(Bloomberg Opinion) — An oil major’s dividend is its solemn pledge that it will deliver no matter the vagaries of the market. But no one planned on those vagaries including negative oil prices. So can Big Oil maintain its dividends? Should it?
As so often in this business, oilfield services provide early warning. Announcing quarterly earnings, Schlumberger Ltd. slashed its dividend by 75%, its first cut in at least four decades or so. The stock actually jumped 9% that day. Meanwhile, Halliburton Co. held off cutting but also made it clear it would have no qualms doing so if necessary. Its stock didn’t jump, but did close in the green despite oil closing with a minus sign in front of it that day.
Those positive reactions may have had something to do with this:
Aggregate indebtedness at the big five Western oil majors — BP Plc, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA — has also jumped since 2014. And as a group, they only just covered capital expenditure and dividends from operating cash flow in 2019, when Brent crude oil averaged $64 a barrel. So while they aren’t quite in the same boat as the services firms, they’re getting uncomfortable.