In case anyone doubted the existential threats bearing down on the oil industry, Wall Street delivered another sign that oil and gas companies are in deep trouble this week, with the announcement that ExxonMobil was falling off the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index. While the decisive blow might have come from the novel coronavirus, which has sent oil demand plummeting, it's becoming harder to dispute that the industry may be in irreversible decline, as governments accelerate efforts to tackle climate change and move away from fossil fuels.
The companies included in the Dow Jones index are meant to represent the might of American commerce, and Exxon and its predecessor Standard Oil of New Jersey had held a secure place on the list since 1928, the longest run of any company.
On Monday, however, the keeper of the list announced Exxon would be replaced by Salesforce.com, the software company, as part of a shakeup prompted by a stock split by Apple. It's hard to imagine a more symbolic end to Exxon's tenure.
In 2007, when oil prices were sky high, Exxon was perched atop the corporate pyramid as one of the most profitable companies on the planet, a behemoth with a market value of more than $500 billion. But as the world emerged from the Great Recession, the oil industry—and Exxon in particular—seemed stuck, as the rest of society, including Wall Street, charted a different course.
The industry's success, ironically enough, presented its first problem, as the explosive growth of fracking in the United States helped to push down global oil prices, by flooding the market with a glut of crude. Exxon placed a multi-billion dollar bet on this boom that some analysts now say never paid off.
In the following years, as governments began stepping up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy sources were quickly becoming competitive with fossil fuels in power markets, and electric vehicles looked to finally be catching on. Technological innovations and a global drive for efficiency started to bend down the growth curve of oil demand. The industry was facing something entirely new—competition.
The results can be charted in Exxon's stock price, which despite some zigs and zags remained stubbornly flat during the 2010s, before succumbing to a precipitous decline beginning in January, as the coronavirus took hold in China. The Dow Jones, meanwhile, has climbed inexorably higher. More broadly, the energy sector's share of the other major stock index, the S&P 500, has fallen from about 12 percent a decade ago to 3 percent today.
By the time the pandemic locked down much of the world in early spring, some analysts and even executives of European oil giants like Shell and BP were saying that a global peak in oil demand was marching closer, or perhaps had already passed.
By the summer, the oil industry was facing its worst financial crisis in decades. Exxon reported two consecutive quarterly losses, to the tune of $1.7 billion, despite dramatic cuts in spending. The company even announced it would suspend its contributions to its employees' retirement savings accounts.
Some of Exxon's peers have responded to the crisis by trying to adapt, or at least giving the appearance of doing so. The European giants have all announced goals for cutting their emissions and ramping up investments in renewable energy. In recent months, they have rejiggered their portfolios, wiping billions in value from oil and gas assets that are now less profitable amid a hastening shift from oil and gas. Earlier this month, BP became the first major oil company to say it would cut its oil and gas production by the end of the decade, beginning a true shift, it said, from an oil company to an energy company.
An Exxon spokesman, Casey Norton, said in a statement that the company's fall from the Dow Jones will not affect its business.
Some of Exxon's troubles may come down to poor management, and to its massive spending programs. Chevron, for example, has performed comparatively well—it remains as the only oil company on the Dow Jones index—despite maintaining a similar course of largely eschewing renewable energy and bold emissions pledges.
But executives at Exxon have also remained uniquely defiant of a global energy transition that appears to be accelerating, even as the company's financial problems mount. During Exxon's most recent earnings announcement, when it reported a loss of $1.1 billion over just three months, one analyst inquired about the clear divergence between the company's performance and the broader market, asking, "What's the market missing?"
Senior Vice President Neil Chapman laughed, and said, "Look, in terms of how do we think about this business, we don't think the long-term has changed." Global population continues to grow, he said, and there's no sign that oil and gas demand won't continue to grow with it. The winner would be the company best positioned for that path, he said, and Exxon is that company.
So far, at least, the market doesn't seem to be listening.