How Exxon Mobil Could Return as a Top Dow Stock in 2018

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Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) has been a serious Dow Jones Industrial Average laggard in 2017. The fall from grace has been monumental considering that Exxon has a market value of close to $350 billion and that it is one of the top oil and gas players in the world. It is the largest in the United States by far, and investors need to be considering how they should evaluate the company ahead.

24/7 Wall St. has recently conducted preliminary 2018 reviews for what to expect ahead. Exxon was one of five surprise Dow winners for 2018. With its shares trading at $82.50, Exxon’s consensus analyst target price of $84.68 does not exactly scream “Buy me, please!” But if you add in Exxon’s 3.7% dividend, the implied total return forecast for the coming 12 months would only be about 6%.

Investing in oil comes with many risks. The obvious one is the debate over climate change. And regardless of that debate, the trends toward higher electric and hybrid vehicle use are expected to grow more each year in the future. And nations like China and the United Kingdom have pledged to reach the end of the combustion engine out in 2040 or so.

Exxon shares have been range-bound for years, and the bulk of the past five years has seen a range of $80 to $90. There are no assurances that Exxon will emerge as a top performing Dow stock in 2018. It could even trade lower, particularly if oil prices begin to head lower again. But what if all the caution and concerns can be overcome?

Most investors ended up being disappointed after Exxon spent $31 billion for its acquisition of XTO Energy. This gave Exxon a deep footing into natural gas, and natural gas development has finally been coming back after years of stagnation. That has not yet been a positive for Exxon in general, even in 2017. But that may be close to a change. Natural gas production is now forecast to continue growing in the United States in 2018, led by strong export demand and utilities. This non-event valuation for XTO of the $31 billion purchase price is almost 10% of the company’s entire total value. What if natural gas finally becomes a big contributor for Exxon in the years ahead?

Exxon’s energy outlook out to 2040 shows rising natural gas demand. The firm projected that liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports around the globe will increase by 170% from current levels by 2040. And the United States is expected to lead the share of that growth with a 30% share.

Also worth noting as a development ahead is that Exxon is set to merge its refining and marketing companies into ExxonMobil Fuels & Lubricants Company. That move is planned for the first quarter of 2018.

24/7 Wall St. looked over the most recent analyst calls on Exxon. it is interesting that the consensus price target of analysts from Thomson Reuters has risen of late.

The current $84.68 consensus target price was up from $84.00 a month earlier and from just under $83 two months ago. That might not sound very aggressive by today’s bull market standards, but when analysts start raising their price targets then that consensus estimate tends to keep rising until something changes in the overall picture. Still, Exxon has undershot its 2017 Bull/Bear Outlook.

The current street-high price target for Exxon is $100. In an effort to show both sides of the coin, we have included recent analyst calls that show positive views and cautious views on Exxon.

Barclays kept its price target on Exxon north of $90. The firm noted that, after a long absence from Brazil, Exxon has plunged back in and recently won 12 exploration blocks of about 2 million gross acres in September. It and Petrobras were the biggest winners.

Merrill Lynch still has a Buy rating and $94 price objective. The firm’s assumption assumes long-term Brent at $53 per barrel and West Texas Intermediate at $55 per barrel.

In November, RBC Capital Markets lowered Exxon’s target price to $85 from $90. The firm noted that the dividend may be attractive versus the market, but it argued that this is not the full picture. RBC noted that cash flow generation has been resilient but peers have seen the same. The upside risk for capital spending also was shown to be a risk to future stock buybacks.

Societe Generale issued its report on Exxon after the most recent earnings report with a Buy rating and a $95 price target. While that target had been handily over $100 in years past, the firm believes that Wall Street is not giving it a fair value for the Permian and Bakken, operating and lease captures, and technical capabilities. The downstream and chemicals business was also highlighted as a positive.

Early in November, HSBC lowered Exxon to Reduce from Hold. The firm favored rival Shell in its call.

While CFRA (S&P) only has a Hold rating, the firm noted that it sees operating earnings of $3.53 per share in 2017, improving to $3.64 in 2018. These estimates compare with 2016 operating earnings of $2.36 per share.

Another caveat in evaluating Exxon and any other large integrated oil and gas companies in 2018 is something taking place a few thousand miles away. The huge Saudi Aramco IPO will bring a lot of attention, and if it is really going to be valued at $1 trillion or more, then some oil and gas investors may decide to use at least a portion of their other oil and gas stock bets as a source of funds.

Again, there are no assurances that Exxon (and other oil and gas giants) will do well in 2018. But considering that its stock has been range-bound for so long and that the current consensus target is rising, some investors might want to take a closer look here.

Exxon Mobil shares have a 52-week trading range of $76.05 to $93.22.