As breakup calls grow louder, Shell delivers an earnings dud

October 28, 2021, 11:18 AM UTC

Under siege by climate activists, and now activist investors,Royal Dutch Shell on Thursday reported a big bottom-line profits miss that sent shares tumbling.

Speaking after the energy giant’s Q3 results, which revealed that Shell was burned by, rather than benefited from, soaring gas prices, chief financial officer Jessica Uhl and CEO Ben van Beurden attempted to defend the company against the mounting and often deeply conflicting pressures it faces from courts, climate activists, and, increasingly, investors.

The most looming threat is from Third Point, the hedge fund run by famed activist investor Daniel Loeb. On Wednesday, that fund announced in a shareholder letter that it believes Shell should be split into at least two separate parts: one for its nascent renewables business and LNG (liquefied natural gas) and marketing wings; another for its legacy oil and gas assets. The fund has reportedly taken a $750 million stake in the business, giving it an oversize say.

“In our view, Shell has too many competing stakeholders pushing it in too many different directions, resulting in an incoherent, conflicting set of strategies attempting to appease multiple interests but satisfying none,” the letter read. (A copy was provided to Fortune and other media outlets.) In order to appease both legacy investors and ESG-focused pressures, Shell had responded with attempts at “incrementalism and attempts to ‘do it all,’” the fund explained.

“In trying to do so, Shell has ended up with unhappy shareholders who have been starved of returns and an unhappy society that wants to see Shell do more to decarbonize.”

Speaking at a press briefing on Thursday, Uhl, the CFO, said Shell had spoken with Third Point in the past, but noted the company had little more information on the fund’s next move. The executives, however, argued that splitting up the business would undermine their core strategy of using the “legacy” oil and gas business to fund a cleaner-energy transition.

In fact, without the company’s scale and background, “I think you can safely say the energy transition is going to be a whole lot more difficult,” argued van Beurden. “And it may not even happen at the pace that is needed.”

On Thursday morning, Shell’s share price was down 1.5% in Amsterdam—after hitting its highest price since February 2020 on Wednesday.

The gas boom—or bust

The fresh shareholder battle, which has echoes of the war earlier this year between Exxon Mobil and the upstart investment firm Engine No. 1, coincided with the company’s Q3 earnings.

After the staggering losses of 2020, the results continued a return-to-form for Shell’s returns. But they still failed to meet investor expectations, with adjusted earnings at $4.1 billion, up $955 million from the same quarter last year, but down from $5.5 billion in Q2, even as cash flow jumped across the business. Much of that went to Shell’s 2021 strategy of paying off debt, reducing net debt by more than $8 billion in the quarter and announcing the sale of its Permian Basin assets. Meanwhile, the company continued to keep investment steady at around $20 billion annually, far short of pre-pandemic spending promises.

But the real riddle for investors was why Shell hadn’t benefited from the gas crisis gripping Asia and Europe in which the major energy companies would seem to be the only obvious winners. In early October, the benchmark European gas price hit an all-time high, while the cascading collapse of the U.K.’s energy providers has so far delivered Shell more than 500,000 new retail customers. Uhl said the benefits of those high prices were blunted by long-term hedging that limited exposure to the spot market, as well as the fact that the company in some cases ended up on the wrong side of the gas crisis, required to look for supply for their own customers at sky-high prices.

The loss was an “opportunity cost,” Uhl said, but “we weren’t necessarily anticipating these astronomical prices to be sustained as long as they have.”

Climate pressure

It was also clear that Shell had gone into this quarter’s earnings expecting to fight a slightly different battle.

In tandem with its results, the company announced it would target a 50% reduction of emissions in Scope 1 and 2—its own operations—by 2030, on a 2016 baseline. That represents a strengthening of Shell’s near-term climate targets, and comes as the company is under legal pressure from a Dutch court ruling in May to reduce its emissions faster. Shell says it intends to both appeal the ruling, arguing it singles the company out unfairly, and will also attempt to meet the legal targets.

However, in addressing only Shell’s operational emissions, the target doesn’t include the majority of the emissions associated with its business. Those are defined as Scope 3, or the emissions created by driving a car or flying in an airplane, which are included in the company’s net zero by 2050 goal.

The company is also under pressure from other major shareholders, particularly institutional investors, who are themselves torn between steady returns and the mounting public pressure from their own investors over climate change. On Wednesday, the Dutch pension fund ABP, which holds €15 billion in oil and gas companies including Shell, announced it would divest. Van Beurden called the divestment “disappointing” and said that it was ultimately an ineffective approach to the energy transition.

“Replacing long-term thoughtful investors by, say, hedge funds is not necessarily for the benefit of the energy transition either,” he noted, adding, “to be perfectly honest and a bit frank, I think it’s all about symbolism here.”

But despite pressure to move faster on climate change, including from young activists, the executives reiterated that the company needed its fossil fuel assets for revenue. On the other hand, when asked by a journalist why Shell didn’t just focus on oil and gas, given it seemed to be unable to satisfy climate-minded investors, van Beurden gave a staunch response.

“If we were to just double down on carbon, that would obviously not be the right thing to do,” he said. Later, he added, “We will not double down on fossil fuels.”

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