When the economy is slumping and unemployment is climbing, companies that report healthy profits are typically cheered for delivering some scarce good news. But when Exxon Mobil announced an $11.7-billion profit Thursday -- the largest quarterly profit ever for a U.S. corporation -- the reaction wasn't quite so cheerful. In fact, Exxon took hits both from consumer advocates, who grumbled about the pain caused by sky-high gasoline and energy costs, and from investors, who complained that the results didn't live up to their prodigious expectations. Although crude oil is selling for almost twice as much a barrel as it did a year ago, the company's profit was a mere 14% larger than last yearalmost twice as much a barrel. What's worse, it produced 8% less oil and natural gas.
Poor, poor, pitiful Exxon. Critics blasted the company for investing more in elevating its share price ($8 billion went to stock buybacks) than in pumping up oil and gas ($7 billion on exploration and capital investments). The profits were too meager to satisfy investors, who drove the company's share price down more than 4%, but were ample enough to spur calls around the globe for a windfall profits tax. And meanwhile, efforts by Exxon's allies in Congress to open more coastal areas to drilling hit another partisan roadblock, postponing any action to September at the earliest.