Oil Companies Voting With Their Feet

By INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY | Posted Friday, December 12, 2008 4:20 PM PT

Energy: Another day, another oil company fleeing the country. No, this isn't Ecuador, the banana republic that just defaulted on its debt after chasing out investors. It's the United States, and what we're seeing is self-defense.

Much political hay has been made in Congress about "unpatriotic" corporations that move operations abroad. Weatherford International is the latest, taking its headquarters from Houston to Switzerland. The oil services company said that it wants to be closer to its markets. But what it really meant was that it no longer saw the future in the U.S.

In a political atmosphere of blaming corporations, it's no wonder. Halliburton fled to Dubai in 2007. Tyco International, Foster Wheeler and Transocean International all went to Switzerland. As a pattern emerges, America's global standing diminishes, in part because it's based on the willingness of companies to invest. It's an especially bad sign when domestic companies flee.

"The U.S. is an important market," Weatherford CEO Bernard J. Duroc-Danner told the Houston Chronicle Thursday. But, "it's just a market. It's not the primary market."

How does that sound for a loss of global leadership? If that's not clear enough, try this: "In the hierarchical pecking order, (Houston's) not going to be Rome anymore."

What accounts for this vote of no confidence in the U.S.?

Start with the demonization of oil companies. Executives have been hauled before Congressional star chambers, held up to abuse and ridicule, and then blamed for high oil prices as if they wanted to kill their markets. Rising global demand, nationalizations and Congress' failure to open the country to drilling go ignored.

Huge companies such as Exxon Mobil, whose market cap exceeds the GDP of most countries, create $100 billion in earnings in quarters when oil prices soar. It looks high, but over the years, the industry's average returns, at 9%, are less than other industries.

Nevertheless, Exxon's profits are evidence of its success at extracting oil from miles below the earth's surface, even underwater, and from unbelievably hostile environments, such as the Arctic. Instead of being objects of national pride for their productivity and efficiency, and subjects of heroic Hollywood movies, their success is considered to be dishonest.

Congressional hostility affects oil companies' operations abroad, too: Exxon, remember, noted that Congress' animus toward oil profits directly encouraged Hugo Chavez's uncompensated expropriations of $1 billion of Exxon's assets in Venezuela, which drove oil prices higher.

With an expanded Democratic Congress and an incoming Democratic president determined to create "patriot corporations," it's no surprise to see companies try to get out while they can. Make no mistake — it's investment fleeing the country. As this goes, foreign capital could flee next.

Congress' abuse sets the political tone for the worst to come.

First, oil companies, like all corporations, endure the second-highest taxation in the developed world (39.25% of their income), which dampens their competitiveness. The 2007 OECD average is 27.6% and falling. Worse still, U.S. firms are taxed on operations around the world, unlike the global standard, making a move of headquarters a defensive move.

Meanwhile, politicians openly say they want to hike taxes on oil firms. President-elect Obama seems to have backed off, but questions remain as to whether he can stand up to a rapacious and economically ignorant Congress that hasn't.

Second, Big Labor is feeling its oats, swaggering confidently with newfound political power. United Steelworkers approved a "national oil bargaining policy" for higher wages and beefed up its "strike defense fund," both of which point to plans to squeeze oil companies, if not launch strikes.

"You have to prepare your membership for 2009," according to USW International Vice President Gary Beevers on a union Web site. "The oil companies are ready for us; we have to be ready for them." With Congress at their back, oil companies are unlikely to lose.

None of this portends well for the U.S. business environment. That's why top-performing firms, such as Weatherford, are exiting. Until Congress learns to appreciate and value oil firms, this will continue, leading to less U.S. investment and influence as more competitive climes beckon.

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