Chevron vs. ExxonMobil -- Which Big Oil Stock Should You Buy?

NEW YORK (The Deal) -- If you're looking to pick up oil and gas stocks now that oil prices seem to be stabilizing around $60 per barrel, most industry watchers would agree that the top super majors, ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX), would be good for any portfolio. The question is, which one?

It's a tough call, so let's turn first to Fadel Gheit, a longtime oil and gas watcher at Oppenheimer & Co. Full disclosure: The Cairo University-trained chemical engineer spent six years at Mobil Corp., but it was well before it was acquired by Exxon in 1998 for $80 billion.

Both ExxonMobil and Chevron were part of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was an "unreasonable" monopoly and it was broken up into 90 independent companies, including Standard Oil of New Jersey (which became Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (Mobil) and Standard Oil of California (Chevron).

ExxonMobil, led by CEO Rex Tillerson, is larger than Chevron, with a market capitalization of $363.7 billion. Chevron, headed by John Watson, has a market capitalization of $197.5 billion.

Gheit rates both stocks as market perform, although he notes that both have lagged the S&P 500 index in the last 12 months. He said Chevron is cheaper based on various ratios, including price-to-earnings (11 vs. ExxonMobil's 13), price-to-cash flow (6.76 vs. 8.77) and enterprise value-to-EBITDA (7 vs. 7.92). It also has a higher dividend yield: 3.9%, vs. ExxonMobil's 3.4%.

But ExxonMobil is stronger financially and is the only triple-A credit-rated company in the industry, Gheit notes. He said that the industry giant is likely to take advantage of the oil downturn and make a large acquisition using treasury shares, which amount to 3.7 billion and are worth around $320 billion.

"We believe ExxonMobil will likely capitalize on its competitive advantage by making a large strategic acquisition in the current oil downturn to make up for the XTO acquisition, which proved to be disappointing," he wrote in a note on Tuesday.

Chevron is also thought to be looking at acquisitions, including possibly BP (BP) and Bakken player Whiting Petroleum (WLL).

Like their smaller rivals, both Chevron and Exxon are shedding assets to raise cash and cut costs, albeit quietly. In the first quarter, ExxonMobil sold its South Texas King Ranch midstream assets to Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) for $370 million. And Chevron plans to divest $15 billion in assets through 2017, up from its original target of $10 billion.

There's another interesting distinction between the two companies. Gheit thinks ExxonMobil would perform better than Chevron in a relatively low oil price environment, while Chevron would perform better than ExxonMobil in a relatively higher oil price environment. Why? Chevron's earnings are more sensitive to oil prices than Exxon, as oil accounts for 70% of its production volume, vs. 50% for Exxon.

In terms of resource building, ExxonMobil is the stronger player, replacing 104% of its reserves last year, vs. 89% for Chevron.

Other observers vary on their views of the two companies. Simmons & Co. International recently rated ExxonMobil as neutral while it has Chevron as overweight. Jefferies & Co., meanwhile, has Exxon Mobil as a hold and Chevron as a buy.

Goldman Sachs analyst Neil Mehta was more definitive in a report on Monday, recommending that investors buy ExxonMobil and sell Chevron. He said ExxonMobil is the only U.S. or European major that has enough free cash flow to cover its dividend if oil hovers around $60 per barrel this year and next.

"While other majors will be struggling to keep the dividend flat, we believe Exxon will actually be in a position to increase the dividend for the next several years," he wrote, adding that Chevron will struggle to generate free cash flow after the dividend, which will limit its "capital allocation potential."

Gheit is hesitant to pick one over the other, saying both will muddle through this period of low oil prices, which he calls "the new normal."

The other analysts seem to cancel each other out. So the winner is ... both. Either one is a better bet than their smaller competitors.

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