U.S. oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) is scheduled to report its third-quarter results next Thursday morning. Will all of the volatility in the oil market this year, investors are on edge, especially since the company's stock price is down more than 20%. Because of this, investors will be looking for the company to provide stability, and one way it can do that is by making the following three statements either in its press release or on its conference call, while also backing those comments up with tangible data points.
1. "The dividend is safe."
ConocoPhillips pays a very generous dividend, which currently has a yield of more than 5.5%. In fact, ConocoPhillips is one of the few high-yielding oil companies that hasn't cut or suspended its payout during the downturn. That's a trend investors want to see continue. What they want to hear is CEO Ryan Lance repeat what he said last quarter: "The dividend is safe. Let me repeat that. The dividend is safe." That would put investors' minds at ease.
However, the dividend's security goes beyond mere words. The company needs to continue to demonstrate that it is on a clear path to cash flow neutrality by 2017, even if oil prices don't improve. The concern remains because, at the moment, that path requires a $60 oil price, as noted on the following slide.
We want to see that 2017 cash flow breakeven point drop closer to the current $50 per barrel range. That would cement the view that the dividend is indeed safe for the long term.
2. "All major projects and turnarounds are all on schedule."
The third quarter was expected to be a busy quarter for the company because it has a number of major projects in process as well as a number of turnaround activities to complete. Investors want to see that the company didn't encounter any issues last quarter.
One of the key projects that came online last quarter was its Surmont 2 facility in Canada, which it co-owns with Total (NYSE:TOT). The facility delivered first oil in September and is expected to slowly ramp up before it hits peak capacity of 118,000 barrels per day in 2017. Investors will want to hear that the ConcoPhillips/Total facility has not encountered any issues in ramping up production.
In addition to that, the company had a number of turnaround activities scheduled to be completed by the end of last month. Those turnaround activities are why the company's production is expected to decline from 1.595 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or BOE/d, in the second quarter to 1.51 to 1.55 million BOE/d in the third quarter. So, if the company missed that range, it's likely because it had unforeseen issues in its turnaround activities.
3. "We've made strong progress on cost reductions."
With the price of oil at about half of its prior peak, ConocoPhillips has focused on reducing its costs. We can see this in the following slide, which shows how the company is working toward reducing its operating costs by $1 billion while capturing $1 billion in capital cost deflation by the end of next year.
Last quarter, the company announced that it had made good progress on its goals, resulting in the reduction of its 2015 cost guidance by a net $900 million. Ideally, we'd like to see even more progress on its costs, and hopefully another announcement that its actual costs this year will be even lower than its last guidance. Further, we'd like to see the total expected cost reductions to be captured pushed even higher. Total is actually a great example of a company that did just that.
In September, Total announced it had increased its operating expense reduction target by 50%, with the company now expecting to cut $3 billion from its expenses by 2017. If ConocoPhillips can follow Total by increasing its cost reduction target, it would go a long way toward reducing its cash flow breakeven point.
Given all the volatility in the oil sector this year, investors will want to hear nothing but good news from ConocoPhillips this quarter. But they do want to hear more than mere words from the company, with critical data points being tangible changes to its 2017 cash flow breakeven level and cost structure. Further, the company also needs to have operated exceptionally well during the third quarter, which includes completing all of its planned turnaround on time and on budget, while also avoiding any costly start-up issues at its major projects.