After a Year of Robust Production, ConocoPhillips is Getting Modest

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Independent exploration and production major, ConocoPhillips recently presented at the Credit Suisse 19th Annual Energy Summit. The company gave investors a road map of its investment plans over the next few years, which will likely be a little more modest than last year's results. ConocoPhillips advised investors of its capital allocation strategy going forward, which will greatly influence whether it can reach its stated production and profit goals.

Investors should take note that after last year, which saw strong production growth, Conoco will take a breather in 2014. Here are the major takeaways from ConocoPhillips' presentation, with the most important items that separate it from its competitors.

Slow and steady wins the race
Last year, Conoco spent heavily to ramp up production, specifically in the United States, where oil and gas production is rising steadily. This was due to continuing growth in the most promising regions in the U.S., including the Permian Basin, Eagle Ford, and Bakken shale plays. As a result, ConocoPhillips increased its total production by 7% in its Lower 48 segment, including 24% growth in domestic crude oil production.

It's clear how aggressively Conoco ramped up production when you compare its results to those of its competitors. For example, Chevron's U.S. upstream earnings fell by 41% in the fourth quarter, which management attributed specifically to lower crude oil production. Chevron's net oil-equivalent production in the fourth quarter dipped 4%, and field declines also contributed heavily to its poor upstream performance.

ConocoPhillips' production growth last year stands above its future growth objectives. Management expects to generate between 3%-5% production growth over the long-term. Not surprisingly, ConocoPhillips is about to hit the brakes slightly on growth of spending and production.

ConocoPhillips takes a spending pause
This year, the company will strike a more modest tone in spending, presumably because it doesn't see as many attractive new opportunities as last year. Towards the end of 2013, Conoco got aggressive in selling off assets deemed non-critical to future operations, particularly in higher-risk geographies around the world. These included Conoco selling its Kashagan unit for $5.4 billion last October, then divesting its Algeria business for $1.75 billion in December. In all, Conoco closed slightly more than $10 billion from what it deems nonstrategic assets last year.

Management's 2014 budget calls for $16.7 billion in capital expenditures. This would represent only a modest increase from last year's spending, which clocked in at $16.3 billion. It seems that ConocoPhillips is taking a relatively cautious tone to exploration and discovery this year. This is a marked difference from the strategy employed by ConocoPhillips' closest peer, Occidental Petroleum .

Occidental is taking no such pause. It's continuing to aggressively ramp up production, particularly in the United States. Occidental plans to increase U.S. oil production by 9% in 2014, which represents roughly two to three times as much production growth as ConocoPhillips will pursue this year.

Cautious management teams across Big Oil
ConocoPhillips is taking a relatively cautious tone in 2014, after a robust year for spending and production growth. The company sold off billions worth of assets last year to shore up its balance sheet and increase its financial strength. These moves will no doubt boost Conoco's financial position, but at the same time, the company will want to make sure it isn't falling behind its competition. Going forward, ConocoPhillips will still generate production growth, but likely at a more modest level than what we saw last year.

To some extent, ConocoPhillips will rely on ongoing drilling at existing operations to fuel production. For example, management sees a lot of promise from its Gila well in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico. In December, ConocoPhillips announced its fourth major discovery there. The company is hoping growth from continuing projects will pick up some of the slack.

Management teams throughout Big Oil are getting cautious this year. Several are scaling back their spending plans, including ConocoPhillips, which is why investors should pay close attention to ConocoPhillips' production updates in the months ahead.

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