Is BP a Takeover Target?

A look at various factors that make the E&P giant a likely candidate for a takeover.

Isac Simon
Isac Simon
Apr 15, 2011 at 12:00AM

BP (NYSE: BP) has yet to fully recover from its oil spill crisis. While it's easy to point to steady increases in its share price after it plunged following the spill a year ago, the reality is that the British energy giant continues to court one piece of trouble after another. Considering its recent asset sales and all the negative publicity, I wonder how long the company will continue as a truly independent operator. I'm not the only one, either.

Yet another setback
The latest blow came when an arbitration court blocked its $8 billion share-swap deal with Russian E&P player Rosneft, thereby preventing BP from accessing lucrative drilling prospects in the Arctic. To rub salt on its wounds, existing joint-venture partner TNK-BP intends to sue BP for damages of up to $10 billion. Being no stranger to controversies, the question is, has BP's management lost its way?

Fool David Kuo, in his podcast with Bloomberg reporter Stanley Reed, who co-authored In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took it Down, aptly mentioned that looking into a company's culture should be as important as scrutinizing its financial statements. BP's history of accidents and other setbacks, as well as run-ins with activists over remuneration, reflects badly on the people who run the shop. In other words, their issues may not be circumstantial, but rather existential in nature.

The prospects
Reuters recently came up with the view that BP is fast becoming an ideal takeover target. There seems to be a lot of truth behind that. The question is, will this materialize into reality? I expect so. With share prices nowhere near prespill levels, BP's current market cap of $141 billion is still close to 20% less than it was prior to the disaster. The ownership structure of the company is highly fragmented with more than 800 separate investors each holding more than 1 million ordinary shares, and thousands more holding fewer.

Given the nature of the industry and the relative financial strength of its competitors, BP's major adversaries, like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), are in a realistic position to attempt a hostile takeover. In fact, BP's shares rose in January on a report that Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A) (NYSE: RDS-B) was mulling a takeover following the spill. That was a time when BP's shares had tumbled as much as 55%. The fragmented ownership of BP will definitely play a crucial role if any sort of takeover comes to the horizon.

Wall Street analysts believe that if the market value of BP's 46.8% stake in TNK-BP is stripped away, BP's enterprise value comes out to 34% cheaper than the equivalent proven reserve multiple of Royal Dutch Shell. This valuation makes a takeover all the more alluring.

The Foolish bottom line
There are obvious political implications to consider when you're talking about an acquisition of one of the world's largest energy companies. Any deal would very likely bring forward challenges from antitrust watchdogs from a variety of nations and interest groups. A deal of any sort looks complicated and hard -- but obviously enticing as well.

For Fools, with stock prices still at an affordable rate, I don't believe it's too late to buy some shares to potentially capitalize on buyout mania. The share prices will shoot up on the hint of such news and BP investors must definitely be on the lookout.