How ExxonMobil and Peers are Showing Shareholders the Money

As investors clamor for increased dividends and share buybacks, Big Oil is under intense pressure to be more generous with cash flow. At the same time, a few energy giants including ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , BP (NYSE: BP  ) , and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , have sold off billions in assets and now suddenly find themselves flush with cash.

Not surprisingly, investors have taken notice and are pressuring energy companies for bigger cash returns. It's understandable after all, since underlying results from these three have suffered this year due to extremely poor refining results, supply disruptions overseas, and in BP's case, mounting legal fees. ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips will return billions in cash to shareholders, which means their investors will win big.

Billions in cash from asset sales
ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips are each raising billions in cash from selling assets deemed non-critical to their core strategic priorities. ExxonMobil recently announced it would sell its stake in a Hong Kong power-generation company for more than $3 billion. The cash injection couldn't come at a better time for ExxonMobil, which saw profits fall 31% year-to-date, as the company suffers from extremely poor refining results.

BP, meanwhile, has spent more than $42 billion in penalties and damages resulting from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. What's more, BP likely has billions in additional penalties coming once the ongoing civil trial concludes. BP has already divested $38 billion in non-critical assets, and announced its intention to divest another $10 billion by the end of 2015 to protect itself against further damages.

Conoco is performing strongly this year, but it has nevertheless committed itself to streamlining its business. Supply disruptions have made international oil fields increasingly risky and costly to maintain, causing Conoco to divest assets in riskier geographies. In all, ConocoPhillips expects to realize nearly $9 billion from divestments in the immediate future.

A possible use of funds: returning cash to shareholders
ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips have encountered various difficulties this year, but shareholders haven't abandoned their desire for cash. And, as industry profits wobble due to the pressures of poor refining and falling oil prices, Big Oil is scrambling to produce cash to finance greater cash returns.

For example, ExxonMobil has historically spent tens of billions per year in buying back its own stock. ExxonMobil bought back $3 billion worth of its own shares in the most recent quarter. Also, ExxonMobil pays a 2.9% dividend, which the company has increased for 31 years in a row.

BP prides itself on paying an industry-leading dividend yield, which stands at 5% currently. BP actually increased its dividend after reporting third-quarter results, so it's not surprising that BP would turn to assets sales to fund its massive payout. In addition to its hefty dividend, BP also buys back billions of its own stock. BP spent $3.8 billion on share repurchases through the first three quarters of 2013.

ConocoPhillips bumped up its own dividend by 4.5% in the third quarter, and yields an impressive 4% at recent prices. This places it in rare territory; according to the company, ConocoPhillips is the highest-yielding independent exploration and production company.

The bottom line
ExxonMobil saw profits fall considerably to start the year due to an extremely poor environment for refining. BP has spent billions in fines and damages stemming from the 2010 Gulf Spill. At the same time, ConocoPhillips sees more value in boosting cash returns to shareholders than holding onto non-critical assets in risky locations of the world.

These three energy giants have turned to asset sales to solve their respective problems, as well as continue to satisfy their investors' insatiable hunger for yield. While it's important that ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips sort out their underlying issues to ensure future profits, all this new cash means investors are being paid very well to wait for better days to come.

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