For Big Oil, $100 Oil Is Window Dressing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Big profits won't be enough for Big Oil.

Even if high oil prices will make for some easy year-over-year comparisons for integrated oil majors, it's already reflected in stock prices. Add to this macroeconomic headwinds, and investors haven't shown a willingness to buy on earnings beats this quarter.

Fadel Gheit, analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., says the integrated oil majors need to at least meet or beat expectations just to keep their heads above water.

The standard bearer of Big Oil, Exxon Mobil ( XOM), reported disaapointing results on Thursday morning, with its second quarter earnings coming below even the lowest Wall Street estimate, and its shares fell by 2%. Exxon Mobil production lagged Wall Street models and its costs went up while margins took a dip, the epitome of a less than perfect earnings report, if not a major needle mover for shares. The headline from Exxon Mobil of a 41% rise in profits meant little compared to the negatives in the report.

Analysts don't have great expectations that earnings will send integrated oil shares higher from here. In fact, merely turning in a ho-hum profitable quarter has been met with a yawn from investors.

"I don't see much difference between the oil majors and the independent exploration and production companies. They are all trading together now and it's not an opportune entry point," said Alex Morris, analyst at Raymond James.

ConocoPhillips ( COP) had one of the best stories headed into earnings season with plans to spin off its refining business, a means to unlock value in its shares, as well as its continuing asset divestiture plan.

Oppenheimer's Gheit says the beat that ConocoPhillips posted on Wednesday didn't change the fact that it's more of a 2012 as opposed to 2011 story.

"The spinoff will create value and exceed people's expectations, but right now, the improvement in earnings has nothing to do with oil companies working harder and the market won't provide oil companies with any slack," Gheit said.

ConocoPhillips has, though, turned in the best earnings report of the Big Oil sector, and the only clean report set against the results from BP, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell.

The oil companies cannot just lead with the fact that they are earning $10 more per barrel than they earned last year, Gheit said.

"You have to show leverage," he said. "Investors aren't going to stand up and cheer just because oil prices are high."

Chevron will report on Friday morning. Chevron already telegraphed a profit boost earlier this month, but investors have been more focused on plans to lift long-term production.

As long as oil stays in the range that has been established over the past few months, integrated oil majors won't decline by a significant amount being less volatile than independent exploration and production peers, but their shares are also stuck because the price of crude oil has been the biggest driver of shares.

"These companies are throwing off good cash flow, and their decline rate of production is slowing because of shale plays, oil sands projects and liquefied natural gas, but there are long plateau periods before cash flow from projects coming online is a focus of investors," said Argus Research analyst Philip Weiss. "There's not a lot they can do in the short-term, other than financial engineering."

The focus on financial engineering in Big Oil earnings season is evidence of the belief that there's more value in these shares. BP ( BP) has faced calls to split up for example.

BP CEO Robert Dudley rejected the argument on the company's earnings conference call on Tuesday.

Weiss said as cash flow continues to rise at the integrated oil companies, there is an increased ability to distribute the cash to shareholders, and that's one way to increase the value of shares.

"All the U.S. oil majors could increase dividends," he said.

The bottom line is that barring a spinoff or at least a larger gift than normal to shareholders coming from cash flow, Big Oil has a big order in trying to impress the market with second-quarter numbers.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Eric Rosenbaum.

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