Of all the integrated oil and gas majors, Total (NYSE:TOT) may have had the best quarterly results. Its net income per share last quarter was only 3% less than in the year prior. As good as the results were, some of the comments from Total's management about the future were even more promising. Let's look at five quotes from Total CFO Patrick de la Chevardiere that give a peek into what management is thinking about.
1. We're cutting costs ...
Total's quarterly earnings were impressive in large part because the company's upstream production generated much stronger earnings than many of its peers. Total's upstream earnings for the quarter were only 50% lower than in the same quarter last year, which is considerably better than the 80% to 90% reductions we saw at other integrated oil and gas companies. Some of that had to with its new production coming online, but as de la Chevardiere put it, there were some big operational cost reductions as well:
OpEx [operating expenses] fell significantly, and our cost-cutting program is on track to exceed the $800 million of Upstream savings targeted for this year. Exploration expenses were down by more than $200 million quarter to quarter, and this is another sustainable benefit related to the action plan we launched at the beginning of the year to mitigate the fall in oil prices.
Seeing cost savings on the operational side is the best kinds of gain a company can get. Not only does it affect near-term profitability, but it also doesn't come at the expense of reduced future gains. If Total can truly meet its stated $800 million target reduction -- it's currently on track to do better than that -- and still increase production by 8% this year, that would be a great sign for the future.
2. ... and we can produce oil and gas at very cheap levels
Again from the CEO:
In the upstream, I remind you that our OpEx fell from $10 to below $8 per barrel. Basically, we are asking fewer works to be performed by contractors, and we optimize logistics.
Thanks to these operational cost reductions, Total has been able to push its cost per barrel to less than double digits. As de la Chevardiere put it during the call, it's been the little things that all add up. He noted that things such as lowering support boat speeds for offshore operations that lower fuel consumption provided examples of the incremental things the company has been looking at to reduce overall costs.
One thing to keep in mind here is that these operational costs are on a per-barrel-of-oil equivalent, which includes natural gas. Gas has historically been a lower-cost resource to extract, but it has also garnered lower realized prices, so take that per-barrel number in context with the company's overall production mix.
3. We're also conserving cash by employing a scrip dividend for the time being
A major challenge for big oil players today is needing to shell out billions in cash payments to their shareholders through dividends. So to help cut these pay-now cash costs, the company has allowed its investors to sign up for a scrip dividend. Basically, this type of dividend is paid in additional equity shares in the company rather than in cash, and for their troubles those shares are sold at a 10% discount to market levels. According to de la Chevardiere, a majority of shareholders have taken the company up on the offer, which will save Total a ton of cash over the immediate future. As the CEO explains:
The take up on the scrip dividend was 54%. So at this rate, we should reduce our cash dividend outlay by both $750 million per quarter, or $3 billion on an annual basis.
Having $3 billion dedicated to its capital program instead of toward cash dividend payments will certainly help bridge the funding gaps it has while it wraps up several development projects between now and 2017.
4. We're planning on covering it, even if oil stays cheap for a long time
Possibly the most interesting quote of the conference call came when asked how long Total plans on maintaining that scrip dividend. After all, having a scrip dilutes total shares. When de la Chevardiere said that Total plans to have the scrip dividend wrapped up in a year or so, he also let slip what type of commodity market the company is planning for:
No. If we cover it by 2017, depending on the oil price, of course, but we were assuming something like a $60 per barrel. We will be in a position to cover the dividend and cash and pay it in cash.
There's a whole lot to go on in that little statement. Not only does the company plan on seeing oil in the $60-per-barrel range for the next couple of years, but it's also building its development plans such that it can generate enough cash to pay dividends and cover capital expenditures under that price environment. There's no surefire way to know whether that's what oil prices will be a couple of years from now, but the lower the number Total plans on, the better off it will be down the road.
5. Don't let asset sales assume something isn't lucrative
Something investors may get confused about is that not all asset sales are necessarily done because the company doesn't see the asset as a lucrative investment anymore or that the company needs the cash. For example, this past quarter Total sold a 20% operating stake in the Laggan-Tomore offshore project for $1 billion while increasing its stake in a production contract with the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Petroleum Operations Ltd., or ADCO. Says the CEO:
Basically, the sale on Laggan was due to the fact that we own 80% of the field, and we were overexposed, in my view, to this particular field, and we wanted to reduce our exposure, maintaining the strong exposure of 60% remaining the operator. For ADCO, I remind you this is a 40-year concession. So even my grandson will enjoy it. There is upside in the contract, it's a low-cost contract, and there are many benefits in the Middle East to be part of this project. I remind you also that us being the asset leader for two fields, we enjoy an extra fee on this ADCO project.
Developing the Laggan field will be a multibillion-dollar project, and just because the company has viewed it as a very lucrative investment doesn't dismiss the fact that there's a lot of risk associated with having an 80% interest in a single project. So to lower its risk in the event that something doesn't go according to plan, it has reduced its operating stake in the project to 60%, which reduces its risk. This is an important lesson for oil and gas investors, because looking at these two deals might give the impression that the company is simultaneously going in different directions.
What a Fool believes
Total put out some impressive results this past quarter, and some of the comments from management this past quarter were just as encouraging. Not only will the company realize some significant cost savings over the next couple of years, but it's also preparing to be a profitable company in a much lower commodity price environment over the long term. That may sound like bearish sentiment regarding the future of the oil market, but it should give Total's shareholders some solace over the long term that the company will be able to thrive during a long down market.