Cars are very important to oil producers, obviously. Not just because they drink up the stuff. They also offer a ghost-of-Christmas-future dose of foresight.

Daimler AG, the epitome of luxuriously engineered combustion, just slashed its dividend by 72 per cent. Tuesday’s announcement capped a string of profit warnings and other setbacks. That the stock actually rose briefly on this news tells you just how desperate investors were for a strategic reset, Band-Aid rip notwithstanding.

It is the cut to Daimler’s payouts that should have oil executives sweating.

A different sort of ailment

Coronavirus has made amateur virologists out of many an investor, with the emphasis heavily on “amateur”. Tuesday morning saw oil prices, and stocks, surge as the market made one of its habitual segues from rank fear to blithe optimism. The truth is that, whatever the current rate of new infections, the sector already has a chronic condition: cost-of-capital-itis.

Like Daimler, oil majors are juggling the demands of investing during a downturn, planning for a sea change in their business, and keeping investors sweet with payouts. Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc now yield roughly 7 per cent. Even mighty Exxon Mobil Corp now yields close to 6 per cent, the highest since the merger that spawned the combined company.

Exxon’s valuation looks especially vulnerable. Its recent exploration success, a virtual guarantee of high multiples in years past, is now viewed as a call on cash shareholders would rather have.

Its integrated model has offered little respite in this weak oil market, with fourth-quarter results from the chemicals business especially poor — even before coronavirus piled on in this quarter. As it stands, the company has been selling assets and taking on debt to meet payouts, and consensus forecasts imply earnings will struggle to cover dividends through this year and next.

Cost burdens

The underlying cause is a collapse in return on capital, due to a wave of heavy spending on the back of the last commodity supercycle. Returns have not only dropped but also compressed in range between the majors.

Analysts at Evercore ISI estimate Exxon’s return on capital employed dropped to just 4.4 per cent in 2019, on par with 2016 — when average Brent crude prices were 30 per cent lower. Looking at Exxon alongside Chevron Corp, BP and Shell, it is telling that average returns for the group in 2013 — the last full year of triple-digit oil prices — were roughly those of 2009, just after the financial crisis.

This problem predates not just coronavirus but also the oil crash.

Not been quick on electric

Hence, investors are demanding more. Compounding this is the issue Daimler also faces: transition.

One of Daimler’s failures has been its relatively slow development of electric vehicles. From one angle, that seems like a reasonable approach for an incumbent: Let others make mistakes and lose money developing a new market, and then deploy one’s established brand and resources to clean up when the concept has been road-tested. In practice, financial markets are nonplussed.

It has become a cliche to say Tesla Inc’s supercharged market cap is now a multiple of stalwarts such as Daimler’s, despite the California upstart’s minuscule market share. Don’t get me wrong; I cannot justify Tesla’s valuation on its fundamentals or any reasonable projection.

But that is kind of the point. Many of Daimler’s problems — high costs, production delays and even legal tangles — are all familiar at Tesla too. Yet the latter has gotten a pass. It may not be right, but as the old saw goes, irrationality’s bank balance can be way bigger than yours.

A few years back, when Tesla was worth a mere $30 billion (Dh110 billion), I wrote oil majors should fear the company. Not because it would necessarily conquer the world. Rather, because investors were falling over themselves to give it capital in the absence of domination (or profits), in marked contrast to their treatment of the cash-spewing titans of oil. Imagine the fallout if Exxon CEO Darren Woods took to Twitter and announced a fanciful take-private deal. I’m no prophet, but I’m pretty sure (a) the stock wouldn’t have almost tripled since and (b) he would no longer be CEO.

Daimler’s predicament is another reason to be fearful. Like the majors, it must convince investors that, despite past failings, it has what it takes to make the right choices (and bets) in an energy-transportation complex undergoing profound change after a century of incumbency. Like them, it must somehow make the necessary investment using capital that has become scarcer, and therefore pricier.

Change is now a constant for this business, and it has the yields to show for it.