By now, investors undoubtedly know that oil is caught in a tailspin. Since peaking last year around $100 per barrel, West Texas Intermediate crude oil has declined all the way to $50 per barrel. Oil has lost about half its value in a matter of months, a crushing fall that has taken the entire oil sector down with it. Because of this, several companies in the oil patch had little choice but to cut their dividends, as profits are falling right alongside the price of oil.
But incredibly, two energy companies are not only maintaining their dividends, but are actually very likely to increase their dividends in a matter of weeks. These two are integrated giants ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX).
Both ExxonMobil and Chevron are members of the Dividend Aristocrats list, meaning they have each raised their dividends every year for at least 25 consecutive years. And it's now been one full year since both companies passed along their last dividend increase, meaning it's time for a raise.
Integrated model keeps profits afloat
One key reason why ExxonMobil and Chevron will actually be able to increase their dividends in such a terrible operating climate is because of their integrated business models. As integrated majors, ExxonMobil and Chevron have large downstream segments, which include refining. Refining profits tend to rise when oil declines, because margins usually expand. Indeed, both ExxonMobil and Chevron have benefited greatly from refining contributions.
Chevron's total profits fell 10% last year, to $19.2 billion. Not surprisingly, this was due mostly to Chevron's oil and gas exploration and production business, where profits declined by 18% in 2014. However, downstream refining served as a nice offset to the upstream deterioration. Thanks to stronger refining spreads, downstream profits nearly doubled, to $4.3 billion, for the year. ExxonMobil earned $32.5 billion in 2014, flat with the prior year. It earned $3.1 billion from refining last year, which represented a significant portion, almost 10%, of its total profits. Clearly, their earnings results weren't nearly as bad as one would expect, given the massive decline in oil prices.
Asset sales and spending cuts provide cash
Another reason both ExxonMobil and Chevron should be able to raise their dividends is because they are selling assets and cutting spending, which will free up cash to devote to higher dividends. Last year, ExxonMobil cut capital expenditures by 9%, and sold $4 billion of assets during the year. This year, it's going to spend approximately $34 billion, another 12% annual reduction.
Chevron plans a similar 13% reduction in its own 2015 capital spending budget, to $35 billion. Meanwhile, Chevron announced it plans to sell $15 billion worth of assets through 2017, after divesting $6 billion last year. Separately, Chevron will suspend its share buyback program this year. Chevron had previously been buying back its own stock at a rate of about $1.25 billion per quarter. Along with reducing capital expenditures, suspending the buyback will help Chevron save cash.
Both companies are very likely to keep their streaks alive
It goes without saying that 2014 was a terrible year for the oil and gas industry. With oil prices being halved in a matter of a few months, falling profits were inevitable. But the integrated majors, namely ExxonMobil and Chevron, have some key advantages working in their favor. They both operate large refining businesses that are helping keep profits afloat. And, they are such large companies that they have the financial flexibility to reduce spending and sell off noncritical assets to raise much-needed cash.
These initiatives should provide both management teams to have the confidence to increase their dividends. It's been one full year since ExxonMobil and Chevron last raised their payouts, which means it's that time of year once again. Neither company will want to break their streaks, since they are both members of the prestigious Dividend Aristocrat list. As a result, expect dividend increases from ExxonMobil and Chevron in the coming weeks.