By Jennifer Hiller
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp on Friday reported a quarterly profit that topped analysts' estimates, pushing its shares up as oil and natural gas output rose slightly on a year-over-year basis.
The company's fourth-quarter net income fell to $6 billion, or $1.41 a share, from $8.38 billion a year ago. But earnings excluding the impacts of tax reform and impairments rose to $6.4 billion from $3.73 billion a year ago.
Analysts had forecast a $1.08 a share profit excluding one-time items, according to data from Refinitiv.
Exxon's oil equivalent production rose to just over 4 million barrels per day, up from 3.9 million bpd in the same period the year prior. The company said its output in the Permian Basin, the largest U.S. shale basin, rose 90 percent over a year ago.
Results for oil and gas production were "especially strong," said Brian Youngberg, an analyst with Edward Jones. "It was a good quarter to end the year. I think the focus now will be on improving the cash flow," he said.
Exxon is not planning share buybacks this quarter, though, which makes it the only international oil company "not currently repurchasing shares," analysts with Simmons Energy said in a client note.
The company now expects to spend $30 billion this year, up from about $28 billion it had forecast previously, and analysts at J.P. Morgan said in a client note that the higher spending "takes away from the 'sizzle' of the quarter."
CEO Darren Woods said Exxon would sanction liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects on the U.S. Gulf Coast and in Mozambique this year. Qatar Petroleum and Exxon are expected to announce plans next week to proceed with the $10 billion Golden Pass LNG Terminal export project in Texas.
Pretax earnings in its refining business were $2.7 billion, up $1.70 billion over the same period the year prior.
Exxon earned $1.1 billion more pretax in its upstream business than it did in the fourth quarter of 2017, and said higher natural gas prices were partially offset by lower liquids pricing.
Pretax profits in Exxon's chemicals business were down $191 million on weaker margins, growth-related expenses and higher downtime and maintenance.
Woods credited better-than-expected results to the company optimizing its operations across the board, and said it has an advantage because of its ability to tie decisions in the oil field to logistics and refining.
“Irrespective of where we are in the cycle, we’re going to be advantaged versus the rest of industry," he said. Woods joined a conference call with analysts this morning for the first time since becoming CEO two years ago.
Production declines have been a significant issue in previous quarters for Exxon and it is a "positive sign" that production improved in the fourth quarter, said Muhammed Ghulam, analyst with Raymond James. But he noted the earnings beat was "partially driven by one-time asset sale gains of more than $800 million" from a refinery sale.
Shares were up 3.4 percent to $75.74 Friday. Shares are down about 11 percent in the last year. Exxon is a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston; Editing by Nick Zieminski)