Why this one bank is still cheery after Shell's profit warning

Shell dealt something of a blow to investors this morning, as it issued its first profit warning in 10 years.

The fourth quarter of 2013 was never going to be a good one for the oil giant, with almost a fifth of its LNG portfolio down for maintenance.

Then high exploration and refining costs, fuel theft in Nigeria and weaker than anticpated profitability in North America saw the company resort to the profit warning.

It said that fourth-quarter earnings will be "significantly lower" than last year, in its first update since new chief executive Ben van Beurden took over at the start of the year.

Some of today's profit warning had been prices in because of the third quarter's disappointing results, but Shell led the FTSE 100 fallers this morning, tumbling over four per cent at the open.

It wasn't so long ago that analysts were pretty upbeat about Shell's outlook.

Just last week, Barclays hinted that it has high expectations for van Beurden after the group's underperformance:

We expect an increased focus on capital discipline, improved corporate returns and a more shareholder friendly strategy.

But Shell's earnings guidance, at $2.9bn, is 20 per cent below Barclays' forecast, and 30 per cent below consensus.

In 2013 Shell spent a record $4.3bn on capital projects - $5bn above its earlier guidance. And earlier in the week it was reported that it may sell some of its North Sea oilfields, as part of a two-year divestment programme worth $15bn.

Barclays has now lowered its full year 2013 estimate by four per cent but, despite today's news, says Shell remains a top pick for 2014:

The difficulties of 2013 make it easy to forget that Shell still starts from a stronger free cash flow position than the majority of the peer group.

This morning's news confirms the new chief has a long and hard journey ahead of him, but Barclays expects van Beurden will step up to the plate and set out a plan for improving cash flow.

Shell can significantly boost divestments to supplement existing shareholder returns, according to the the bank. It maintains its "overweight" rating on stock and says that there's a 20 per cent upside to its £26.60p price target.

Nevertheless, Neil Shah, an analyst at Edison Investment Research, believes that Shell's got a rocky road ahead:

Today's warning will not help Shell close the gap with its peers in the short term after a year of relative share price underperformance.

10 years ago Shell's then new chief executive faced a crisis over proven reserves. New CEO Ben van Beurden has a tougher long term test ahead than just measuring what lies beneath but how to keep a thorough control on the costs of extracting what lies beneath.

The weaker refining conditions Shell faces may just point to an economic recovery that is far more patchy than most expect.

If Shell catches a cold the rest of the oil sector will always wonder if they will catch flu.

As investors weighed in on this morning's announcement, several of Shell's competitors took a knock. BP is currently down 0.5 per cent, while Tullow oil and Respol have just edged back into the green.

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