Energy Business

Merrill Lynch Says No Value in Energy: Only 2 Dividends Safe Now

You knew it was coming, and last week brought the very unpleasant truth. ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) announced a wider-than-expected quarterly loss and revealed plans to slash its dividend to $0.25 per share from $0.74. The stock was absolutely shredded, as many angry investors sold shares. While the cut ends up being far from a total surprise given the decline in energy prices, it is extremely disappointing given management’s insistence, as recently as December, that the dividend was secure. The shares actually rallied on Monday.

Now the reality is setting in, given the “lower for longer” scenarios for oil, and the question becomes whether any dividend is safe after the Conoco cut? A very extensive set of reports from Merrill Lynch note that with Moody’s using a $43 price deck through 2018 and inhibiting access to credit, the risk to large-caps oil companies raising equity are higher than ever. In fact with the exception of two companies, Merrill Lynch lowers the dividend outlook for all large cap U.S. oil stock in the firm’s research coverage universe.

The two companies that Merrill Lynch feel could be safe from dividend reduction are both rated Buy and offer long-term investors looking to add an energy allocation to portfolios now very attractive entry points.

Exxon Mobil

This company is one of Merrill Lynch’s top 10 picks for 2016. Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) is an energy sector play that Merrill Lynch is very positive on long-term as the overall corporate strength of the massive integrated giant plays a significant part in the company’s usually solid earnings reporting pattern and in maintaining its dividend coverage.

The company’s global downstream chemical segment plays a huge part for Exxon. It may be a part that many others on Wall Street don’t fully appreciate as the segment contributes an estimated 16% of overall total revenue. Very solid reasons for adding the stock to a long-term growth portfolio include that it consistently has demonstrated disciplined investing, operational excellence and technological innovation.

The company recently appointed the head of its refining business as its new president, which makes him the probable successor to CEO Rex Tillerson, a move designed to avoid raising eyebrows on Wall Street. The new president, Darren Woods, is a 23-year company veteran who should keep the goliath on the steady path for growth and progress.

Exxon investors receive a sizable 3.87% dividend. The Merrill Lynch target for the stock is $95. The consensus price objective from Thomson/First Call is $79.86. Shares closed on Monday at $81.16.

Occidental Petroleum

This top energy stock is one of the higher yielding domestic ones in the energy sector. Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY) is an international oil and gas exploration and production company with operations in the United States, Middle East and Latin America. It is one of the largest U.S. oil and gas companies, based on equity market capitalization. Its midstream and marketing segment gathers, processes, transports, stores, purchases and markets hydrocarbons and other commodities in support of its businesses. Furthermore, the wholly owned subsidiary OxyChem manufactures and markets chlor-alkali products and vinyls.

Last week Occidental reported a deeper-than-expected adjusted net loss for its fourth quarter. But Merrill Lynch notes that the company continues to deliver capital expenditure cuts, and the expected total of $3 billion for this year is a mind numbing cut of 50% versus 2015 expenditures. With a rock solid balance sheet, and a commitment to dividend coverage, investors look safe for now. The company ended 2015 $4.4 billion in cash and expects $1.2 billion more is a settlement and asset sales.

Occidental investors receive a very rich, by current standards, 4.52% dividend. Merrill Lynch has an $85 price objective, and the consensus target is $73.65. Shares ended Monday at $66.19.

Everybody has heard the expression “only the strong survive.” In the case of oil companies, it couldn’t be more apropos. Investors looking for safety may want to consider moving to these two top companies to ride out the rest of the storm.

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