Exxon turnaround sapped by chemicals, refining

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Exxon’s oil volume has risen year-over-year for five straight quarters after the company moved to ramp up in shale production. (Shutterstock)
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Exxon’s refining profit fell last year due to equipment outages. (AFP)
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Updated 29 January 2020

Exxon turnaround sapped by chemicals, refining

  • Chemicals and refining businesses blamed for weak fourth-quarter results

HOUSTON: At Exxon Mobil Corp, CEO Darren Woods’ plan to revive earnings at the largest US oil and gas company is being sidetracked by the two businesses he knows best: Chemicals and refining.

Another year of poor profit could require Exxon to re-evaluate its bold spending plans or weaken its ability to weather the next oil-price downturn, say oil analysts. Exxon already must borrow or sell assets to help cover shareholder dividends.

The world’s biggest publicly traded oil firm after Saudi Arabian Oil Co, Exxon was long considered one of the best-managed majors and most capable of coping with volatile prices due to its size.

Those advantages have slipped in recent years, however, with the drop in once-steady earnings from chemicals. Its total shareholder returns of negative 13 percent in the five years through this month compared with a 25 percent gain at Chevron Corp. and 82 percent at BP, according to Refinitiv.

Two years ago, CEO Woods promised to restore flagging earnings by heavily investing in operations even as rivals cut spending. The plan to crank up chemicals, refining and increase oil output pushes capital expenditures to as much as $35 billion this year, up from $19 billion in 2016, the year before Woods took over as CEO after running Exxon’s refining and chemical businesses.

Last March, he forecast potential earnings could hit $25 billion this year and nearly $31 billion in 2021, close to the $32.5 billion it earned in 2014 before the oil-price collapse.

The hoped-for payoff, however, has run headlong into a global chemicals glut, tariffs on US exports to China, and lower margins in fuels. Exxon’s refining profit last year fell on equipment outages.

The company declined to comment ahead of quarterly earnings, expected on Friday.

On Monday, Exxon shares traded under $65 — close to their level of 10 years ago.

The company recently telegraphed weak fourth-quarter results because of chemicals and refining businesses. Wall Street cut profit forecasts through 2021 on the sour outlook for both. Exxon “seems to be tracking way behind their own expectations,” said Evercore ISI analyst Doug Terreson, who slashed his quarterly forecast by a third, to 55 cents a share.

In chemicals, Woods expanded the company’s output of polyethylene, a business where it has 9 percent of global production capacity, to benefit from demand for plastic bags, food packaging and consumer goods. Output rose last summer at the depth of the US-China trade dispute, and industry margins for a key polyethylene fell 30 percent compared with levels between 2016 and 2018, said James Wilson, analyst at pricing provider ICIS.

“The industry ended up overbuilding,” said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst with investment firm Raymond James. “Exxon, of course, is among the companies that led that build-out.”

In refining, outages and higher maintenance costs at Exxon refineries in the US, Canada and Saudi Arabia hurt profit, according to regulatory filings.

Crude oil prices and slack global demand from the trade dispute are squeezing profit across the industry, said Garfield Miller, chief executive at Aegis Energy Advisers.

This month, an Exxon regulatory filing implied a loss in chemicals of about $200 million for the fourth quarter, and refining earnings of just $400 million.

In contrast, chemicals and refining delivered $7 billion to $11 billion annually for Exxon between 2013 and 2018. In the first nine months of last year, the combined profit was $2.37 billion. Exxon’s regulatory filing indicates 2019 earnings for the two at about $2.52 billion, the lowest in at least a decade.

Woods has halted the company’s oil output declines by ramping up in shale. Oil volume has risen year-over-year for five straight quarters, reversing annual declines between 2016 and 2018.

Ending the trade dispute represents the biggest challenge. Global demand for the plastic resins and pellets that Exxon makes is rising, said Marc Levine, chief executive of Plantgistix, which provides logistics for US plastic manufacturers.

