Profits continue to gush at ConocoPhillips ( COP). The oil major on Wednesday toppled Wall Street expectations with fourth-quarter operating profits of $3.51 a share -- up 145% from a year ago -- that beat the consensus estimate by 44 cents. Operating income jumped 152% to $2.48 billion on revenue of $40.1 billion. The company, which benefited from record energy prices, posted significant growth across all its major business lines. "Operationally, we performed very well during the fourth quarter," said CEO Jim Mulva. And "our financial position continues to steadily improve." High energy prices helped boost profits for the company's largest division, exploration and production, by 69% to $1.67 billion. Earnings from the refining and marketing division, lifted by the company's ability to process discount-priced crude oil, surged 273% to $753 million. And profits in the chemicals division, which enjoyed higher margins and volumes than a year ago, rocketed 655% to $83 million. For the full year, total operating income jumped 77% to $8.11 billion or $11.57 a share. On average, analysts were expecting earnings of $3.07 for the fourth quarter and $11.12 for the year. Shares of ConocoPhillips rose 91 cents to $89.81 early Wednesday.
Picture Perfect?But to some, companies like ConocoPhillips seem almost too good to be true. Just last week, for example, Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Sankey downgraded ConocoPhillips from buy to hold on the conviction that business -- which has gone so well for so long -- is bound to get worse. Sankey cut the stock even though he expected ConocoPhillips to more than double year-ago earnings, and blow past the consensus estimate, with fourth-quarter profits of $3.21 a share. "Ultimately, names such as ConocoPhillips ... can revalue higher," he wrote. "But for now, we believe such investment feels highly risky."
At the moment, Sankey worries primarily about ConocoPhillips' operations in Venezuela. He believes the country has grown less willing to partner with foreign companies like ConocoPhillips when it can instead pocket more profits from high energy prices itself. He points to the "sudden rejection of a major ConocoPhillips growth project" in Venezuela as evidence of his thesis. By now, he says, ConocoPhillips has suffered two setbacks in Venezuela -- which accounts for 10% of the company's upstream value -- and faces "what seems to be an escalating situation" ahead. More recently, however, Sankey did note that ConocoPhillips overcame another foreign risk. He said the company has secured fresh board power at Lukoil, a Russian venture in which it owns an increasingly large stake. He found the news especially welcoming after the problems in Venezuela. "Recent concerns over the
canceled development in Venezuela only serve to heighten the need for diversity," Sankey wrote on Monday. "ConocoPhillips has a good range of growth projects driving upstream development going forward."
Dark RoomNevertheless, Sankey failed to raise his hold recommendation on ConocoPhillips' shares. And Citigroup Smith Barney analyst Doug Leggate continues to recommend shedding the stock altogether. Like Sankey, Leggate expressed caution at the same time he predicted impressive results for the company. He projected fourth-quarter earnings growth of 92% from the exploration and production division, 162% from the refining and marketing unit and a whopping 678% from the smaller chemicals business. "As the most highly leveraged of the oil majors to oil and gas prices, as well as U.S. refining margins, there is little doubt COP will benefit from the strong environment that persisted through the fourth quarter," Leggate wrote this week. "However, with oil prices still in the upper $40s per barrel, we continue to see downside risk to the share price, should oil prices pull back from here."
Bear Stearns analyst Frederick Leuffer recommends underweighting ConocoPhillips as well. Indeed, he expects the super majors -- hit by an anticipated drop in energy prices -- to see their profits plummet by some 40% this year. Already, one investment specialist has started to notice fewer bargains in the sector. Bob Howard, author of the investment newsletter Positive Patterns, continues to be an energy bull. But he now favors those in the drilling space -- including National Oilwell ( NOI) and Schlumberger ( SLB) -- over super-majors, even embattled Shell ( SC), that are starting to look expensive.