Should Chevron's Spending Make Investors Uneasy?

Receiving a fair share of cash, in the form of share buybacks and/or dividend payments, is a key consideration for investors these days. Both at the institutional and individual investor levels, cash returns are of great importance in the post-financial meltdown era. Investors have widely warmed up to the merits of regular cash infusions, opting to not rely solely on growth anymore in light of enhanced market volatility and an uncertain global economic outlook.

Within Big Oil, this topic is especially critical, since energy super-majors allocate tens of billions to discovering and producing new energy sources. It's an inevitability of the industry, of course, since the financial fortunes of energy giants depend on how much energy they can locate and process. At the same time, investors are putting pressure on companies like Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) to trim their spending plans and instead return more cash to shareholders. Do Chevron investors have a reasonable gripe against their company for spending too much? Or is the ongoing debate much ado about nothing?

Chevron hits the throttle on 2014 spending
Chevron recently advised analysts its 2014 capital expenditure budget would likely be between $33 billion and $36 billion, which rubbed some investors the wrong way. Chevron's 2013 spending is already on pace to eclipse the $33 billion projected earlier this year, due to significant land acquisitions. And, when Raymond James analysts pressed management if Chevron's $36 billion likely to be spent this year represents a ceiling going forward, Chief Executive Officer John Watson couldn't give a hard guarantee of that. Meanwhile, some of Chevron's peers have different plans.

BP (NYSE: BP  ) has scaled back investment plans for the next couple years, and for obvious reasons. The company is still in the midst of the civil trial stemming from the Gulf of Mexico spill, and has paid more than $40 billion in damages to this point with the prospect of further penalties coming down the pike.

In response, BP has placed a ceiling on its spending plans for the foreseeable future. The company advises investors it will keep capital expenditures between $24 billion and $27 billion per year through the end of the decade.

Instead, BP has renewed focus on returning cash to shareholders. The company recently increased its dividend by 5% and provides an industry-leading 5% dividend yield.To finance this, BP ratcheted up the pace of asset sales, which are expected to total $2 billion to $3 billion per year.

Meanwhile, French oil major Total (NYSE: TOT  ) has allocated billions to higher-risk plays in Africa, and investors may be nervous about the likelihood of success on those projects. Rising geopolitical risk is an obvious concern for any integrated major pumping resources into Africa, and for Total that concern is heightened by the fact that Total has 7 billion euros in capital expenditure plans there, even more than Total plans for Europe, its home turf.

Like Chevron, Total makes no apologies for its ambitious spending plans. That's because it likely feels it's already providing investors with a fair amount of cash. Indeed, Total has a dividend greater than 4%, so it's probably right in that regard.

In the end, not a reason to panic
Investors often squabble about the spending priorities of Big Oil, and to a certain degree, it's a reasonable argument. Many institutional investors are clamoring for higher cash returns instead of deploying billions on questionable projects that may or may not pan out. In the case of Chevron, however, I'd advise investors to be patient. Chevron is an extremely well-run energy major that has produced spectacular returns over many years, and it's not as if shareholders are being treated poorly. Chevron still provides a 3.3% dividend yield that beats the yield on the broader market.

At this point, Chevron investors have little choice but to allow management to do what they do best. Chevron is confident its investments will pay off, and only time will tell if its projections prove accurate. In the meantime, for investors not willing to wait it out, higher-yielding alternatives including BP and Total could be better choices for investors who consider income to be their primary concern.

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10/31/2014 3:16 PM
BP $43.34 Up +0.23 +0.53%
BP p.l.c. (ADR) CAPS Rating: ****
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