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Chevron posts first loss since 2002 on crude oil plunge

A Chevron gas station sign is shown in Cardiff, California, January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Ernest Scheyder

(Reuters) - Chevron Corp (CVX.N) reported its first quarterly loss in more than 13 years on Friday despite Wall Street's expectations for a profit, as plunging oil prices eroded profitability across all its divisions.

It was the latest sign that the more than 70 percent drop in crude prices (CLc1) since 2014 has humbled a once-strong energy sector and forced it to curtail new projects, lay off staff and shrink spending.

Chevron, the No. 2 U.S. oil producer, last month signaled its pain by cutting its 2016 budget by 24 percent to $26.6 billion, part of a strategy to contend with lower oil prices and hunker down for a hoped-for price rebound.

Smaller rivals Hess Corp (HES.N), Continental Resources (CLR.N) and Noble Energy (NBL.N) cut their own budgets early this week, ranging from 40 percent to 66 percent.

"We're taking significant action to improve earnings and cash flow in this low price environment," John Watson, Chevron's chief executive, said in a press release.

The company posted a fourth-quarter net loss of $588 million, or 31 cents per share, compared with a net profit of $3.47 billion, or $1.85 per share, in the year-ago period.

The last time Chevron posted a quarterly loss was the third quarter of 2002.

Analysts at Wells Fargo had expected the San Ramon, California-based company to report a profit of 45 cents per share, while analysts at Barclays had expected a profit of 32 cents a share.

Wells Fargo analyst Roger Read attributed the miss to higher exploration expenses and weak operating results in the company's U.S. exploration and production unit.

The bulk of Chevron's losses came from its divisions that explore for and produce oil and natural gas, with its U.S. division alone posting a loss of $1.95 billion.

Surprisingly, Chevron's refining divisions also saw profit plunge. Refiners typically see profitability increase when the price of their main feedstock - oil - falls. Chevron said the drop was due to a boost in the prior year from asset sales, and also smaller margins on specialty refined products.

Production rose 4 percent to 2.67 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in the quarter ended Dec. 31.

Shares of Chevron have slid about 5 percent so far this year through the Thursday close of $85.92 per share. On Friday, the stock traded 1.5 percent lower at $84.62.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder Editing by W Simon)