarter for Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chevron Corp. (CVX), investors have high hopes for the American oil giants’ fourth quarters, based on successful price-gouging by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the ascendance of a drilling-friendly president. Industry experts aren’t unanimously optimistic, however, as some worry U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies could lead him inadvertently to shoot his supposedly business-oriented administration in the foot.
As of Monday, analysts at Zacks Investment Research expected Chevron to announce fourth quarter 2016 earnings of 65 cents per share ahead of market open Friday, up from 31 cents for the San Ramon, California, firm’s fourth quarter of 2015 and 68 cents from its third quarter earnings per share.
For Exxon, the Dallas company run by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state nominee, until Jan.1, Zacks' analysts predicted the Jan. 31 report to show earnings of 71 cents per share, up from 67 cents in the previous fourth quarter and up from 63 cents in the third quarter of 2016.
Both companies’ shares have soared in the past two months due in part to Trump’s election. The real estate billionaire campaigned on pledges to “unleash an energy revolution,” combat regulatory efforts and “open onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands.”
Since his election, oil industry prospects have only improved. Trump not only nominated Tillerson to lead the State Department, but picked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy — a regulatory agency he once hoped to abolish though he briefly failed to remember its name.
Tillerson, for his part, made some lucrative Arctic oil discoveries along with Russian partner Rosneft — right before U.S. sanctions against Moscow kicked in. His vocal opposition to the sanctions, which the State Department under former President Barack Obama applied in response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s political conflict, won him the Order of Friendship medal from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" in December that “you have to just wait and see” whether Trump will keep the sanctions in place.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations appeared likely to vote in favor of Tillerson as of Monday afternoon. Exxon, Vice reported, donated $4.6 million to the campaigns of senators sitting on the committee.
Another factor potentially behind the spike in the firms’ share prices was OPEC’s Nov. 30 decision to cut its oil output by 1.2 million barrels per day, or 4 percent. Since then, the price of Brent crude, an international oil price benchmark, has risen from around $48 per barrel to, at some points earlier in January, more than $57. A major American benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, has followed a similar pattern.
But even with a litany of non-OPEC countries joining the cuts, experts aren’t sold on the likelihood of a long-term price hike. As a Wall Street Journal analysis of the 17 past OPEC production cuts since 1982 found, the cartel has only been able to actually reduce output by 60 percent of its intended reductions.
Even if the cuts stick, analysts generally don’t predict that prices will return to mid-2014 levels, as Andy Brogan, the global oil and gas transaction leader at the industry advisory firm EY, told Fortune.
“I don’t think this means that we’re going back to a world of $100 oil or even $75 oil, but it does mean that we’re not going back to a world of $28 anytime soon,” he said.
Either way, many experts expect Trump’s plans to boost U.S. production to flood the market supply, driving prices back down and hurting producers.
But, paradoxically, some point to Trump’s policies as another challenge to the success of companies like Exxon and Chevron.
As Michael Lynch, a University of Vienna lecturer and president of oil industry consulting firm Strategic Energy and Economic Research Inc., pointed out in a December Forbes column, Trump’s adversarial trade stance with China could cost U.S. companies hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of drilling and oilfield equipment imported from the country each year.
Additionally, Lynch wrote, Trump’s stance on Israel could foster conflict with Middle East allies and major oil producers like Saudi Arabia. Trump’s administration reaffirmed plans Monday to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move Lynch suggested could spur a violent reaction by Israel’s neighbors.
“Should it be particularly violent, or trigger a violent backlash by militant Israelis, there is a small chance that one or more oil exporting countries might seek to make a political demonstration, such as reducing oil exports,” Lynch wrote. He added American companies “might come to fear hostile actions, either in the form of terrorism or government restrictions, and hesitate to initiate projects, losing business to foreign competitors.”