Turbulence has returned to the oil market over the past few months as oil prices have come well off their peak from last October. That's having a noticeable impact on the operations and earnings of most oil companies, including Hess (NYSE:HES), which lost money during the fourth quarter.
That volatility led CEO John Hess to remind investors on the accompanying conference call about the company's five strategic priorities, which set it apart from most peers.
1. We're focused on returns
CEO Hess started his prepared remarks by stating that the company "invest[s] only in high-return low-cost opportunities." Because of that focus, the company plans to allocate 75% of its capital spending on just two regions through at least 2025 -- Guyana and the Bakken -- since they're "two of the highest return investment opportunities in the industry." That focus on investing for returns instead of merely growing production sets Hess apart from most peers.
2. We're taking a multipronged approach to create shareholder value
Hess then stated that:
We've built a focused portfolio with a combination of short-cycle and long-cycle investment opportunities, with Guyana and Bakken as our growth engines and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of Thailand as our cash engines ... our portfolio is positioned to deliver approximately 20% compound annual cash flow growth and more than 10% compound annual production growth through 2025, with a portfolio breakeven of less than $40 per barrel Brent [the global oil price benchmark] by 2025.
The company has narrowed its focus to four regions to drive growth going forward. The cash engines of the company are its positions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of Thailand. Hess intends on using the cash produced from those regions to fuel its growth engines, which include its short-term growth opportunities in the Bakken, as well as its longer-term development in Guyana. These four engines should combine to generate double-digit production and cash flow growth all the way through at least 2025.
3. We will maintain a strong financial position
The CEO then noted that the company's third strategic priority is to ensure that it has the "financial capacity to fund our world-class investment opportunities and maintain an investment-grade credit rating." He pointed out that the company entered the year in a solid position since it had $2.6 billion of cash on its balance sheet and hedges in place on more than a third of its anticipated production that locked in a price of $60 a barrel.
Further, he noted that even though the company plans to boost its budget 40%, to $2.9 billion this year, it has the "flexibility to reduce our capital program by up to $1 billion should oil prices move lower on a sustained basis." Those factors put the company in a solid financial position to navigate through the recent oil price volatility.
4. We're remaining disciplined by staging growth
Hess continued by saying that "we are focused on growing free cash flow in a disciplined and reliable manner." He noted that while 2019 will be a heavy investment year for the company, "we are at an exciting inflection point." Hess will transition to a "free cash flow generation phase beginning in 2020 with the start up of the Liza Phase 1 development offshore Guyana, followed by the Bakken growing to 200,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2021 and then, the Liza Phase 2 start up offshore Guyana by mid-2022, with an additional ship planned in Guyana for each year thereafter through 2025."
Instead of growing as fast as it can, Hess plans to take a disciplined approach by expanding in phases over the next several years so that it can maintain its financial strength, as well as the flexibility to adjust to market conditions, as needed.
5. Our strategy should richly reward investors
Finally, Hess concluded by stating that "as our portfolio generates increasing free cash flow, we will prioritize return of capital to shareholders through dividend and opportunistic share repurchases." Hess recently completed a $1.5 billion share-repurchase program that it initiated in late 2017 and then increased early last year, which it funded with asset sales.
However, with 2019 being a key investment year, the company likely won't return any more money to shareholders above its current dividend, which it hasn't increased since 2013. That will likely change in 2020 as the company hits its cash flow inflection point, which could allow the oil producer to boost its dividend, as well as authorize another share-repurchase program.
A plan to enrich investors over the long term
While oil prices have changed dramatically over the past few months, Hess' strategic priorities haven't. The company plans to use its four engines to drive cash flow higher in the coming years, which should enable it to start returning more money to shareholders as early as next year.
This outlook makes Hess a compelling oil stock to consider buying for the long haul since it can deliver high-octane cash flow growth and increasing cash returns to investors, even if oil prices don't improve from their current level.