Is Exxon the oil giant in crisis?

Goldman Sachs downgraded ExxonMobil’s shares to Sell from Neutral, following another disappointing quarter.

Exxon reported a drop in profits on Friday for the fourth quarter, weighed down by a deterioration in nearly every segment. Oil prices were weak, natural gas prices fell sharply, while profit margins for refining and petrochemicals also deteriorated. “There’s no doubt that 2019 was a challenging year for a number of our businesses,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods admitted to shareholders and analysts on an earnings call on January 31. “Near or at 10-year lows on price and margins for gas refining and chemicals. Fourth quarter was particularly challenging for our chemical business.”

It isn’t just 10-year lows for prices. Exxon’s share price is also at its lowest point in a decade. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is not slowing down, spending at aggressive levels as it drills in the Permian and tries to ramp up its oil discoveries in Guyana.

As a result, the financial picture has darkened. Goldman slashed its price target for Exxon’s shares to $59, down from $72 previously. The bank’s analysts see “downside to long-term consensus estimates,” and a “lack of free cash flow limiting capital returns.” Ultimately, there is a “risk to long-term return on capital employed targets,” Goldman analysts warned. Exxon’s return on capital employed could end up being about half of what Exxon is aiming for by 2025.

Exxon hiked its dividend again in order to satisfy shareholders, but its share price fell anyways. Exxon has not been able to finance its dividend and share buybacks with cash generated from its operations for a very long time. Over the past ten years, Exxon dished out $202 billion to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends, but only generated enough money to cover about two-thirds of that payout, according to a recent report.

ExxonMobil would need oil prices to trade at about $100 per barrel in order for the company to pay for all of its spending and also cover shareholder payouts, according to Citigroup. Needless to say, that is far higher than the prevailing oil price today, and few, if any, oil market analysts see triple-digit oil prices anytime soon.

Shekhar Ghosh is consulting editor, He has edited and written for publications like Business India, Business Standard, Business Today, Outlook and many other international publications. He can be reached at

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