Shell Restates and Reshuffles -- Once Again

The company continues to struggle with accounting and management issues.
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At long last, it appears that the Shell game may soon be over.

For the third time this year,

Royal Dutch/Shell

(SC) - Get Report

has revised both its proved reserves and its senior management team. After a detailed external review, the world's third-largest supermajor on Monday announced that it has -- once again -- reduced the amount of oil equivalent it expects to commercially extract from the ground. In addition, the company has

replaced its CFO with a 22-year Shell veteran who most recently served as the company's controller.

By now, Shell has slashed its proved reserves -- a key measure of the company's health -- by a total of 4.35 billion barrels of oil equivalent, or 22%. It has also announced plans to restate its 2002 annual report, further reduce 2003 proved reserves by 500 million barrels and lower its reserve replacement ratio to just 60%. Meanwhile, it has now trimmed four leaders -- most recently CFO Judy Boynton -- from its senior management team.

"Shell has put in place a new regime for reserves accounting and compliance, monitored by external consultants," said Aad Jacobs and Lord Oxburgh, co-chairmen of Royal Dutch/Shell, on Monday. "We believe that, following the actions we have announced, Shell will be able to re-engage with its stakeholders and re-establish confidence in our behavior as a business and employer."

Shares of both Royal Dutch and Shell -- hammered on the first revision in January -- barely reacted to the latest news. Royal Dutch slipped 26 cents to $49.74, while Shell dropped 25 cents to $42.63.

The reserve adjustments, while significant, will have little impact on the company's financial results. Following the planned restatements, Shell's earnings will be reduced by $100 million annually -- or less than 1% -- for each of the past four years.

But Shell's reputation has taken a much harder hit.

"Shell simply cannot allow this to happen again," the company acknowledged on Monday. "The controls we now have in place will be rigorously enforced and will be subject to far greater levels of scrutiny within Shell. Despite the difficulties of recent months, Shell is a sound and profitable business."

Still, analysts continue to stop short of recommending the company's shares. Merrill Lynch analyst Mark Iannotti on Monday did acknowledge that Shell has apparently made some progress in revamping its senior management team, which now includes a new chairman, production chief and two CFOs. But he still sees no compelling reason to endorse the stock even at currently depressed levels.

Neither does Irene Himona of Morgan Stanley. She points to poor performance in three areas -- production, operational controls and downstream business -- as reasons for her lack of enthusiasm.

Both Iannotti and Himona have taken a neutral stand on the company's shares. Even so, Himona sees the stock's slide as unlikely to steepen.

"The stock has underperformed the industry by -20% in the last 12 months, making it the worst performer," she stated. "We therefore believe there is valuation support at these levels, provided no further unpleasant surprises materialize."