Oil Companies Curtail Spending on Everything--Except Dividends

An Exxon Mobil Corp. Gas Station Ahead Of Earnings Figures

Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s biggest oil explorer, declared a quarterly dividend on Wednesday that will raise the 2015 payout for the 33rd straight year.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
  • Exxon boosts investor payout for 33rd consecutive year
  • Oil executives selling oilfields, airplanes to raise money

Oil executives are standing by promises to protect dividend payouts from the collapse in crude prices even as they fire workers, cancel drilling projects and sell everything from oil fields to aircraft to conserve cash.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s biggest oil explorer, declared a quarterly dividend on Wednesday that will raise the 2015 payout for the 33rd straight year. Within hours of Exxon’s announcement, Chevron Corp. disclosed a payout that will boost its annual remittance for a 28th straight year.

Oil producers as diverse as Britain’s BP Plc, Norway’s Statoil ASA, and ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum Corp. of the U.S. are following the same track, maintaining or lifting dividends while curtailing other sorts of investments to cope with crude that has fallen to about $45 a barrel. Corporate boards and chief executives are loathe to upset yield-hungry investors who rely on their stocks to generate income, said economist Philip Verleger.

“These companies are no longer viewed as growth companies; they are viewed as sources of income to pension funds and retirees,” said Verleger, a former senior economist on the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers and founder of consulting firm PKVerleger LLC. “If they cut the dividend, their share prices would plummet.”

Shortage Set-up

The long-term risk for producers and oil-consuming industries is that shrinking investment now will lead to supply shortfalls years down the road, spurring another period of sharply escalating prices, he said.

“The supply is not going to be there and the price is going to go up,” Verleger said.

Exxon’s $2.88-a-share in dividend payouts this year will cost the company about $12 billion this year. Chevron’s $4.28-a-share distribution will burn about $8.1 billion.

Chevron intends to continue dividend payments “whatever the ensuing price is” for crude, Chief Financial Officer Patricia Yarrington said during a July 31 conference call with analysts and investors.

Exxon and Chevron are expected to report their weakest third-quarter profits in more than a decade when they disclose results on Oct. 30. International crude prices have plunged more than 50 percent since June 2014 as lagging demand growth around the world aggravated a supply glut from U.S. shale fields and the Persian Gulf.

Occidental, which earlier this month declared a 75-cent dividend payable Dec. 10, on Wednesday said it has frozen salaries, capped bonuses, offered voluntary severance and put the corporate aircraft and hangar up for sale to curb costs and raise cash. The Houston-based company also said it reduced capital spending by 20 percent in the third quarter and planned to cut it again during the current period.

The Grind

“They’re grinding down capex,” Tim Rezvan, an analyst at Sterne Agee & Leach Inc., said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Statoil, Norway’s biggest oil company, cut $1 billion in planned 2015 investments and postponed the start of production at its Aasta Hansteen and Mariner fields to the second half of 2018 from 2017. The Stavanger-based company has a “very strong commitment” to its dividend policy, Chief Executive Officer Eldar Saetre said.

“Dividends are something that doesn’t go up and down with oil prices,” he said in an interview in Oslo Wednesday.

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