By Ernest Scheyder
HOUSTON (Reuters) - ConocoPhillips (COP.N), the world's largest independent oil and gas exploration and production company, posted a bigger-than-expected first-quarter profit on Thursday, helped by rising crude prices (CLc1) and cost cuts.
Results at Conoco, like many of its peers, have steadily improved in recent quarters alongside commodity prices and as better technology makes operations more efficient.
Conoco's stock has risen as the company has prioritized cost cuts and asset sales over production increases. The Houston-based company generated more cash in the first quarter than its capital budget and shareholder payouts, an accomplishment feted by analysts.
Shares are up about 21 percent so far this year, outpacing the S&P 500 Energy Index (.SPNY), which has gained about 3 percent since January. The stock's biggest increase came after the company boosted its share buyback and dividend in February.
Conoco's stock closed 2.9 percent higher at $66.97.
"We're maintaining our discipline and following our game plan," Chief Financial Officer Don Wallette told investors on a conference call.
Earnings rose to $888 million, or 75 cents per share, compared to $586 million, or 47 cents, in the year-ago quarter.
Excluding one-time items, the company earned 96 cents per share, exceeding the 73 cents expected by analysts, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Doug Terreson, an oil industry analyst with Evercore ISI, said the results reflected a "positive surprise" and were an indication that energy companies can generate healthy profits even when prioritizing shareholder returns.
Production fell 23 percent to 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) as a result of recent asset sales.
Conoco's U.S. shale operations, which made money after losing cash for more than a year, are now profitable at oil prices (CLc1) under $45 per barrel, more than $20 below current levels.
"We're seeing the earnings power of our unconventional operations driving our overall portfolio," Wallette said.
Conoco kept its 2018 capital budget at $5.5 billion, but raised its production outlook slightly and now expects to pump 1.2 million to 1.24 million boe/d this year.
Conoco said on Wednesday an international arbitration court ordered Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA [PDVSA.UL], to pay it $2.04 billion for early dissolution of two joint ventures.
"We intend to be aggressive and persistent" in recovering the award, Wallette said. "It's something that's going to take time to recover, the value that we lost."
Rivals Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) and Chevron Corp (CVX.N) report results on Friday.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Jeffrey Benkoe and David Gregorio)