WITH an institutional culture that lies somewhere between the marines and the boy scouts, ExxonMobil tends to avoid personality cults. Even so, it is surprising how little is known about Darren Woods, the chief executive who last month succeeded Rex Tillerson, America’s new secretary of state. Mr Woods’s Wikipedia biography is a few lines long. Rather than reveal the year of his birth, ExxonMobil just says he is 52. Never mind: the most significant fact about him is that he comes from the refining and chemicals side of the business, which hums along so efficiently that ExxonMobil is widely considered the world’s best “integrated” oil company. Yet it is upstream—the exploration and production part—where his hardest tasks lie.

On January 31st the company reported another year of plunging profits, which have buffeted its share price since 2014 (see chart). It earned less in a year than it used to earn in a quarter, and also less than Exxon made before its $80bn merger with Mobil in 1999. Profits among its “Big Oil” peers have likewise been clobbered by falling oil prices over the past two and a half years. It is also not…Continue reading