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Dec. 12, 2016, 5:02 a.m. EST

Big Oil is in decline, and the OPEC deal can’t rescue it

Don’t bet that a recovery in oil prices signals a comeback for oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil

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By Jeff Reeves, MarketWatch

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It’s not just the percentage increase that matters, either. As you’ll recall from the OPEC deal, oil-producing nations are agreeing to a collective cut of 1.8 million barrels per day. While that’s certainly substantive, it’s also about a fifth of U.S. oil output — which, if past is precedent, will only continue its upward trajectory.

Read: How the OPEC deal breaks down for 3 big producers

That’s because shale-oil frackers have been resilient even in the face of falling oil prices, cutting costs and pumping frantically so they can sell enough crude to keep the lights on. As the Wall Street Journal noted in September, oil production dipped by only about 535,000 barrels a day compared with 2015 despite “a wave of bankruptcies” in the space. And furthermore, Goldman Sachs estimated at the time that firms would ratchet up production by year-end to bring overall output up year-over-year — and that was before this massive spike in prices driven by OPEC cuts.

Long story short is that the global oil supply remains massive, and even if OPEC tries to eat into the overhang with a modest cut, the U.S. is still pumping like mad.

That would be bad enough for supply-and-demand dynamics if we weren’t also in an era of weakening oil demand. According to the IEA, global oil-demand growth peaked at a five-year high of 1.8 million extra barrels a day in 2015 but has steadily slumped to a growth rate of just 1.2 million barrels a day in global demand for 2016.

A host of factors are keeping back oil consumption, from a focus on cleaner energy sources and electric cars to anemic industrial output around the world. And the general outlook is pretty grim going forward, too.

If these trends continue, we may see global oil demand flat-line or even decline even as overall global production continues to grow despite the OPEC deal.

That doesn’t bode well for the long-term hopes of oil.

Big Oil is less equipped for this market

Given all this as context, it’s no wonder small-cap drillers have run up even as majors like Chevron and Exxon Mobil have struggled.

These smaller companies are more agile, and have been able to cut back on costs reasonably quickly over the last two years. Conversely, they also will be much quicker in scaling up to respond to more favorable pricing.

Exxon, on the other hand, is a $360 billion behemoth that is naturally less responsive to short-term market conditions. Remember, this is a company that partnered with a Russian state-owned oil company in an expensive long-term drilling project in the icy waters north of Siberia, which includes $3.2 billion in exploration costs alone.

If oil ever gets back to $80 a barrel or higher, that project may turn out to be a smart one … but if it drops back under $40 a barrel for an extended period of time, there’s no way Exxon is breaking even on production there.

And sure, Exxon announced earlier this year it would be cutting capital expenditures by a quarter year-over-year, but it’s still on track to spend about $23 billion this year on developing new oil fields. That’s in large part because it needs to show shareholders constant growth, but also because it needs a continual flow of oil sales to support its massive operations.

After all, Exxon has $46 billion in total debt — and in fact lost its coveted AAA credit rating this year as the depth of its troubles in the era of cheap oil were revealed.

On top of that, Big Oil valuations are already stretched with Exxon stock trading at almost 21 times next year’s earnings and Chevron trading at roughly 25 times forecast earnings!

To be clear, I don’t believe that Big Oil is going bust anytime soon. However, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see significant improvement in the share price of majors like Exxon or Chevron in 2017 even if oil prices stick at $50 a barrel or higher.

That’s because they simply aren’t built for an era of stagnant demand and comparatively low prices, while smaller players in the space can move quickly as conditions warrant.

To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily make the small-cap explorers a sure thing. If and when oil prices roll back, they will suffer a lot more than shares of Chevron or Exxon. But at least in times like this, swing traders can find opportunity and strike while the iron’s hot.

As for Big Oil, the story remains the same: a challenging long-term outlook, and little chance of outperformance.

Now read: 2 chemical stocks to buy and 2 to sell

Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffReevesIP.

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