Will Other Refiners Follow Marathon and Hike Dividends?

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Oil refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC) announced at noon on Wednesday that its board has authorized a dividend increase from a current level of $0.25 per share to $0.32 per share payable in September to shareholders of record as of August 19th.

The prior $0.25 dividend reflects a pre-split dividend of $0.50 per share that was payable on June 10th. The company effected a 2-for-1 split on the same day to reach the split-adjusted $0.25 dividend total. Today’s announcement reflects a 28% increase in the split-adjusted dividend.

Refiners have been about the only bright spot in the oil industry over the past couple of quarters. As crude prices remain low, refining margins remain high, especially for refiners that can get their hands on North American crude which sells for a discount of around $5 a barrel to Brent crude. And Brent crude is the basis for the price refiners charge for gasoline.

As refiners pile up cash, can we expect more dividend hikes? Marathon is the third largest refiner in the U.S. measured by market cap (about $60.4 billion), and the company is scheduled to report second-quarter earnings on Thursday. Analysts are looking for earnings per share (EPS) of $1.76 on revenues of $19.29 billion. In the year-ago quarter Marathon posted EPS of $1.48 on revenues of $26.93 billion.

The largest U.S. refiner by market cap (about $88 billion) is Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX). The company raised its quarterly dividend from $0.50 to $0.56 effective in May. In May of 2014 Phillips 66 raised its dividend by $0.11 per share, and since its spin-off from ConocoPhillips in 2012, the company’s dividend has more than doubled from its original $0.20 a share. Phillips 66 is set to report second-quarter results on Friday and analysts are looking for EPS of $1.81 on revenues of $31.85 billion. Last year the company posted EPS of $1.51 on revenues of $46.34 billion.

Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO) is the nation’s second-largest refiner and has a market of around $68.3 billion. Valero raised its quarterly dividend from $0.275 to $0.40 effective this past February. The 45% increase follows a modest 10% increase in the prior year. Like Marathon, Valero is set to report earnings on Thursday and analysts expect EPS of $2.42 on revenues of $19.91 billion. A year ago Valero posted second quarter EPS of $1.22 on revenues of $34.91 billion.

Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO), with a market cap of about $12.2 billion, is the fourth-largest U.S. refiner, and raised its dividend from $0.30 a share to $0.425 effective with the February 2015 payment. That 42% increase came just six months after Tesoro boosted its dividend from $0.25 to $0.30. Tesoro is scheduled to report second-quarter results next Wednesday, August 5th, and analysts are looking for EPS of $4.02 on revenues of $6.8 billion. Last year the company posted EPS of $1.70 on revenues of $11.1 billion.

Because the other refiners have already lifted their dividends for their respective 12-month periods, it is not terribly likely that any will choose to raise the dividend in response to Marathon’s increase.

No refiner is going to build a new refinery and major overhauls are not likely either, although added capacity to produce certain refined products (not including gasoline or diesel fuel) are possible.

That does not mean that the refiners won’t be generating piles of cash, but they are more likely to increase share repurchases than to increase capital spending or boost dividends. Share buybacks increase the value of stock options, a primary component of executives’ pay, where dividend increases have less monetary value to company executives or board members.

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