This article was updated on December 12, 2017, and originally published on June 16, 2017.
Oil prices have been in a slump since 2014, resulting in poor performance for many top oil and gas stocks. However, the market's loss could be your gain, if you use the drop as an opportunity to buy. The only question is, which stocks have the best outlook right now?
For my money, you can't go wrong with ExxonMobil (XOM -0.65%), Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B), and Total SA (TTE 0.62%). Here's why.
Big Oil pays big dividends
Although oil prices have been showing signs of life lately, even if they remain in a slump, a depressed stock price means a higher dividend yield. And right now, Big Oil companies are producing the juiciest returns in the sector. Their profitable (or, sometimes, less unprofitable) midstream and downstream activities have allowed them to maintain their dividends while their non-integrated peers have slashed them left and right.
All three of the companies I listed above currently yield more than 3.6%. But it's Royal Dutch Shell that takes the cake in this category, with an eye-popping yield of nearly 5.7%. Compare that to the best-in-class independent oil and gas exploration and production company, ConocoPhillips, which is currently yielding just 2%, thanks to a major dividend cut in 2015.
Since 2015, Shell has offered investors the option of a scrip dividend as opposed to a cash dividend, which might make some investors wary, but it demonstrates how committed the company is to maintaining its generous dividend even though it needs to conserve cash.
Shell has a lot going for it besides its dividend. In 2015, the company acquired BG Group, increasing its focus on liquefied natural gas and gaining valuable offshore assets in Brazil and Australia. The company has generated strong cash flows in recent quarters, indicating that the merger has been a success.
The combination of the successful BG merger and a best-in-class dividend puts Shell at the top of the list.
Let's go steady
Speaking of dividends, ExxonMobil's dividend is probably the most secure in the industry (only Chevron's even comes close). Although it only sports about a 3.7% yield right now, Exxon has been reliably increasing its dividend for 34 years, giving it coveted Dividend Aristocrat status.
The security of Exxon extends farther than its dividend, though. The company has taken a conservative approach to growth and investment, but you wouldn't know that from its recent third-quarter 2017 results. Net income increased 49.8% year over year to $4 billion, and the company's operating cash flow was up 41.5% from the third quarter of 2016.
Although the company's production growth has lagged its peers, the "slow and steady wins the race" adage applies here. Exxon's reliability coupled with its recent outperformance earns it a spot in the top three.
A tough call
The third spot on this list was a tough call to make. I considered BP (BP 0.54%) for its best-in-class dividend of 5.9%, but the company's high debt level and poor returns made me a bit squeamish. So I decided to go with a "by the numbers" pick, which led me to Total SA.
Total is outperforming the rest of the field in virtually every metric. It's had stellar performance throughout the oil downturn, and is currently sporting a solid balance sheet and cash flow. The company's returns are best-in-class, whether you look at return on equity or return on capital employed, meaning that the company's management has been able to wisely and efficiently deploy its cash. Its forward PE -- although not necessarily a great metric in this industry at the moment -- is the lowest among its peers. And although its current dividend yield of about 4.8% isn't as great as BP's or Shell's, it's certainly substantial, particularly for an oil company in the current environment.
Total does have a fair amount of debt, with a debt-to-equity ratio of 0.37, second only to BP's among the integrated majors. However, the company's strong cash flow and excellent returns make me less concerned; it's clearly putting its debt to good use.
Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total SA may be the best Big Oil stocks to buy now, but investors should still be cautious when buying into this beaten-down industry. The price of oil seems to finally be rising significantly above $50 a barrel, but nobody knows how long that may last. Investors should also remember that there are other companies in the oil patch beyond the integrated majors.
But with solid dividend yields and strong cash flows, these are the three Big Oil companies in the best position to pay off for investors when the recovery finally decides to arrive.