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Shell shock: Oil giant warns of 'significantly lower' profit

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell warned on Friday that fourth-quarter profit is expected to be "significantly lower than recent levels" due to current oil and gas prices and the state of the downstream oil products industry.

Shell said its CCS (current cost of supplies) adjusted earnings for the fourth quarter - which are due to be released on January 30 - are expected to be approximately $2.9 billion. CCS is an industry standard of measuring earnings and excludes identified items and strips out unrealized gains or losses related to changes in the value of fuel inventories.

The company said this figure had been impacted by weak industry conditions in downstream oil products, higher exploration expenses and lower upstream volumes.

FTSE-listed shares in Shell fell 4 percent in opening trade and are around 1.8 percent lower so far this year. In 2012 shares rose by just 1.9 percent for the whole year after a drop of 10 percent in 2012.

"Our 2013 performance was not what I expect from Shell. Our focus will be on improving Shell's financial results, achieving better capital efficiency and on continuing to strengthen our operational performance and project delivery," CEO Ben van Beurden said in a press release on Friday.

Ben van Beurden took the helm at the firm in early January, with former CEO Peter Voser set to leave Shell at the end of March, marking the end of 29 years at the company. A report in the Financial Times, citing a source close to the situation, said that Shell is looking to sell some of its North Sea oil fields as well as part of its refining portfolio.

(Read More: Shell hit by refining costs, Nigeria 'sabotage')

The $2.9 billion figure reported Friday is a sizable drop from previous earnings. Third-quarter adjusted earnings were $4.5 billion and came in at $5.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2012.

"It's certainly a big disappointment and not what the market was expecting," Malcolm-Graham-Wood, founding partner at Hydrocarbon Capital told CNBC. "They're not in any trouble but the point is in this quarter they would have been hit in nearly every area."

Graham-Wood believes that the announcement was Van Beurden deciding to "clear the decks" and give himself a decent starting point to what might be ten years in the job. He added in his morning research note that the sharp move in the share price on Friday could be classed as "cynical", with the profit warning coming from a new CEO just before the reporting season.

"If however, it means that Shell is in for a bit of radical restructuring and better capital efficiency then that's not a bad thing and a sub 10 percent fall in the share price is a price worth paying," he said in the note.

Analysts at Bernstein Research said they were "shell-shocked" by the profit warning, but restated their "market-perform" outlook for the company.

"It may be that everything went against Shell this quarter but it doesn't mean it will bounce back next quarter either," senior analyst Oswald Clint, said in a research note.

"We think this is much more Shell-specific than a sector-wide phenomenon and hence remain unchanged with our sector view."

Ishaq Siddiqi, a market strategist at London-based broker ETX Capital said it was worrying news from an oil major which is clearly suffering from management's inability to get on top concerns regarding capital discipline.

(Read more: Ouch! Exxon posts big miss; Shell takes massive shale charge)

"This is unlikely to change this year leaving markets worried about the group's outlook," he said in a morning note.

"Shell is not an isolated case however, as weak industry conditions for downstream oil are likely to hit sector peers too. For Shell itself, management must now implement more aggressive targets for group strategy in order to turn a page and improve capital efficiency which would go some way in improving operational performance."

Shell said that a high level of maintenance activity during the last quarter affected high value oil and gas production volumes. A weak Australian dollar also hit earnings. It added that its Upstream Americas unit continued to incur a loss and the security situation for its Nigeria operation continued to remain challenging. Upstream oil operations search for and recover crude oil and natural gas, whilst downstream production processes the materials collected during the upstream stage.

Cash flow from operating activities for the fourth quarter of 2013 is expected to be approximately $6.0 billion it said, with full year 2013 cash flow from operating activities expected to be approximately $40.4 billion.

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