Q. What's the most likely scenario for oil prices over the next 18 months?
A. It's very hard to predict. Right now, the market is firm. The key question will be what the market will be like when the Northern Hemisphere's demand declines as we get out of the heating season.
. . . The question that you're asking really is to what extent will producers -- and basically you're talking about governments -- curtail their production, and that's hard to guess.
My guess is there will be some short-term weakening in crude prices. The key question is how far -- and I don't think it will be dramatic -- and how long. I personally hope that there's not a dramatic price decline, not only from the impact on us, but really, I think the sharper it goes down, the higher prices are going to be eventually, because it will hurt exploration programs.
All of the basic factors that were there when prices were weak last summer will be there again this spring.
. . . I do look for stability, but I think there could be a little downturn before that happens.
Q. In the neighborhood of several dollars a barrel?
A. Your guess is as good as mine. But I think that's probably a good neighborhood.
A. We entered the winter heating season with inventories at their lowest levels in about a decade. How great is the risk in this winter or subsequent ones that the cushion will finally be gone, leaving us vulnerable to a sudden run-up in prices?
A. Demand keeps dropping every year, so it's hard to tell what's normal. But we do not visualize any problems meeting our customers' normal demands . . . We're not the least bit concerned about that .
Q. What's the risk that a sharp drop in prices would lead to a decline in exploration and production which, in turn, could lead to a sharp escalation in prices eventually?
A. I don't think there's going to be a sharp drop in prices. There might be some weakening. My hunch is it will not be a long-term thing and we won't have the disaster scenario that we all have to be concerned about . . . I don't think this will happen, because everybody will recognize it's not in their interest. But if that happens, there would be much less exploration . . . and you'd have dramatic price increases down the road, and that wouldn't be good for anybody.
What the world needs now is stability. The consumer needs it. The producer needs it. That would be the best of all worlds . . .
Q. Looking at Mobil, the acquisition of Superior Oil increased your debt substantially. Wall Street analysts believe the company's top priority will be the reduction of that debt by the sale of assets. Are they right?
A. Yes. But that's only a partial answer . . .
We've shut a lot of refineries. We've pulled out of certain markets . . . We've sold over $1 billion worth of assets in the four years prior to this. We've sold about $600 million so far this year. My guess is that, by the end of the year, it will be $800 million to $900 million . . . You'll see that, even this year, Mobil has made a dramatic reduction in its debt . . . We'll be in excess of $1 billion less in debt .
Our manpower between 1980 and the end of last year was down 16 percent and you'll see further head-count reductions this year . . . We're going to be efficient in the businesses we're in. And as a result, we're going to grow, and we're growing today. We're selling more gasoline in the United States this year through fewer outlets. Our gasoline demand this year is up 12 percent to 14 percent, while the industry demand is up 2 percent . We're doing it in fewer places . . .
And if we can't get businesses to be profitable enough or they don't meet our strategic needs, we're going to get out of them. The chemical coating business is an example -- W. F. Hall, which was a great company but doesn't fit our strategic needs, we sold for $225 million.
We think energy will be a great business to be in, but the very good ones will thrive . . . The others will fall by the wayside. So we've been examining everything we're doing. Every business. Every piece of business to try to make sure it's the most efficient . . .
Q. It looks like Mobil is putting money into Montgomery Ward to get it ready to be sold. Is that an accurate view?
A. Montgomery Ward has to be placed in a position where it has the financial strength to stand on its own feet . . . I think they've made great strides in doing it. We've taken a big write-off to better reflect what we think the real value is . . .
When it reaches that point, we have a lot of options open to us. We could sell it. We could sell part of it, we could spin it off, or we could keep it. Q What's your timetable?
A. Our guess is we're talking two or three years . . . In many ways, it depends on what's happening to the nation's economy and also what's happening to retailing.
Q. Why are your gasoline sales doing better than the industry's?
A. Basically, it's restructuring. We have pulled out of a lot of areas. We have shut a lot of service stations, rather than just trying to milk them. We have purchased some service stations from people pulling out of markets. We have spent a fair amount of money on rehabilitating our stations. For example, on our stations that we have a real estate interest in, we had been running about a 700,000-gallon average throughput. That's over 900,000 gallons a year now, and we've got a goal to get that up to well over 1 million gallons a station, maybe 1.2 million, in three to four years . . .
Q. As you and other companies pull out of markets and consolidate, there's a concern that the industry could become less competitive.
A. I don't know how you measure that . . . You've never seen that anybody gets excessive profits and keeps them too long because somebody [else] comes into the business. I'm not worried about that.
I think when you have a competitive environment, the strong prosper -- that doesn't mean big . . . There are many distributors who are making money, and they're just as many who are going broke . . .
Q. You don't see a real squeeze on the independent side of the market?
A. I don't think so. If they're not as efficient as us, they should go. If they are, they shouldn't. But in our business, each one stands on its own two feet. If you're talking about subsidizing one side of the business at the expense of the other, that isn't going to happen . . .
Q. Some other companies have announced cutbacks in oil exploration and development budgets because of their increased debt. What What are Mobil's plans?
A. It's going to be a big part of our business. How much we do is going to depend in large part on what's available and looks good geologically. That depends on what happens on offshore leasing and what's available in other countries. And, of course, it depends on the price level. If crude prices drop through the floor, you're going to delay exploration . . . Of course, the tax bill will influence it, too. If punitive taxes are put on the oil industry, there will be less money to spend . . .
We're still spending $4 billion a year, and most of that is on exploration and development.
Q. What's the main satisfaction you expect from this job?
A. That's hard to say. Obviously, I want to see Mobil prosper. That would be the greatest satisfaction I can get: all of our stockholders happy and our employes happy. And I think, with a little luck, we can do that. We've done it for many years.
Q. What worries you most?
A. The things I can't control. Basically government action: the very bad tax bills they're talking about now . . . Certainly what's happening in the Congress now is a terrible mistake . . . I wish they'd stop talking tax reform and get on with facing up to the question of the deficit . . .
I can't control the price of oil. Not that I'd want to . . .
Q. Mobil has made a name for itself as a very outspoken company -- it's used newpaper editorial pages to speak its piece about public affairs and the press. Is that going to change?
A. I think we're a corporate citizen and we've got a right and, in fact, an obligation . . . to speak out on it. We will continue to do that.