Exxon Mobil's Secret Weapon Against Low Oil Prices

| About: Exxon Mobil (XOM)

Summary

What many investors do not realize is that Exxon is more than just an oil company.

Exxon Mobil Chemical gets a lot less attention than the oil and gas operations of the parent company.

Exxon Mobil Chemical's biggest threat to growth could hinge on China's economic slowdown, the potential implementation of protectionist measures, and the risks associated with geopolitical uncertainty in the Middle East.

By Michael McDonald

Certainly, everyone is familiar with oil giant Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM). So it should be no surprise that investors have kept XOM shares under pressure, as oil prices hover near lows that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. What many investors do not realize, though, is that Exxon is more than just an oil company. The firm also owns the fourth largest chemical company in the world, Exxon Mobil Chemical.

Exxon Mobil Chemical gets a lot less attention than the oil and gas operations of the parent company. That's unfortunate because those chemical assets have significant value as well, and should help to ensure that XOM's profits remain positive (excluding write-offs) regardless of what happens to oil prices. The chemical company's principle products include olefins used in carpeting, ropes, and vehicle interiors; polyethylene used in packaging and plastics; polypropene used in textiles and stationary; and adhesive resins. Exxon Mobil Chemical is also the largest producer in the world of butyl rubber.

A new report from consultancy IHS indicates that Exxon Mobil is ramping up investment in its chemicals division to help ensure it can thrive in a low oil price environment. Part of that effort is the expansion of the firm's Mont Belvieu, Texas and Baytown, Texas export facilities. That expansion will let Exxon distribute ethylene, used in a variety of intermediate chemicals applications, throughout Asia.

The Exxon Mobil name commands a lot of weight throughout the world, which should bring in potential business partners and customers as it ramps up its export capacity. Exxon Mobil Chemical's earnings already contribute 24% to XOM profits overall, and its feedstock supply chain is a critical factor in driving those earnings. U.S. feedstock costs are among the lowest in the world. That is a critical competitive advantage for XOM, along with various proprietary technologies in the chemical space that the company has.

The cost advantage of Exxon Mobil Chemical could be at risk, though. IHS consultant David Witt cited several challenges to Exxon Mobil Chemical going forward. In addition to the threat of lower oil prices, which hurts feedstock competitiveness, he said:

However, I think Exxon Mobil Chemical's biggest threat to growth may hinge on China's economic slowdown, the potential implementation of protectionist measures, and the risks associated with geopolitical uncertainty in the Middle East. These macro-risks are not only applicable to Exxon Mobil itself, but Exxon Mobil's large, but fairly narrow portfolio, could be more substantively impacted as a result.

Interestingly, Exxon Mobil Chemical keeps such a low profile within the broader overall company that many of the benefits and risks to the parent company related to its chemicals group are not mentioned in the investment media. Yet, the roughly one-quarter of XOM's profits from the chemicals group is an important driver of Exxon's overall value.

One interesting possibility for Exxon to better highlight the chemical group, potentially improving performance and enhancing overall value, is a partial spin-off. Much as EMC (EMC) owns most of VMware (NYSE:VMW), but VMware trades under its ticker symbol, Exxon could hold on to 80% of the chemical business while listing the remaining 20% through a public offering. P/E ratios on standalone chemical companies like Dow (NYSE:DOW), DuPont (NYSE:DD), and Eastman (NYSE:EMN) range from around 10x to as much as 30x, suggesting that Exxon might be able to command an attractive multiple for a 20% stake in the chemical group.

More importantly, the parent firm could highlight the diversity of its businesses. And that, in turn, might help to enhance its own multiple as shareholders perceive a more stable set of cash flows going forward.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.