Mobil Corp. said yesterday it earned a scant $5 million in its refining and marketing operations in the third quarter despite revenue of $12 billion because increases in the prices of gasoline and other products trailed spiraling crude oil costs.
Problems in its refining and marketing operations helped reduce Mobil's overall earnings in the quarter by 29 percent from last year, the Fairfax-based oil giant said. Overall, Mobil earned $379 million (89 cents a share) in the quarter, down from $532 million ($1.30) a year ago. Overall revenue, however, grew 21 percent, to $16.3 billion from $13.5 billion, reflecting higher energy prices.
Mobil's results were in line with other relatively modest third-quarter profit reports from big oil companies in recent days. The figures illustrate that despite soaring gasoline prices and a doubling of crude oil prices in the quarter, the oil industry prevented a repeat of the gargantuan profit increases of the oil crises of the 1970s.
Yesterday, Texaco Inc., which benefited more from crude oil price increases than Mobil, said its earnings increased 25 percent in the third quarter, to $381 million ($1.38) from $305 million ($1.10) last year. The White Plains, N.Y.-based company said its revenue rose about 30 percent in the quarter, to $11 billion from $8.4 billion a year ago.
Even though gasoline prices have risen nearly 30 cents a gallon since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, oil industry officials say that was not enough to cover fast-rising crude oil costs during the third quarter. Only this week, when crude prices have plummeted, have gasoline price increases caught up with -- and even surpassed -- the rise in crude costs.
The price of a benchmark barrel of high-quality crude oil, which fell $5.41 Monday, closed yesterday at $29.37 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That price was 99 cents higher than Monday's close, but technically represented at $1.04 drop in the price of the December oil futures contract, which replaced the November contract on the exchange yesterday.
Mobil had particular problems with rising crude prices in the third quarter. Even though it is a huge, integrated, international petroleum firm, it is much more a refining and marketing company than it is an oil driller and producer. Mobil buys more than half of the oil needed for its refineries on the open market, making it more vulnerable to crude price increases than other companies that rely more on their own supplies of crude.
While its crude costs were going up, Mobil -- like other oil companies -- was holding down its gasoline price. During the quarter, Mobil's wholesale gasoline price increased an average 25 cents a gallon, about half the rate of increase in crude prices.
The decision to slow the increase in gas prices reflected a variety of market and political forces, including consumer resistance to higher prices and President Bush's request that oil companies restrain gas price increases. Analysts said it also doubtless reflected Mobil's traditional political savvy, which led the company to eschew steep price hikes and hefty profits that might bring new regulation to the industry.
"Speculation that there might be an outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East has kept prices high," Mobil Chairman Allen E. Murray said in a statement. "Contrary to current wisdom, these developments have not been favorable to our business in the third quarter."
"At a time when prices are surging, those that buy have to absorb those prices in the marketplace," said Eugene Nowak, an oil industry analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. in New York. "Quite clearly, the company could not offset in the marketplace the rather precipitous climb in the price of crude oil."
For the first nine months of the year, Mobil earned $1.3 billion ($3.02), down about 6 percent from $1.4 billion ($3.32) a year ago, even though revenue for the first nine months rose 9 percent, to $45.2 billion from $41.5 billion.