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Exxon Mobil Think Again

General Electric’s collapse should have served as a reminder that buying a company based solely on past reputation and dividend yield is a dangerous endeavor. GE is also a great example that dividends are not paid out of earnings, especially massaged-to-death non-GAAP earnings, but from free cash flows. GE’s non-GAAP earnings were double its dividend payment.

This brings us to another American icon of the past: ExxonMobil. It was clearly one of the most respected oil companies in the world. Its stock was passed from generation to generation, with a deathbed whisper “Never sell Exxon.” And for a long period of time, if you listened to that whisper, you grew richer as Exxon continued to grow its earnings, raise its dividend, and buy back stock.

These days are long gone. Today Exxon is riding slowly into the sunset.

The company has been in self-liquidation, but investors never got the memo. Over the last ten years ExxonMobil spent $275 billion returning money to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks, while it earned $318 billion of net income. On the surface these numbers look great. There is only one problem: – Exxon’s reported earnings dramatically overstate the company’s true earning power. Finding new oil and extracting it has become much more expensive, and thus Exxon’s capital expenditures – the cash it spends on replenishing reserves and extracting – oil significantly exceed the company’s depreciation expense (an income statement number).

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Vitaliy Katsenelson

I am the CEO at IMA, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Why? Get our company brochure here, or simply visit our website).

In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called me “the new Benjamin Graham.”

I’ve written two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. (I’m working on a third - you can read a chapter from it, titled “The 6 Commandments of Value Investing” here).

And if you prefer listening, audio versions of my articles are published weekly at investor.fm.

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