Over the past 31 years, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has not only paid a dividend each year, but increased the payout continually. Overall, the oil bigwig's dividend has increased at a 6.11% compounded annual growth rate, or CAGR, during the past 20 years, confirming that it is among the most prolific dividend aristocrats on Wall Street.
ExxonMobil's consistent and ever-increasing dividends not only serve to reward income investors, but form part of a strategy that could be the key focal point that thrusts the oil major into the next phase of growth in the industry.
Increasing accessibility to equity markets
ExxonMobil has been increasing its dividend payout during the past decades, and there are no signs that this will change. Using this as a basis for this argument, consider that ExxonMobil will increase dividend payouts during the next several years against the backdrop of a very possible hike in interest rates, and a consequent disruption in the equity markets. How will this come about, and what will it mean for ExxonMobil?
The Federal Reserve recently indicated that it would soon increase interest rates from the current record lows. Although a hike in interest rates was expected to come as a natural consequence of the bond-buying taper -- it's kind of a package deal -- putting a specific timeline on when rates will rise is hard. Even for the Fed, the announcement is merely a change in semantics, not official policy. Notwithstanding, rates will rise despite the lack of clarity on the specific date. When this happens, two outcomes will have a material impact on ExxonMobil.
First, an increase in rates will shift investor interest to the debt market (which is already happening). This means that ExxonMobil, which, as per tradition, will continue increasing its dividend and consequent yield, will have marginally higher returns relative to other equities and debt instruments, allowing it to maintain attractiveness, even when the overall debt market regains appeal.
Second, the end of the cheap-money era will lead to a market correction of sorts. Inefficient companies, which previously benefited from cheap money, will go under or experience sharp performance declines once money becomes scarce again because of upward revised interest rates. These sudden declines will prompt a retreat in the wider equity market. Because ExxonMobil is stable and offers the promise of an ever-increasing dividend with a yield that stacks marginally higher than the broader market, this particular outcome of the expected interest rate hike -- a market correction -- will compound its attractiveness in the broader equity market.
ExxonMobil, like Chevron, has seen its yield rise during the past several years as a result of dividend increases. When interest rates rise, this upward moving curve will allow ExxonMobil to continually stay ahead of overall yields in both the broader equity and debt market. Moreover, ExxonMobil's yield, although attractive, is markedly lower than Chevron's. This means that ExxonMobil has more wiggle room to increase its dividend at a higher rate than Chevron going forward, giving it the power to control its attractiveness as the situation requires.
Betting on increased production
Being attractive in the equity market against the backdrop of rising interest rates is not only good for investors, but also for ExxonMobil. This is because it keeps demand for ExxonMobil's stock high, allowing it to raise capital through equity markets amid an expensive debt environment induced by hikes in interest rates.
By being able to access cheap capital at a moment's notice, ExxonMobil will be able to increase production immensely once the crude oil and natural gas exportation possibilities tear completely into the fore, probably during the next three to five years.
Natural gas export terminals are being approved more frequently, and plans to overhaul transportation infrastructure are well underway, pointing toward heavy movement of crude from inland sources to ports for exportation. Apart from Keystone XL, which has since become a political minefield, more pipeline and transportation infrastructure is being rapidly built around the country. As I pointed out in a previous article, Valero, which is a refiner, expects to spend 45% of a $1.52 billion budget labeled as growth investments on logistics in 2014.
This points toward the increased likelihood of crude oil exportation, as a refiner like Valero is only likely to spend heavily on infrastructure as a means of cutting out the midstream middleman to save transport costs and, in effect, offset possible hikes in production costs brought about by more expensive feedstock -- crude exports will increase the West Texas Intermediate benchmark, which is the price that U.S. refiners use to get feedstock.
With the possibility of higher crude and natural gas prices in the mid-term, the ability to access huge pools of capital cheaply and faster than competitors in anticipation of the next big production uptick will be the real game changer for oil producers. It will allow oil producers to engage in heavier exploration and production against the background of high prices, increasing profit margins immensely.
ExxonMobil's dividend strategy greatly increases the attractiveness of the stock, especially considering how increased interest rates will prompt investors to look to equities that can give consistent and marginally better yields. This will heighten demand for ExxonMobil, allowing it to easily access cheap capital, and zero in on the next huge production uptick, which will be induced by exports.