ConocoPhillips' (NYSE:COP) management team, as it does every quarter, held a conference call with investors and analysts to discuss its latest results. The nearly hour-long call was filled with insights from management on the direction that the company is heading in the future. Here are the five biggest takeaways from that call.
No. 1: The dividend remains a top priority
CEO Ryan Lance ended his prepared remarks on the call by saying, "Finally, earlier this month, we approved a dividend increase of 5.8%. Giving back capital to our shareholders remains a top priority, and we believe an attractive dividend is the key part of our investment offering." With that raise, ConocoPhillips' dividend yield is 3.61% at current prices. That's a lot higher than most of its independent oil and gas peers; the next-best dividend is Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) with a yield of 2.9%. Most other independents have dividend yields around 1%, so when ConocoPhillips says its dividend is a priority, it really means it.
No. 2: Production growth remains on track
Ever since spinning off its refining arm, ConocoPhillips has focused on delivering steady production growth. The company's five-year plan specifically calls for 3%-5% annual production growth. Despite bumps in the road along the way, the company remains on target to deliver its stated growth rate. In fact, in ending his comments on the call, Matt Fox, EVP of Exploration and Production, said, "The bottom line, is we expect to deliver 3% to 5% production growth this year, with strong momentum going into 2015." Needless to say, production growth remains on track in an industry that has had trouble delivering production growth in the past.
No. 3: Stock buybacks are on the back burner
Part of ConocoPhillips' transition to a growth-focused independent oil and gas company has been to sell low growth assets and use the proceeds to buy back stock and fund growth projects. After two years, ConocoPhillips has finally finished its disposition program. With asset sales complete, one of the analysts on the call asked if the company was considering any additional stock buybacks.
CEO Ryan Lance said the company's focus right now is to fund its investment program to explore and produce oil and gas. He noted that, "to the extent we fully fund all of our high-quality investment programs, we'd consider share buybacks at that point in time. But right now, it's being used to fund our dividend and our capital program." Bottom line, here, don't expect ConocoPhillips to buy back any more stock unless it's so cheap that it is a better investment than exploring for oil and gas.
No. 4: Diversification takes the worry away
ConocoPhillips has several major projects in development, and one of the analysts on the call wondered if problems at any one project could impact the company's production growth goals over the next year or so.
Matt Fox soothed these worries by saying:
No, I think that the range that we've given for both the third-quarter and the fourth-quarter captures the uncertainty that we see in the overall portfolio... But one of the advantages that we have as a diversified company is that... no single project is going to make a big difference in the overall scheme of things. And that diversification in the portfolio helps us to limit the exposure to individual project surprises.
It looks like investors can sleep soundly knowing that a big project delay won't have any noticeable impact on the company's growth plan.
No. 5: Forget about an MLP
The combination of low interest rates and the North American energy boom is creating a lot of excitement around master limited partnerships. Many of ConocoPhillips' peers, including most recently Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN) and Hess (NYSE:HES), are forming MLPs out of their midstream assets to unlock the value of those assets. So, of course that makes us wonder when ConocoPhillips would be forming an MLP out of its midstream assets. This question was asked on the call as an analysts noted that the company has been building midstream assets in the Eagle Ford Shale, which could be packaged into an MLP and monetized.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Sheets, however, threw cold water on that idea by saying:
When you look at our midstream position overall... going back in history, most of that midstream position... has then since gone off course with Phillips 66. So there's not a lot of midstream assets that are out there that could form the core of an MLP for us. As we go forward, we are having some midstream investments in the Eagle Ford and in the Permian. But those are really not of a size that we feel like we have the critical mass to be thinking about an MLP, but that's something that we'll just continue to evaluate as we go through time.
So, basically, investors can forget about an announcement of an MLP coming from ConocoPhillips. The company simply doesn't have enough MLP-type assets to make it worth forming an MLP. Instead, if the company did decide to monetize the assets, it might simply sell them to an existing MLP. However, right now, these assets are critical to the company's growth.
The biggest takeaway from ConocoPhillips' call is the fact that the company's strategic plan remains on track. Its production growth won't be affected by any major delays, and its dividend remains its other top priority. Because of that the company should continue to deliver steady growth and income for investors over the next few years.