Crude oil prices have more than halved since mid-2014 in a global glut
Paris - AFP
Oil titans are slashing costs and investments as a plunge in oil prices batters profits but there is still one area they dare not touch: dividend payouts to investors.
Crude oil prices have more than halved since mid-2014 in a global glut, squeezing the financial results at major oil groups and forcing them to rethink the viability of some of their costlier oil exploration plans.
British energy giant BP, ravaged by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, said profit plunged 64 percent in the third quarter of this year. BP has axed its 2015 investment budget by $4 billion (3.6 billion euros) compared to last year.
"We are now in action to rebalance our financial framework in this new price environment," BP chief executive Bob Dudley said.
At Royal Dutch Shell, the pain was more intense as it took losses of $7.4 billion in the third quarter on huge write-downs after scrapping expensive projects in Alaska and Canada, vowing to become a "more focused and competitive company".
ExxonMobil, the world's biggest listed oil group, based in Irving, Texas, suffered a 47.5-percent plunge in net profit, insisting it has a relentless focus on business fundamentals such as costs "regardless of commodity prices".
Likewise France's Total, which reported a 69-percent fall in net profits for the same period and trimmed its investment budget for this year by 10 percent, or Italy's Eni which made a loss of 952 million euros and Norway's Statoil which reported losses of 299 million euros.
In an all-out battle to cut costs, however, dividend payouts to shareholders remain intact.
"The big oil companies are all slashing capital expenditure to enable breakeven operations at around $60 per barrel," said Jasper Lawler, analyst at European financial trading specialists CMC markets.
"The idea is that in the medium term oil prices will average $60 per barrel. This allows big oil to keep dividends intact by using low interest rates to run up debt levels in the short term," Lawler said.
- 'No strategic plan' -
Oil groups will do anything to avoid lowering payouts to their shareholders, said Alexandre Andlauer, analyst at French equity research group AlphaValue.
"They prefered to cut capital expenditure again by two or three billion rather than touch the dividend," Andlauer said.
"The majors want to respond to market expectations, in this case investment funds," he said.
Oil companies have long strived to pay regular dividends to keep their shares attractive to investors through good times and bad.
"If they cut the dividend there will be an outward flow of those actors," Andlauer said.
Chevron, for example, announced Friday it is cutting 6,000 to 7,000 jobs -- about 10 percent of the entire workforce -- and selling assets after reporting a 63.6-percent dive in net profits for the third quarter. But the dividend was unchanged.
Total aims to pay for its dividend through its own finances in 2017. Failing that, it has said it would keep open the option of paying the dividend in shares instead of cash.
In Europe, only Eni has so far dared to cut the dividend, announcing a lower payout in March.
But there is a longer term price to pay for the strategy, Andlauer cautioned.
"Instead of cutting the dividend they are cutting investments. So they are cutting financial results, profitability from 2020. From an industry view, it is a shame to act in such a way."
It is unclear how long the oil companies can maintain dividend payouts in any case, said Christopher Dembik, economist at the Danish investment bank Saxo Bank.
"They are in a streamlining phase, trying to save the furniture, above all to satisfy shareholders. But there is no strategic development plan," he said.