NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In looking forward to the upcoming quarterly reports of the oil supermajors including Exxon Mobil (XOM) - Get Report, Chevron (CVX) - Get Report and Conoco-Phillips (COP) - Get Report, there are a couple of key numbers that investors should look for.
Inside these oil super giants are two main earnings drivers: the production of oil, natural gas and liquids; and the transport, storage, processing and refining of those products. The production side is called the “upstream” portion of the energy business, while the transport and processing is known as the “downstream.”
Large oil companies have a more balanced presentation of earnings, precisely because there is a complementary aspect to the upstream and downstream sub-sectors. When one does badly, it is likely that the other will do well. For example, if energy prices are low, as they are right now, there is less profit to be seen in production. But because prices are low, there is usually a greater demand for cheaper refined products, which helps boost the downstream revenue.
For this upcoming quarterly report, we can expect very similar results from all of the supermajors: a very weak upstream result that won’t be entirely offset by the downstream increases. If any of the supermajors managed a less-than-disastrous quarter in production revenue it would be significant, although highly unlikely.
Another possible sign of improvement from this round of quarterly reports would be in spending.
Most of the supermajors have followed the pattern of the rest of the oil world by dropping capital expenditures sharply to compensate for the collapse in crude prices. We should expect they will again report on the contraction of capex, as well as gains in efficiency costs in drilling and other logistics. If any of them cannot report an improvement in spending over last year, it would be a significant negative.
Ultimately, the price of crude is the single most important determinant for the health of the supermajors. With my continuing belief that oil prices will stay relatively low for at least another three quarters to come, the supermajors become an unappetizing investment, in spite of whatever they will report in the coming days.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.