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Exxon’s pumping profit in downturn

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Kai Ryssdal: Oil closed today jut shy of $42 a barrel. Seeing as how there are 42 gallons to each one of those barrels of crude, that means oil’s at just $1 a gallon right now. At the pump, meanwhile, we’re paying a national average of $1.89 a gallon to fill up our gas tanks, which kind of gets us into this next story.

At a time when most corporate profits are falling off a cliff, Exxon Mobil is sitting pretty. The world’s largest publicly-traded oil company announced today that it raked in a record $45 billion in profit last year, breaking it’s own record by the by. And even the stunning drop in oil prices over the past six months hasn’t hit Exxon as hard as it has hit the company’s rivals. And it makes you wonder what’s Exxon’s doing that the rest of corporate America isn’t? From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

Sam Eaton: Go through the list of financial strategies that helped bring today’s economy to its knees and you’d be hard pressed to find any that fit Exxon’s corporate culture.

Philip Verleger: Exxon is the antithesis of a 21st century corporation.

Philip Verleger is an oil economist. He says while much of corporate America was swept up in the frenzy of short-term, high-risk bets, Exxon plodded along as it always has.

Verleger: They have operated and managed in a way that looks at the long term survival of the corporation. Long term growth of the corporation. And really paid very little attention to short term results.

For example, when oil prices were high Exxon resisted the urge to over-spend on new, harder to reach sources of oil. Instead Exxon has amassed a cash reserve of nearly $40 billion. Verleger says if more companies had acted like Exxon, the economy might be in less of a pickle today. But University of Delaware business professor Charles Elson says Exxon’s strategy is far from foolproof.

Charles Elson: It gives you the luxury to play something out through various economic cycles. On the other hand it’s got the negative that because it’s so long term that you may never be held accountable for the failure that it engenders in the long term.

The auto industry’s bet on trucks and SUV’s being the prime example. Elson says even Exxon isn’t immune. With a new global climate deal in the works, and the U.S. now serious about regulating emissions, tomorrow’s windfall oil profits may be a lot harder to come by.

In Los Angeles, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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