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After $92B decline, market value of oil majors recovers only $2.36B in Q4'19

After falling more than $92 billion in the third quarter of 2019, the market capitalization of the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies recovered by only $2.36 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

That figure represents a 0.2% increase in the value of the shares of those companies. Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC, which each saw their market cap decline during the quarter despite positive third-quarter 2019 earnings results, warned investors during the 2019 fourth quarter that they may delay shareholder return programs such as dividend hikes and share buybacks.

Meanwhile, companies that round out the sector's 25 largest U.S., European and Canadian companies saw wider swings in their value, with their total market capitalization increasing by $49.51 billion, or 5.6%, as 17 of those 20 companies shifted positions on the list.

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Marathon Petroleum Corp. climbed one slot to number 17 despite a 0.9% decline in the value of its shares, as it overtook Occidental Petroleum Corp., which fell three slots to number 20 as its market capitalization fell by 7.3%.

Both companies face intense pressure from shareholders to replace leadership and alter their strategic direction. In November 2019, activist investor Carl Icahn launched a proxy fight to replace members of Occidental's management and board of directors, citing the company's highly levered $57 billion acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. as his motivation. A Dec. 1, 2019 Bloomberg report citing anonymous sources said Icahn had taken the next step in that effort by submitting nominations for as many as 14 directors.

In December 2019, Marathon Petroleum announced board and governance changes amid an ongoing activist campaign to split the integrated refiner into three separate businesses. Approximately six weeks earlier, Marathon Petroleum CEO Gary Heminger announced he would retire from the company in April and the company outlined plans to spin off its retail business and evaluate options for its midstream business.

Marathon's master-limited partnership subsidiary MPLX LP swapped places with Williams Cos. Inc. to fall to number 24 on the list as MPLX's market capitalization declined 9.1% during the quarter. Experts are split as to whether MPLX's potential separation from its parent would benefit the MLP and its shareholders, and ratings analysts are cautious about the separation's effect on each entity's credit profile.

Meanwhile, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the country's largest producer by volume, saw its market capitalization climb 21.6% as it jumped two slots to number 19. The company's share price moved nearly 16% higher through the end of 2019 after the company raised its capital spending and production targets for 2020 on Dec. 4, 2019. Canadian Natural said it intends to increase spending on conventional oil production, which is exempt from the Alberta government's oil production cap.

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During the fourth quarter of 2019, energy stocks underperformed the broader market, with the S&P 500 Energy Index seeing a total return of 5.5% versus the S&P 500's total return of 9.1%.