“This is the first time in my lifetime and in the plastics industry’s lifetime where we make plastics resin for export,” said Levine.

China in 2018 placed an additional 25 percent tariff on US polyethylene imports, a move that helped send North American margins to the lowest levels since 2011, said Joel Morales, a polymers analyst at consultancy IHS Markit.

“Imagine having a lot of something and your biggest, easiest consumer you can’t do business with,” Morales said.

The January US-China agreement does not remove Chinese or US tariffs on chemicals, plastics or oil.

Exxon has ramped up asset sales, aiming to collect $15 billion by next year to balance spending. So far, results have been tepid. It expects to receive about $3.6 billion from selling Norwegian oil and gas production assets.

Weak demand for those assets comes as rivals have written off the value of their own properties. BP, Chevron, Equinor, Repsol and Royal Dutch Shell last year cut a total of $22 billion primarily on US assets due to sharply lower gas prices. Exxon has not signaled whether it expects any writedowns.


INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

  • CEO Mazen Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

Mazen Sheikh has had a good lockdown.

The founder and CEO of Starzplay, the Middle East’s leading entertainment streaming channel, saw his business soar as curfews, social distancing and travel restrictions left people with little to do apart from slump in front of a TV and binge watch for hours on end.

“I think when the whole situation was unfolding, we were trying to think which way is up and which was down, both on a personal level and also as a company — what it means for our subscribers. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning,” Mazen Sheikh told Arab News.

In the region, it was Starzplay subscribers chose to watch, rather than Netflix or other streaming services, in English and in Arabic.

“What we benefited from, of course, was all the people staying home, but one of the things that worked in our favor was that we are an organization based and headquartered here, and we were able to adapt and localize our services much faster than anyone else,” he said.

“In Saudi Arabia, you can sign up for Starzplay via STC, Mobily or any of the other services. You can sign up with your mobile phone number. Netflix came to this region with a very US-centric mindset, thinking that everyone had a credit card and that having a credit card is a norm in the world. In fact, the reality is different, especially in Saudi. Not everyone has a credit card,” he added.

“So, through one bill where you pay your landline and your broadband, you can also have access to Starzplay on the same bill. You can just download onto your smart TV,” he added.

Starzplay has been in business for five years, and while it is probably not as well known as Netflix, it has been making big inroads into the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom accounts for 40 percent of total revenue, while almost half of all consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region comes from Saudi viewers.

And what have they been watching during the long weeks of lockdown? 

Lots of “Vikings,” “The Office” and Turkish-made romantic soap “Jusoor Wal Jamila.” 

Saudis on average watched more than 18 hours of Starzplay in May, compared with less than 12 a year before.


BIO

BORN: Islamabad 1970.

EDUCATION

  • Schooling in Dubai, UAE.
  • Oklahoma State University, US.
  • University of Kansas, MBA.

CAREER

  • Various executive roles in media and communications, US.
  • Chief sales and operations officer, OSN, Dubai.
  • CEO and founder, Starzplay.

“The beauty is that everyone has a mobile phone. We were there in the market with the right product, the right content, but also the right distribution so the masses can actually sign up for our service. It really benefited us.

“It was not just that we were a streaming service. The whole category benefited from the lockdown, but we were the only one in the market that had this kind of distribution and payment arrangements. We were the only one available to the masses,” Sheikh said.

It is not just the distribution platform that is different from Netflix. Starzplay takes a distinct stance on content, too, as Sheikh explained.

“Our industry is evolving in a simple and predictable way. What is happening is that the more Netflix has gone into its own originals, the more studios see them as a competitor. So studios have been pulling their content away from Netflix.

“Until now, with what comes out of Hollywood and the UK, 95 percent of English-language content was produced by seven or eight studios. In the UK it’s the likes of the BBC and ITV, while in the US it’s Warner, Disney, Sony, Showtime, CBS, all the major studios,” he said.

