Big oil’s dilemma: cut dividends or cut operations


The oil majors are facing a financial vice like they never have before.

With oil prices hovering around $20 per barrel and no end in sight for the global pandemic, the financial pain has only just begun. Norway’s Equinor became the first large oil company to cut its dividend, slashing it by 67 percent. It may not be the last.

On Friday, Italy’s Eni reported a 94 percent decline in profit in the first quarter, a period that did not capture the full brunt of the current slump. Eni cut spending by 30 percent and lowered its production guidance for this year by 100,000-125,000 bpd. “The period since March has been the most complex period the global economy has seen for more than 70 years,” Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi said. “Like everyone, we expect a complicated 2020.”

When asked whether or not the company would cut its dividend, Descalzi demurred. “We’ll see how COVID-19 evolves in the next few months… In July, we can update on the dividend front,” he said, according to Reuters.

The largest U.S. and European oil companies are in danger of burning through $175 billion in cash if Brent averages $38 per barrel over the next two years, according to the FT and Wood Mackenzie.

The majors have typically guarded dividends at almost all costs. When unable to cover capex and also shareholder payouts – as has consistently been the case over the past decade – the majors have resorted to some combination of spending cuts, asset sales and taking on new debt.

That formula becomes more challenged in today’s crisis environment. With a massive surplus of oil and the prospect of a persistent slump in demand, selling off assets isn’t really a strategy they can rely on. For one, there are going to be very few buyers for anything, at least not at prices the majors would want. Also, would-be buyers are probably in worse financial shape and don’t have billions of dollars lying around that they can throw at the majors for their unwanted projects.

That leaves spending cuts and debt as the main instruments the majors will use. ExxonMobil has already taken on an additional $18 billion in debt in March and April alone, after $7 billion in bonds issued in all of last year. Shell has taken out $20 billion in new debt in the past few weeks.

It’s unclear how long that strategy can last. ExxonMobil has already seen its credit downgraded by two different ratings agencies since March. Exxon’s cash flow trajectory was “already relatively weak entering 2020, as very high growth capital investment combined with muted oil and gas prices and low [earnings in its downstream and chemicals segments] resulted in substantial negative free cash flow and rising debt in 2019,” Moody’s analysts wrote in early April.

Royal Dutch Shell has postponed two large oil and gas projects in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea because of the unfolding downturn. Many more projects will be delayed or cancelled altogether.

Independent U.S. shale companies are in even worse shape. An estimated 2,500 oil and gas workers lost their jobs in Texas in a 10-day span. Continental Resources has shut in most of its production in North Dakota because of low prices. In March, Occidental Petroleum cut its dividend by 86 percent. Occidental is in a much more serious financial predicament than the oil majors, largely unable to take on new debt after its unfortunately timed takeover of Anadarko Petroleum last year.

The oil majors have a much better ability to survive the crisis than independent shale drillers, but they may survive in a smaller, more indebted form compared to before the pandemic.

The effects of the current crisis will be felt over the long-term. According to Rystad Energy, global oil supply will be 6 percent lower in 2030 than it otherwise would have been due to the current cutbacks in spending. Roughly $195 billion in non-shale projects have been delayed, Rystad said.



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