Opinion

Op-Ed: Who really owns Big Oil companies?

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Oil and gas companies have become a go-to punching bag for politicians looking to score easy political points. Many lawmakers and pundits routinely paint America's oil and gas companies as poster children for corporate greed -- suggesting that these firms earn outsized profits that only benefit an elite group.

That's a powerful story. It's also false. Research shows that the bulk of economic rewards reaped by the oil and gas sector are actually flowing back to everyday Americans. Their success is boosting the financial futures of millions of working families all across the country.

Oil and gas companies have broad-based public ownership. Across all publicly traded U.S. oil and natural gas companies, officers and board members of these firms own less than 3 percent of shares. The remaining portion is held in pension funds, mutual funds and IRAs that benefit individuals. In the largest companies -- the easiest target for those who like to decry "corporate greed" -- insider ownership is an even smaller percentage.

Instead of attacking corporate earnings for their supposed excess, we must recognize their importance to our country's financial future. American stockholders have a big stake in successful corporate performance. Often, their retirement dreams depend on that success.

In 2011, nearly 61 million American households had pension funds, including 401(k)s under institutional management. Some 52.3 million households, or 44 percent, owned mutual funds. Almost 49 million households had at least one IRA.

Asset management companies compete with each other to deliver the highest returns based on the risk investors are willing to take with their money. The energy sector has been very attractive for a long time to most institutional investors. That means when Americans put away money for retirement, they are, in all likelihood, taking ownership of a small portion of one of our country's oil and gas companies.

So those who advocate for punitive taxation measures to rein in big oil are actually penalizing the financial well-being of every day Americans. Most oil companies operate with a target Return on Equity based in part on their profit margin. If these numbers fall, companies have little choice but to increase the amount of leverage on their balance sheet and assume more risk. This puts higher risk onto already fragile 401(k)s and pensions. Is this really in our nation's best interest?

At my company, McGinn Investment Management, our clients' portfolios are invested in several energy companies including ExxonMobil, BP and Transocean. When these companies are successful, our clients benefit.

Or consider Vanguard, one of the largest fund complexes and a leading retirement investment option for many Americans. One of the companies Vanguard invests heavily in is ExxonMobil. Vanguard is the oil company's top institutional holder, owning around 211 million shares worth about $18.6 billion across its 170 separate funds.

On average, 31 percent of publicly traded oil and gas company shares are held in public or private pension plans, nearly 21 percent in mutual funds, and another 18 percent in individual retirement accounts.

So do you own part of an oil company? For most Americans, the answer to that question is, "Yes."

All told, the owners of public and private pension funds, including IRAs and 401(k)s, along with individuals who manage their own investments and are not corporate management, account for 70 percent of the ownership of the public U.S. oil and natural gas industry.

A strong and profitable oil and gas sector doesn't just benefit executives at energy companies. It directly boosts the retirement returns for millions of Americans.

Bernie McGinn, CFA is the president and chief investment officer of McGinn Investment Management Inc. and portfolio manager of the Union Street Partners Value Fund.

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