Shell becomes a player in the recovery of oil
The latest recession in the oil sector has thrown up some truly remarkable business paradoxes.
Imagine, if you can, a company which suffers a $200bn plunge in revenues and sees its operating profits collapse by 93pc.
Imagine that company surviving such a life-threatening trauma but being resilient enough to get stuck into the acquisition of a serious competitor.
Well, that's been the precise up-to-date experience of Royal Dutch Shell (Shell). And the rival it picked up amidst all its woes is BG plc. But then oil companies are a law unto themselves and some can afford to ship revenue and profitability damage, which would be fatal for most other corporations.
Royal Dutch Shell has come through a fair number of trade wars over the years.
It earned a share of notoriety as one of the famous 'Seven Sisters', a shadowy oil cartel that pretty much controlled the Middle Eastern oil production after World War II and whose dominance was broken up by the OPEC 'oil shock' in the 1970s.
Today, Shell is involved in all aspects of technical development and commercial activity. Through its subsidiaries it explores for oil, refines it, produces petroleum and operates filling stations worldwide.
Investors take some solace in the experience that unlike its competitors, Shell resisted the sell-off of its refining assets. This part of the business now accounts for most of its profits.
The Anglo-Dutch company, valued at £100bn, operates in over 70 countries, has an interest in 23 oil refineries worldwide and employs 90,000 people but is planning a headcount reduction of 12,500.
The company is famous in all parts of Ireland, trading continuously for over a century until it sold its business to Topaz.
However, it is perhaps best known in the West, as the operator of the endlessly controversial Corrib Gas project; but as its long history around the world has shown, controversy is no stranger.
Last February, Shell announced it had acquired the UK- quoted gas and oil operator BG for £47bn. Some analysts think it's a game changer, acquiring good assets in a down cycle. BG's Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) assets in both Australia and Brazil support Shell's rationale for the merger. As a result, Shell is now the largest producer globally of LNG. The acquisition also increases its oil reserves by 25pc.
An added attraction of BG is that it less reliant on oil revenues and its performance in the face of plunging oil prices has held up. However, some have criticized the takeover, accusing Shell of over paying.
Investors are happy that Shell's capital discipline and cost savings have helped it retain its dividend payments but some analysts worry should the oil price slump continue into 2017 dividends costing $15bn per annum could be under pressure.
In truth, Shell has an unsurpassed payout history. It hasn't missed a dividend since 1942. That's my sort of company. Consequently, the well-supported stock trades at £18, which is some way off its 10-year high of £22 in mid-2014. The decimation of the oil industry is shown in Shell's pre-tax profits (it reports in dollars) which plunged to $2bn last year - some considerable distance from $33bn five years earlier. The profits came mainly from its downstream business, helped by favourable exchange rates and lower costs.
Last year, it reduced its operating cost and capital expenditure but analysts are of the opinion more cuts will follow and should consider exiting 10 to 15 countries, concentrating on its core competency. Debt levels remain manageable but Shell recently had its debt rating lowered - its first since Standard and Poor's started in 1990 - and it is not alone. The world's biggest oil company, Exxon, was also downgraded.
The question for investors is whether oil prices have reached the bottom of the brutal slump. Shell's projections for this year is $67 a barrel, $75 next year and $95 in 2018.
So does the adventurous investor believe that Shell is best poised to lead the recovery? I believe it is.
Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.