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ExxonMobil Stalls Spending, But Attractive Acquisitions Always Possible, Says Tillerson

ExxonMobil Corp. has sharply reduced its capital spending plans this year but management is eyeing potential acquisitions while commodity prices are weak, CEO Rex Tillerson said Wednesday. The only issue is that sellers still have unrealistic price expectations, he said during the annual analyst conference in New York City.

The Irving, TX-based supermajor remains in a solid financial position to pursue acquisitions, with a "AAA" credit rating. Late last month it tapped the debt market with a $12 billion deal, leading many to speculate that a major merger/acquisition was in the offing.

"We have the financial flexibility to pursue attractive opportunities and can adjust our investment program based on market demand fundamentals," Tillerson said. But he hedged during the question-and-answer session with his management team about whether there was a potential deal in the making.

ExxonMobil is one of the very few producers that never shows its cards regarding potential asset sales or acquisitions. No sales targets announced are ever included in its guidance and there never will be, said the CEO. Nor will the company signal when it's about to open its pocketbook or sell something.

The operator is the No. 1 natural gas producer in North America, but it's eschewed most of the development to concentrate on liquids production, particularly from the Permian and Bakken shales. Does that mean ExxonMobil might want more oily assets? Not necessarily.

"We have now built a position where we have the critical mass necessary" to enjoy a leading global position in North American unconventionals, Tillerson explained. "We have 50,000 locations that are natural gas; it's not all oil." But the company won't stop "adding to our holdings if we can get it at a good value."

The management team is tasked with "constantly looking at the portfolio of assets we have, and the challenge is, are we getting the best value for that asset?...That's the charge." He added that "it would be foolish to signal the market" about a potential purchase or sale. And as to whether the inventory could use more natural gas, liquids or crude oil, Tillerson repeated something he's said before.

"We're agnostic" on all things fuel-related. "What matters is how do we make money at the end of the day. It's all carbon molecules, and we're in the conversion business. We take a molecule from the site of origin and make it into something the consumer wants. That's what we do."

Many pure-play exploration and production companies in the United States have lost value because they racked up debt to build their portfolios, which slammed the value they'd put on their operations. That makes acquisitions difficult today for most of the domestic operators, Tillerson noted.

And he's not counting on oil or gas prices strengthening anytime soon. In fact, he would not be surprised to see oil prices fall further. Caution is key, and the result is a capital spending plan that's 25% lower than in 2015 at $23.3 billion. In 2014, capital expenditures peaked at $42.5 billion, and management had said in early 2015, average annual spend would approach $34 billion for several years.

Things change, as does the market, said the CEO.

The integrated portfolio is diverse enough to carry it through regardless of the market. ExxonMobil isn't in it for "three or four years," like most unconventional projects are tagged. "We're in it for 30 years," and every project considered is looked at for the long view. The plan is to "selectively advance" the portfolio.

Senior Vice President (SVP) Andy Swiger said the onshore gas portfolio would be ready to expand once conditions are right. When that will be, however, takes more than a forecast.

"There's certainly more demand being created in the United States and a lot of supply; we all know that," Swiger said. "There's a lot of demand outside the U.S. and we're seeing some of that." But "we'll progress the best project and execute when it's appropriate. It's very hard to put all of the moving pieces together and say, 'we've got a solution in one or two years'" that would help grow gas demand.

SVP Jack Williams, who runs the unconventional business through XTO Energy Inc., said patience was required for the gas inventory.

"We've got a very robust liquids inventory that we are tracking today," Williams said. "We're drilling for gas in the Utica Shale and in the Haynesville Shale today, and it's attractive at $2.00 Henry Hub...And we are cherry picking some locations today. We will be very patient when we ramp up. We have a nice position in most U.S. gas plays, and we will bring those on when market conditions warrant.

"In the meantime, we'll continue with our attractive liquids program."

ExxonMobil managed to reduce its operating costs by about 9% year/year in 2015, and the focus is to maximize benefits "across the energy value chain" through "exploration, development and production all the way through to the fuels, lubricants and petrochemical products used by consumers," Tillerson said. Between 2016 and 2017, 10 upstream projects are scheduled to ramp up, adding about 450,000 boe/d of working interest production capacity.

In North America, only the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and heavy crude oil in Canada are on the near-term drawing board.

In all things, the shareholder comes first, said Tillerson. On average, he noted, 48 cents of every $1 generated by the business in the last five years was distributed to shareholders. The dividend policy has been in place for decades, and that's not going to change.

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