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The Times: Bottom line not the only oil tale at Shell

February 1, 2008
Patrick Hosking: Business Commentary

Some people are never satisfied. Shell may have made greater annual profits last year than any other European company ever, but as one City sceptic remarked yesterday, one should expect nothing less from a company that has over the past decade enjoyed a ninefold increase in the selling price of its main product, crude oil.

However, big oil companies are facing nasty headwinds, not just from soaring exploration and production costs and thinner downstream margins, but also from the paucity of new finds. They are having to forage deeper into ever-costlier and politically suspect territories to rootle out ever-piddlier new pockets of the black stuff. The easy finds were all made long ago.

The unexciting share price trajectories of Shell and its peers demonstrate how investors take current profits as a given, and are much more concerned about where the money will be made in five or ten years.

For the first time, Shell omitted to publish reserve levels alongside its results, preferring to defer them by six weeks. There is nothing sinister in this, but it is a sore point for shareholders. They haven’t forgotten that the company misled them for years over its reserve levels. Unions and greens may focus on yesterday’s profit figures; investors will be more interested in the reserves numbers in March.

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