Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, said Thursday that its first-quarter net income rose 17 percent, boosted by surging oil prices.
But even as it posted the second-most profitable quarter in its history, Exxon’s earnings managed to disappoint investors because of a drop in oil production. Shares were down more than 3 percent Thursday after the company missed earnings estimates by a dime a share.
Record oil prices have lifted corporate profits to new heights throughout the industry but they are also masking an increasingly tough business environment for international oil companies, marked chiefly by rising development costs and stagnating hydrocarbon production. In the refining business, profit margins have plummeted as refiners have been unable to pass through all the increases in oil prices onto gasoline.
Extraordinary profits are also turning into a real, if somewhat incongruous, embarrassment of riches. Rising gasoline and diesel prices have sparked resentment among drivers and truckers, and are threatening to create a backlash against oil companies that could be especially resonant in an election year.
BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips all reporting big gains this week. Most of these gains came as oil prices averaged nearly $100 a barrel in the first quarter, compared with $58 in the period a year ago. They recently rose close to $120 a barrel.
But in a rare slip, Exxon did not do as well as its rivals. The company said that its net income in the first quarter was $10.9 billion or $2.03 a share, up from $9.3 billion, or $1.62 a share a year ago. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had forecast $2.13 a share.
After the earnings were released, the stock dropped as low as $89.41 after closing at $93.07 in regular trading Wednesday.
William A. Featherston, an analyst at UBS, said the results were “disappointing” compared with those of BP and Shell.
In particular, investors focused on a drop in production from Exxon’s operations, because of a nationalization of its assets in Venezuela, declines in the United States and Canada, and lower volumes in Africa.
Exxon’s oil output dropped almost 10 percent to 2.47 million barrels a day compared with last year, as production declined in every region of the world except for Russia and the Caspian region. Production of natural gas rose by a little more than 1 percent to 10.2 billion cubic feet a day.
The company’s combined oil and gas production fell by almost 6 percent to 4.18 million barrels a day in the first quarter.
“Deeply concerned about future energy supply, the market wants growth, growth and growth,” Paul Sankey, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, wrote in a note Thursday morning. “ExxonMobil does not offer that right now.”
While energy companies have no control over the price of oil, which is set on international futures markets, they have benefited from the rally in commodity markets. Exxon, for example, earned over $163 billion from 2003 to 2007. Oil prices more than quadrupled during that period.
But because of how some contracts are structured, international companies must give a larger share of the oil they produce back to the host governments as prices rise. In addition, the higher prices have sparked a wave of energy nationalizations from Russia to South America, that has left Western oil companies with a smaller footprint to operate.
The higher prices have also translated into sharp inflation in the industry, with drilling and production costs more than doubling in recent years. As a result, oil companies have been struggling to increase their oil and gas production.
In the United States, the political attention has been increasingly focusing on the impact of high energy costs on the economy and on pocketbooks. The Senate blocked a $15 billion extra tax on oil companies late last year but calls for a windfall profit tax are likely to re-emerge this year.
Few energy specialists expect prices to fall this year. Retail gasoline sells for $3.62 a gallon on average, according to AAA, the automobile club, up from around $3 last year. Diesel sells for $4.25 a gallon on average.
Oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell 73 cents to $112.72 a barrel on Thursday.
Exxon, viewed with admiration within the industry for its spending discipline and skills at managing complex projects, has not been immune to the schizophrenic nature of the current market.
From 2002 to 2006, Exxon spent over $15 billion each year for oil and gas production and development. Its capital expenses last year rose to $21 billion, and they should average between $25 billion and $30 billion from 2008 to 2012.
Meanwhile, the company’s hydrocarbon production has been nearly flat in recent years.
In the first quarter, Exxon bolstered its spending on capital and exploration projects by 30 percent, to $5.5 billion.
Earnings from exploration and production increased 45 percent to $8.79 billion.
Exxon said that lower refining margins had dropped by $1 billion in the last quarter, pushing its profits from refining operations down 39 percent to $1.17 billion from the quarter a year ago. The drop in profitability was partly offset by improvements from operations of $350 million. Exxon sold 6.8 million barrels a day of petroleum products, down 377,000 barrels a day.
The company said Wednesday that it would pay a cash dividend of 40 cents a share, an increase of 14 percent compared with last year. The company has raised its payments to shareholders for the past 26 years. Last year, it paid out $7.62 billion in dividends.
Since the merger between Exxon and Mobil was completed, in November 1999, the stock has risen nearly two and half times, valuing the company at about $498 billion. Exxon’s shares outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index over the last year, rising 18 percent while the index fell 7 percent.
The results fell shy of the Exxon’s fourth quarter — its most profitable ever — when it had net income of $11.7 billion, or $2.13 a share.
Exxon continued its longstanding program to buy back its shares. In the first quarter, the company spent $8 billion to reduce the number of its shares. Including dividend payments, the company gave $9.9 billion to shareholders, up $1.1 billion from last year.