Wall Street analysts to Exxon: what’s with the silent treatment?

Exxon Mobil Corp. signage is reflected in a puddle at a gas station in Nashport, Ohio, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Exxon Mobil Corp. is scheduled to release earnings figures on February 2. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg
Exxon Mobil Corp. signage is reflected in a puddle at a gas station in Nashport, Ohio, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Exxon Mobil Corp. is scheduled to release earnings figures on February 2. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

Wall Street wants answers from Exxon Mobil Corp.

For at least a decade, Exxon’s top executives haven’t taken questions from Wall Street analysts during quarterly conference calls. Instead, Exxon only fields its vice president for investor relations, a unique practice among the top 10 S&P 500 Index companies and rival oil majors Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp., BP Plc and Total SA.

There was little complaint when Exxon was the market’s gold standard for oil producers. But after losing its premier status as a cash generator, oil driller and sterling investment, Wall Street analysts are pushing back.

“We think times have changed, and that Exxon may not necessarily be able to expect the market will continue to offer it the benefit of the doubt,” Paul Cheng, a New York-based analyst at Barclays Plc wrote in a note on Tuesday as he downgraded Exxon to the equivalent of sell for the first time in more than three years.

Exxon needs to provide “more transparency and better access to the senior-most executives on a more regular basis,” Cheng wrote.

Traditionally, Exxon has never placed the same gravitas on quarterly earnings presentations as its peers or analysts. During an 11-year reign that ended in early 2017, Rex Tillerson eschewed the conference call ritual, as does his successor Darren Woods. No other members of the management committee that oversees Exxon’s day-to-day operations alongside Woods participate either.

Analyst day

Aside from the occasional energy conference appearance, the CEO usually confines himself to a handful of public events that include the so-called analyst day held every March at the New York Stock Exchange and the May shareholders meeting in a Dallas symphony hall. Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri declined to comment for this story.

The absence of top executives on those conference calls could be costing investors money. After Exxon published fourth-quarter earnings that missed expectations on Feb. 2, analysts struggled to reconcile why cash flow was so weak given the strength in oil prices. They peppered Jeff Woodbury, Exxon’s head of IR, with questions until he provided some clarity on the figure.

Meanwhile, the stock dropped and dropped, the beginning of its worst three-day rout since the financial crisis in 2008.

‘Radical action’

“Opacity worsened Friday’s tempestuous share price performance,” Robin West, a London-based oil analyst at independent research firm Redburn, said in a note to clients. “Exxon Mobil’s greatest challenge for 2018 might be not its valuation, assets or growth – but opening up to investors.”

Dragged down by lower oil prices and an across-the-board collapse in global equity markets, Exxon shares have lost 12 percent in the three trading sessions since its results, wiping $45 billion off its market value.

“As ever, no Exxon management committee member was on the the Exxon call,” said Paul Sankey, a New York-based analyst at Wolfe Research LLC. “Clients are baying for an activist, for radical action.”

Shell and Chevron also missed analysts’ cash flow expectations last week but their CEOs, flanked by finance chiefs, mounted a robust defense and sought to reassure analysts on their long-term health.

Chevron CEO Mike Wirth regaled listeners to his Feb. 2 earnings call with remarks about his sporting background and “core beliefs” of cost control and returns-driven capital allocation. It was just his second day in the top job at Chevron and it went down well with analysts.

Modeling data

“He was impressive,” Brendan Warn, a London-based analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said of Wirth. “Exxon is an organization that I’ve always admired but there seems to be no real clear vision and strategy. The peers are far better in terms of investor relations, their engagement with the market and disclosure.”

Cheng commended Wirth during the call. “I really appreciate you guys come on to the call from time to time. I hope that at least one of your other major competitors will do the same,” he said in reference to Exxon.

Aside from cash flow, analysts have also said it’s difficult to model important aspects of Exxon’s business such as its chemicals unit because the company provides limited access to financial data.

There are signs that Exxon may be thawing. The company is ending restrictions that limited shareholder interactions with directors and last week it published a report on climate change risks, information that was requested by investors at last year’s annual meeting.

Specific details of major projects and growth projections will be announced at this year’s analyst day on March 7, Woodbury said during last week’s call. CEO Woods is no stranger to analyst’s demand for information, having served a brief stint in the investor relations role in 2001-2002.

“March 7 is going to be important for him,” Warn said.