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Oil Prices Hurt Economy, Help Big Energy Stocks

Douglas A. McIntyre

The rising price of crude probably already has done some damage to the economy. And in the future it is certain to do more. The costs of gas and heating oil will rise for consumers. For companies, the costs of fuel and petrochemical products likely will surge as well. One group of large public corporations and their shareholders already have been winners. Big oil stocks are on the move.

After lagging the S&P 500 for most of 2013, in the past month shares of Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chevron Corp. (CVX) have done as well as the index, catching up for the year. In other words, their performances in the past 30 days have closed a gap that took seven months to form.

The reason for the increase in the energy company shares is not just speculation about oil, the price of which has risen from $90 to $108 in just three months. Gasoline has moved up with it, as refineries run at nearly full capacity. The refinery business, which often loses money, has gotten healthy.

Earnings at big, publicly traded oil companies are set to improve sharply, if Wall St. analysts are right. The consensus for Exxon is an earnings per share (EPS) improvement from $7.97 this year to $8.19 next. Revenue is expected to rise from $426 billion to more than $434 billion.

The estimates for Chevron are not quite as good, but are still impressive. Although estimates are that revenue will fall to $232 billion in 2014 from $235 billion, EPS are expected to rise from $12.36 to $12.40.

These forecasts are almost certain to get better if turmoil in the Middle East worsens, or if demand makes a move up if global gross domestic product (GDP) starts to recover in the late second half, particularly in the two huge crude-consuming nations -- the United States and China.

As a sign of a drop in the price of crude during part of last year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) took the top spot from Exxon in the 2013 Fortune 500. So far in 2013, retail has struggled, so the revenue of big-box retailers will stay under pressure, particularly among consumers who have little discretionary income -- Walmart shoppers. In the meantime, demand for Exxon products, and the price of them, will rise. Exxon will return to the top spot on Fortune's list as crude rises, and it is likely to move higher.