Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden speaks at a full year results conference in London on January 31, 2019. Picture: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP
Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden speaks at a full year results conference in London on January 31, 2019. Picture: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP

London — Royal Dutch Shell says it will stick to spending discipline this year after 2018 profits jumped by more than a third to $21.4bn, its highest since 2014.

The Anglo-Dutch oil company also reported a sharp rise in cash generation, in a further sign that cost savings since the 2014 oil market downturn are filtering into its operations.

Its shares were up by more than 4%  in midday trading.

A strong performance in the fourth quarter was driven by higher oil and gas prices, year on year, as well as a stronger contribution from crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) trading.

“The cash flow is incredible,” said Rob West, analyst at Redburn. “It’s heavily flattered by downstream inventory liquidation, but it still squashes any lingering worries about debt and dividend coverage.”

Investors were expected to turn their focus to the company’s growth as oil and gas reserves declined for a third year and production largely stagnated.

“The debate will move to long-run growth now…. My view is that Shell could create a lot of value for investors by upping investment and returning to growth mode,” he said. Redburn has a “neutral” rating on Shell shares.

Shell is developing a number of new projects around the world, including in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil, and CEO Ben van Beurden says Shell will look to increase its footprint in onshore US shale production, particularly in the Permian Basin.

The world’s top oil companies are expected to have generated more cash in 2018 than at any other time this decade after years of cuts, but boards remain cautious amid uncertainty over oil prices.

Investors saw large gains in energy shares in the first nine months of 2018 that were largely wiped out in the final quarter as oil prices collapsed from a four-year high of $86 to $50 a barrel within weeks. Oil prices have hovered near $60 a barrel so far in 2019. Concerns over global economic growth amid a Sino-US trade war further weighed on global shares.

But Shell’s strong results are set to raise confidence in the company’s strategy of boosting cash generation by focusing on high-margin businesses such as deep-water oil and LNG.

“We delivered on our promises for the year, including the completion of the $30bn divestment programme and starting up key growth projects while maintaining discipline on capital investment,” Van Beurden said.

“We will continue with a strong delivery focus in 2019, with a disciplined approach to capital investment and growing both our cash flow and returns.”

Shell is the first oil major to report 2018 results. US rivals Exxon Mobil and Chevron publish results on Friday.

Soaring profits 

Shell’s 2018 profits jumped 36% to $21.4bn, beating the $20.98bn in a company-provided forecast and boosted by a strong second-half performance.

In the fourth quarter, net income attributable to shareholders, based on a current cost of supplies (CCS) and excluding identified items, rose 32% to $5.69bn as cost cuts filtered through. That topped a company-provided forecast of $5.28bn.

Oil and gas production in the year rose slightly to 3.666-million barrels of oil equivalent per day as new fields that came online offset the effect of disposals.

Shell’s cash flow from operations in the fourth quarter rose to $22bn, boosted by a $9bn working capital movement, which brought the annual figure to $53bn.

Free cash flow — cash available to pay for dividends and share buybacks — rose to $39.4bn from $27.6bn in 2017.

Shell, the world’s biggest dividend payer at $16bn a year, started a three-year $25bn share buyback programme in October 2018, promised following the acquisition of BG Group in 2016.

Shell had acquired about $4.5bn of shares by the end of January. On Thursday, it launched the next tranche of $2.5bn until the end of April, it said.

By the end of 2018, it largely completed a three-year, $30bn asset disposal programme to pay for the $54bn BG Group acquisition. The assets included large portfolios in the North Sea, Norway and Canada that led to a decline in Shell’s oil and gas production.

Van Beurden said the company will continue to divest about $5bn a year.

Capital investment reached $24.8bn for the year, slightly below the lower end of Shell’s guidance.