“So, the way the industry is evolving is that if you want Netflix originals, you go to Netflix, if you want anything else you go to Starzplay,” he said.

Sheikh reeled off an impressive list of top shows on his platform. “Big Bang Theory,” “Billions,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Britannia” are among them, while younger viewers soak up “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and other DC titles made by Warner Studios.

Starzplay has also made its first foray into original content, tailored for a Middle East audience, with the series “Baghdad Central.”

“Data is the new oil, they say, and ‘Baghdad Central’ was the result of our experience over five years of consumption history, with billions and billions of minutes consumed. So based on what people were consuming in our key markets and with those insights, we produced our first original,” Sheikh said.

“Baghdad Central” was launched in March with a big name Hollywood actor — Corey Stoll from the award-winning series “House of Cards” — as well as top British and Arab actors.

“We wanted to bring a show to the region that combined the best of the three. It was shot in Morocco in partnership with UK and US producers,” he explained.

That kind of content has pulled in the viewers during lockdown. The figures show Starzplay hit a peak of 6.5 million daily minutes of consumption in Saudi Arabia in the middle of April, compared with about 2 million before the pandemic lockdowns.

Existing viewers are also watching more. The average Saudi spent 28 minutes daily in front of a Starzplay show before the lockdown. That more than doubled to one hour as movement outside the home was restricted.

“To put that into perspective, it took us five years to go from zero to 2 million minutes a day, and it took us six weeks to go from 2 million to 6.5 million. We did more consumption growth in six weeks than we did in the first five years,” Sheikh said.

He is reluctant to forecast how many of these consumers will stay with Starzplay as the lockdowns are eased around the world and the region. 

“I’m expecting some churn, so it’s tough to predict what the base will look like later in the year. We saw tremendous growth, but as the lockdown eases I think we’ll see some churn on those subscribers,” he said.

But even as the lockdown are eased significantly in the region, consumers are not going back to pre-pandemic levels. There is likely to be a permanent shift in demand for Starzplay in the “new normal” environment.

“Unlike Netflix, one of the challenges we had in the region is that the brand awareness and content awareness of our service was comparatively low. One of the things that has happened is that because of increasing demand and awareness, people got to find out about Starzplay. People experienced that and connected the content to our brand.

“That is going to be an enduring and lasting benefit for our company. You cannot unlearn it. I’m expecting some churn in high sign-ups and reduced consumption volumes, but the lasting benefit we’re hoping for is the brand awareness and content awareness that was created,” he said.

That kind of growth is likely to accelerate Starzplay’s evolution from a privately funded startup to a listed public company. It has raised $125 million over its five years, from some pretty impressive investors, including US media giant Lionsgate, the big financial firm State Street Global Advisers, and Nordic investment firm SEQ, which backed Starzplay from the beginning.

With profitability just around the corner, Sheikh does not see the need for further funding, especially as investment sources have dried up during the uncertainty of the pandemic period.

“During COVID times, when consumption and new subscribers were going through the roof, the flip side was that we realized that capital markets were going to be out for 2020. Lucky for us, we are well capitalized, and we are not in a situation where we need to use funds. This is not a good time to be out there raising money,” he said.

“The goal is to serve our customers and also create shareholder value. There are multiple ways of doing that. One is that you generate cash and shareholders benefit from cash dividends. That’s the traditional model. The more high-growth model that is more applicable to companies like us is shareholders push for more growth and expansion to increase the enterprise value of the company,” he said.

Sheikh has set his medium-term sights on a public listing. “In the long run the goal is to continue to grow the business, and in the next three to five years to get into a position where we can list the company on the London Stock Exchange.

“We haven’t absolutely decided that, as it’s so far out. I’d say what we’re looking to do is list ourselves, and if not in London, then other markets, local or London. That’s the ambition, to look to IPO on London or other markets. We’re not there yet. We’re still two to three years away from a decision, but that’s our ambition,” he said.