The road to Exxon's long-awaited stock buybacks is paved with billions in asset sales

Key Points
  • Exxon expects to restart its share buyback program once $15 billion of asset sales gets under way, CEO Darren Woods says. 
  • Exxon is holding its fire even as its peers are once again enriching shareholders by purchasing their own stock.
  • Woods says the company's priorities are reinvesting to replenish its reserves and growing its dividend.
Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods explains its plan to increase capital spending
Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods explains its plan to increase capital spending

Exxon Mobil's plan to sell billions of dollars in assets may pave the way for the company to return cash to stockholders through a long-awaited share buyback program, says Chairman and CEO Darren Woods.

On Wednesday, the energy giant forecast it could generate $15 billion in cash through 2025 by selling assets. Woods say the company expects some of that cash will go towards repurchasing stock from shareholders.

But today, the company's main priority is reinvesting in its business and replenishing its oil and natural gas reserves.

"We've got a balance sheet that allows us to continue to do that, and so we've looked at our balance sheet, our objectives to grow dividends ... and to maintain a strong balance sheet," he said in an interview with CNBC's Becky Quick.

"We can do all that in a pretty wide range of price environments, so the additional money coming in from divestments we can use for buybacks."

Darren Woods, Chairman and CEO, Exxon Mobil.
Katie Kramer | CNBC

Exxon is reviewing its global portfolio for divestment opportunities, and will prune assets that don't fit its strategic priorities, says Woods. The company will also look for tactical opportunities to offload assets at good value, he added.

But it remains unclear when the divestments will give way to share repurchases, and some investors appear to be growing impatient. Exxon saw its stock price slump on Wednesday, despite the company issuing improved guidance for profits and cash flow during its annual investor day.

Analysts say one reason for the pullback is disappointment that Exxon did not launch a buyback program, even as its peers have begun enriching investors by once again repurchasing stock.

"Exxon has been the only supermajor in recent quarters without an active buyback program," said Raymond James equity analyst Pavel Molchanov.

"Interestingly enough, a decade ago this company had the largest buyback amounts in the entire S&P 500."

Exxon spent about $210 billion on share buybacks over a decade before halting share repurchases three years ago, except to offset dilution. Now, Exxon has fallen behind its peers like Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, who have all restarted their share buyback programs following the punishing 2014-2016 oil price downturn.

Chevron CEO on plans to double production
Chevron CEO on plans to double production

Pressed on the buyback issue, Woods said Exxon remains focused on generating value for shareholders over the short- and long-term, and in the current cycle, that means investing while others are pulling back spending.

The most exciting part of the multi-year road map Exxon revealed on Wednesday is the opportunities executives have identified to build on last year's long-term plan, Woods said. That plan called for doubling earnings in Exxon's chemicals and refining segments and tripling profit in its business producing oil and gas by 2025.

By spending another $4 billion between 2019-2025, Exxon believes it can improve net present value by $40 billion, drum up $9 billion of extra earnings and $24 billion of added cash flow during the period.

"The projects that we put into the portfolio have very good returns, are accretive and are advantaged versus the rest of the competition," Woods said.

"What we've found over time as we're talking to investors is they like the plan."

Exxon is right to invest in capital expenditure, energy expert says
Exxon is right to invest in capital expenditure, energy expert says

John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital, says it's the right time for Exxon to double down on its bets.

"This is a low-cost environment. The cost of rigs — offshore rigs — have basically been cut in half from two years ago," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box" "I mean, you want to be buying low and selling high."

Kilduff said Exxon had done the opposite over the last few years, for example acquiring U.S. shale driller XTO Energy near the top of the market.

"The company, it seemed to be in sort of a funk," he said. "But this new CEO is doing some things. They're actually going to get more active in trading, as well, so I think it's a good future. I think it's a great move for them."