ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) just did something it hasn't done in 18 years. The oil giant kept its dividend at $0.87 per share, the first time since 2002 it failed to increase the payout during a calendar year.
The decision doesn't put ExxonMobil's status as a Dividend Aristocrat in jeopardy yet. That's because its total 2020 dividend payments will still be higher than 2019's total, preserving a 38-year streak.
The decline in consumer demand for oil because of the coronavirus pandemic has rocked the energy markets as large swaths of the economy were shut down and travel and tourism plans were shelved.
Although most of the country has largely reopened, oil prices remain depressed. West Texas Intermediate goes for around $35 a barrel today, almost double the $19 it hit during the depths of the pandemic, but still below the $43 at the end of August and well below the $54 a barrel where it traded a year ago.
Analysts were concerned Exxon would actually cut its dividend to conserve cash because the oil giant faces a $46.5 billion debt load. A portion of that, however, was meant to ensure it had sufficient liquidity during the pandemic, since CEO Darren Woods believed it was "appropriate to provide liquidity, given market uncertainties." Even so, Exxon reported a loss of over $1 billion in the second quarter, or $0.26 per share.
The company is expected to begin cutting costs and jobs as soon as tomorrow, and analysts think the decision to maintain the dividend at its current level suggests it will see margin improvements due to the initiatives. That should let it maintain the payout at a rate that currently yields over 11% annually.
ExxonMobil notes it has paid a dividend for more than 100 years.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that ExxonMobil would no longer be eligible to be a Dividend Aristocrat and suggested that 2020 was the first calendar year in which the company had not increased its dividend since 1982. The author and the Fool regret the error.