PetroChina passes Exxon as China revs up its economy

Henry Kissinger must be wondering whether he did the right thing when he opened up U.S. relations with China back in the 1970s. Now the two countries are in some ways the same -- or at least they're so dependent on each other economically that the failure of one means they both go down. In a sense, the two countries have a form of economic mutually assured destruction.

Or at least that seemed true until the recent economic collapse. The U.S. remains exceptionally dependent on China to buy debt -- China leads the world with $1.2 trillion in Treasuries or U.S. government agency debt -- and China used to depend on the U.S. to buy its cheap goods. But now China's economic stimulus plan seems to be working by boosting Chinese consumer demand, while the U.S. stimulus plan has not done the same.

China's more effective economic stimulus plan has played out in the oil industry. And now after a 29 percent boost in its shares in 2009, China's largest oil company, PetroChina (PTR), sports a market value of $336 billion -- slightly exceeding that of the ExxonMobil (XOM). This gain came -- surprisingly -- after PetroChina announced that it would acquire Singapore Petroleum for $2.2 billion.

PetroChina's gain over Exxon can be traced to the difference in the economic stimulus plans of the two countries. China's Shanghai Composite Index has gained 43 percent in 2009 on optimism that China's $586 billion economic stimulus and record bank lending will counter a slump in exports and boost growth. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s $787 billion stimulus plan has evidently not created similar optimism with the S&P 500 down 1.8 percent.

Exxon, whose stock is down 14 percent in 2009, has far fewer energy reserves than PetroChina. PetroChina's reserves passed Exxon's in 2008 after the Chinese company added 890 million barrels of oil through discoveries and acquisitions. Exxon's reserves declined by three percent in 2008 to 21.1 billion barrels.

Despite Exxon's weaker stock market and reserves, it made nearly three times more money in 2008 than PetroChina. Exxon's 2008 profit of $45.22 billion was the most ever for a U.S. corporation, marking the fourth consecutive year of record-setting results. PetroChina's net income was a mere $16.7 billion in 2008.

While Exxon is no doubt saddened by the plunge in gasoline prices, PetroChina keeps benefiting from the Chinese government's more effective economic stimulus plan which appears to be boosting the value of its shares. And if PetroChina can keep adding reserves by using its stock as currency, then China's lead over the U.S. may widen further.

And that could help China to de-couple from the U.S. -- a move that would probably make it harder for us to finance more bailouts and borrowing. And that could make China better -- at least economically -- than the U.S.

Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates. He also teaches management at Babson College. His eighth book isYou Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

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