Saudi Aramco: crude colossus takes the crown


If BP is a cash machine, as it has claimed, Saudi Aramco is a high-capacity printer of banknotes. First-quarter net income rose 82 per cent to $39.5bn from a year earlier, the group said on Sunday. Rampant energy prices mean the business is the world’s most valuable company as well as its biggest oil producer.

Saudi Aramco has switched places with Apple, which has lost a fifth of its value in this year’s tech stock rout. Over the same period Saudi Aramco’s market value has risen more than a quarter to $2.4tn. That must be pleasing for the Saudi government. Foreign investors resisted its efforts to list the company at $2tn in 2019 amid outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The free float is relatively small and thinly traded, however. It has taken a war to energise the price. Even so, the company has important strengths. Its reserves are three times larger than its five biggest competitors combined. Its oil is cheap to extract, at just $3 a barrel. Saudi Aramco could take as much as a 40 per cent share of global oil demand growth over the next few years, says JPMorgan.

Shares are pricey at 15 times earnings, more than double the sector mean. It remains exposed to the risk of stranded assets. And higher oil prices are less favourable to shareholders than you might think.

Government royalties rise to 45 per cent above $70 per barrel and 80 per cent above $100. At $110 per barrel, cash flow from operations increases less than 5 per cent for every additional $10 per barrel move in oil prices, says Citi. That is nearly half the operational leverage of peers.

Demand for the 2.5 per cent of shares owned by foreign investors has risen with Russia’s pariah status. Saudi Aramco is one of relatively few options available to emerging market funds seeking exposure to the energy sector. Less constrained investors will find better value elsewhere.

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