Last September, when the price of oil was well below where it had been trading for the bulk of the past several years, we reported that NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was probing why Exxon Mobil hasn’t written down the value of its assets, two years into a pronounced crash in oil prices. The complaint was simple: out of the 40 biggest publicly traded oil companies in the world, Exxon – then still led by now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – was the only one that hasn’t booked any impairments in the prior 10 years.
As the WSJ wrote at the time, “since 2014, oil producers world-wide have been forced to recognize that wells they plan to drill in the future are worth $200 billion less than they once thought, according to consultancy Rystad Energy. Because the fall in prices means billions of barrels cannot be economically tapped, such revisions have become a staple of oil-patch earnings, helping to push losses to record levels in recent years.” And yet, Exxon had – until the later half of 2016 – declined to take any write-downs, the only major oil producer not to do so, which has led some analysts to question its accounting practices.
Maybe the NYAG was on to something?
To be sure, the company had played down the criticism, saying it is extremely conservative in booking the value of new potential fields and wells. That reduced its exposure to write-downs if the assets later prove to be worth less than expected. Then again, not even the most “conservative” company could have factored in oil crashing from $100 to $42 without that impacting the balance sheet.