Rex Tillerson has found himself in the news of late, and though I don't do much politics over at my premium newsletter, Fast-Track Millionaire, I have to say I'm more than a little sorry to see the old Texan go. Historians will assess his tenure as secretary of state, and that's fine – they should. But in my view, a decision the former CEO of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) made a decade ago, long before he went to Washington, will be of far greater importance than his time in the diplomatic arena.
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Let me explain.
The underpinning of this gutsy move occurred in 2008: Oil was commanding as much as $140 or more per barrel; the national average price at the pump rose well above $4.00 a gallon. The question many were asking in the oil patch was twofold: The younger people wanted to know if it could get any better. The older folks wondered how long the good times could last.
Here's a key point about lending, though: It takes a while for loans to go bad. For a mortgage, if the borrower successfully makes it to Month #37, the odds of default go almost to zero. Well, we know how this sad story unfolds. It turns out that despite the bankers' best wishes, property values couldn't rise indefinitely, and, indeed, the supposedly robust financial system was on the verge of Armageddon. Pillars like AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros. and Washington Mutual would crumble; only the Fed's TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout staunched the bleeding and saved the day. "When the tide goes out," Warren Buffett later opined, "you can tell who's been swimming naked." Quite a few mainstay businesses had been swimming naked, more than a few of which wound up knocking on Buffett's door. These businesses were unprepared for what was next. They hadn't even asked the question about what they would do when the bubble burst.
That's an old oilman's question, and Tillerson was asking it. Yes, Exxon was raking in cash. Yes, every piece of drilling equipment in the Western Hemisphere was put to use looking for crude. You can bet your boots that every production well was running at full tilt, too. And in early 2009, though oil had fallen from $140 down to a fraction of that but still back up to a respectable $80 – it would rise further still -- the CEO of one of the most powerful oil companies in the world wasn't thinking about petroleum. He was thinking about, of all things, algae.
Here's the deal: Algae -- that is, pond scum -- grows fast and just about anywhere. A bunch of nerds already had figured out that certain, special kinds of algae could be dropped into a conventional oil refinery and actually be processed straight into gasoline. And while most people were laughing about how silly of an idea it was, Tillerson's move was to get on the phone and talk to the smartest guy he could find.
Say hello to Craig Venter, the guy who had decoded the human genome in the early years of the 21st Century. Tillerson did more than talk. Exxon brought him on board and gave him a fantastic pile of cash – money that could have been allocated to drilling, baby, drilling – and told him to figure out algae. I thought it was the greatest idea ever: Truly sustainable fuel that works with our existing petroleum infrastructure and modern engines.
And I didn't hear a word about it until last week, when I saw that Exxon had announced the technology was not only doable, but that it could ramp it up to use at industrial scale in an operational plant by 2025.
Not for nothing, here, but let me be clear: What you just read might have been the death knell for conventional crude. The company at the heart of this is called Synthetic Genetics, but the company that's backing it -- Exxon -- is pretty much in charge, in accordance with the Golden Rule. (You remember it from kindergarten, right? He who has the gold makes the rules.)
I tell you about this for two reasons. First, I've been keeping an eye on Venter. He's moved on to another project -- an attempt to revolutionize health care that I'm only sharing with my Fast-Track Millionaire subscribers. By my count, it will be his third breakthrough.
What's the play here? An unusual one. You see, I normally focus on the portion of your portfolio (roughly 20%) that you should actively manage and, in my view, invest in aggressive growth stocks. The remaining 80% I recommend should be allocated to the S&P or to large-cap dividend winners.
Exxon is a worthwhile contender for the 80% segment of your portfolio. While not as predictable over time as the S&P 500, it boasts one of the largest market caps in the world and, as such, is a key driver of the S&P's performance. It's also trading at the bottom end of its 52-week range and paying a dividend in excess of 4%.
We're a long time from seeing Exxon spin off this new company to its shareholders. But I think sooner or later that's going to happen. Algae is a doable solution to a major worldwide problem, perhaps THE major worldwide problem -- our dependence on crude. And Exxon's got it.
Consider adding Exxon to your portfolio if you haven't already. Is it a 1,000% winner? Let me be clear: It is not. (Besides, those ideas are reserved for my Fast-Track Millionaire subscribers anyway.) But the algae division very well could be. This is a rare chance to get in on a stock that hits all the high notes for growth, value and income investors. Well played, Mr. Secretary.
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