NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When it comes to oil and gas, there aren't many rivals that can go toe-to-toe with Exxon Mobil (XOM) - Get Report. I will concede that as enamored as I have become with Halliburton (HAL) - Get Report, even it can't compete with the successful track record of Exxon Mobil, the world's second largest company behind only Apple (AAPL) - Get Report. Yet through no fault of its own, the company often gets overlooked when discussing some of the top run operations on Wall Street and seemingly punished for what appears to be routine success -- something from which the company has become somewhat of a victim.
It goes without saying, that this is a tremendous problem to have. But while Exxon trades in-line with Halliburton from the standpoint of their respective multiples, the stock remains significantly discounted when compared to such names as
. The concerns surrounding
natural gas cannot be overstated, as with several of its peers and most notably
, Exxon has had to deal with adverse effects of not only slower production, but considerably weaker North American prices for natural gas -- an event that served to offset what was once perceived to be a benefit of higher oil process.
Leading into the company's first-quarter earnings report, I was eager to see if it was able to navigate through the roughs as well as rival
Halliburton and thus, which of the two was the better investment. While Halliburton convinced that it was undervalued by at least 33%, it was Exxon's turn to remind Wall Street of why it deserves a bit more respect.
The quarter that was
The company reported
first-quarter earnings of $9.45 billion or $2 per share -- representing a decrease of 11% from the same period of a year ago as upstream earnings declined 10% to $7.8 billion. As noted, this was attributable to declining production of both oil and natural gas, whereas in last year's quarter it reported $10.7 billion in net income or $2.14 per share. Analysts polled by
had expected the company to bring in profits of $2.09 per share for the first quarter. Oil-equivalent production fell 5% to 4,553 oil equivalent barrels per day but higher oil prices helped boost prices, as did other income and higher refining activities.
The company blamed the decline in production on aging fields as well as contracts with foreign governments that limited oil and gas sales. As disappointing as these numbers were the company did report operating cash flow of $21.8 billion -- appreciably above its earnings. Among other positives was the fact that not only has the company recently boosted it dividends to become the highest payer in the world, but it has also been spending its excess cash repurchasing as much as $5 billion of its own stock.
As far as outlook is concerned analysts are projecting sales growth of 3% -- a figure that I consider pretty meek for a company the size of Exxon on total sales of $500 billion. Consensus earnings estimates have a target of $8.29 for the balance of 2012, while the number for 2013 currently stands at $8.88. So when factoring Wednesday's closing stock price of $86.20 the stock is expected to trade at its current multiple with not much movement over the next 12 -- 18 months whereas, in my estimation, Halliburton is projected to increase by
at least 33% based on these same factors. So from that standpoint, it would appear that Halliburton remains the better buy.
Overall, Exxon did as good of a job as could have been expected. And although I would insist that the stock is fairly valued at current levels, it is hard to ignore the positive impact that the shares may experience once natural gas prices start to show some signs of life -- particularly when one considers how effective Exxon has been in balancing its U.S. exposure by forging international deals.
The investment case for Exxon often comes down to safety. While the stock is not going to excite investors to the extent that an Apple can, it does however present little to no downside risk. The company has huge reserves and plenty of capital which often is an appealing quality to conservative investors. It has nearly three times the market cap of several of its rival but it is far from a lumbering, stumbling giant.
The company is still in the mix of all phases of upstream and downstream operations, and its portfolio of exploration and production projects should serve to mitigate concerns through lean times such as these. Exxon should be considered as part of any portfolio with realistic investment horizons and more importantly, patience. That said, for investors looking of at least 30% gain over that same period, Halliburton would instead be the name to consider.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.