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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 18:34 GMT
Shell's slippery slope
Analysis
By Tim Fawcett
BBC News Online business reporter

Jeroen van der Veer
Mr van de Veer is struggling with Shell's image problem
The image warning light is well into the red for Shell.

The company has delayed its annual report, due on Friday, until later in the year.

And for the second time in less than four months, it has had to admit to getting its estimated oil reserves wrong.

Investors' trust in the company is already at a low ebb. But news like this is bound to set the alarm bells ringing anew.

And with the recent departure of Chairman Sir Philip Watts, this mistake means Shell will have to work even harder to rebuild its image.

Shell overstated oil reserves by 250 million barrels in Norway. That's after discovering 3.9 billion barrels had - metaphorically, at least - evaporated in January.

So is this serious to the point of no return?

Well, not if Shell's last results published in February are anything to go by.

With net profits up 27% to $11.7bn (6.4bn), the cost-cutting seemed to be paying off.

Image beyond repair?

But despite the nice numbers, the fresh round of bad news does mean the company's image is shot to pieces.

Attempts were made to draw a line under the problems when the chairman, Sir Philip Watts, stepped down.

When the first overestimate was announced Sir Philip sounded downbeat and defensive denying he would go. But he gave in and left, bowing to shareholder pressure on March 8th.

And it was the size of the restatement, and the casual brutality of its announcement, that took investors' breath away.

Investors began to ask: could Shell be fiddling its books?

Rivals taking the lead

Compared to its big competitors, BP and ExxonMobil, Shell is now looking distinctly third rate. The firm isn't finding new oil and gas anything like as fast as the other two.

The so-called reserves replacement ratio shows how much new oil and gas a firm is discovering compared with the amount it is pumping out.

In 2003 it was 98% at Shell. BP's was 175%.

Shell insists that its replacement ratio will pick up, after some heavy investments in oilfield technology.

Structural problems

But the furore has nonetheless sparked calls for reform.

The key issue here is Shell's peculiar corporate structure, with control split 60:40 between Royal Dutch, based in the Hague, and London-based Shell Transport & Trading.

Although there is a unified management board, most other functions are split between the Netherlands and UK, and day-to-day decision-making is snarled up in endless committees.

Financing too is tricky. The two constituent firms are separately listed, and issue their own debt - something that can pose a problem during acquisitions.

Worse, say shareholders, the structure pushes their interests to the back of a long queue.

Shell defends its position, arguing that the strategic time-horizon in the oil business can be 50 years and more.

But BP, for one, has been able successfully to reconcile long-term thinking with the short-term demands of the market.

Reserves under scrutiny

The restatement of Shell's oil reserves was the result of arcane rules drawn up by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the US stock market regulator.

Europe and the United States now differ in the way reserves are booked.

In an effort to create transparency in a murky market, the SEC insists that oil firms can only book reserves when commercially viable oil is flowing; until then, fields must be categorised as "provable".

This can make a huge difference to a firm's portfolio. ExxonMobil, the biggest US oil firm, has 22 billion barrels of proved reserves, but another 50 billion barrels in the more speculative category.

This leaves whopping inconsistencies in companies' international reporting.

Crisis point

The double-restatement issues look likely to bring all this to a head.

Although there seems little that the malcontents can do to force change in Shell's structure, there is nevertheless a push to give shareholders more say, somehow, in company strategy.

For the new chairman, Jeroen van der Veer, the right words will need to come thick and fast if he's to clean up Shell's now tarnished image.


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