Saudi Aramco is still promising a dividend—even though it hasn’t got the cash
Saudi Aramco failed to generate enough cash to cover its dividend, yet left the payout unchanged at $18.75 billion for the third quarter even as profit fell 45% and debt continued to rise.
The Saudi Arabian state energy firm’s free cash flow was $12.4 billion between July and September, compared with $20.6 billion a year earlier. Gearing climbed to 21.8% from 20% in June and from minus 5% in March, when Aramco had more cash than debt.
Aramco’s dividends are a vital source of cash for the Saudi government, whose budget deficit is expected to widen to 12% of gross domestic product this year amid a coronavirus-triggered crash in crude prices and a severe economic contraction.
Yet the company, 98% owned by the government, probably won’t be able to continue paying out such high dividends unless oil prices, down 40% in 2020, rise, Moody’s Investors Service said last month. Aramco’s total payments to the kingdom, including dividends, taxes and royalties, fell 30% in the three months to the end of September to $24.6 billion.
“Aramco covered the lion’s share of its dividend this quarter, which, given the macro environment at $42 a barrel and abysmal refining margins, is quite an accomplishment,” Royal Bank of Canada analyst Biraj Borkhataria said in a research note.
Net income at the world’s biggest oil company was 44.2 billion riyals ($11.8 billion), slightly ahead of analysts’ expectations.
Aramco’s shares rose 1.3% to 34.60 riyals by 12.37 p.m. in Riyadh, paring this year’s drop to 1.8%. The stock has been bolstered by management’s pledge to pay a $75 billion dividend annually for five years after the completion of last December’s initial public offering.
That promise, combined with a $69 billion acquisition of chemicals maker Saudi Basic Industries Corp., has seen debt levels balloon even with Aramco cutting capital expenditure and laying-off hundreds of foreign workers. Net debt rose $6 billion to $83 billion by the end of the third quarter, putting the company even further from its gearing target of between 5% and 15%.
The company may have to take on more debt to fund the dividend payments given its slumping cash flow. It drew down a $10 billion loan in late July. That revolving credit facility matures in May 2021, but Aramco can extend it for another year.
Income still increased for the first time in five quarters as oil prices steadied following their battering earlier in the year as the coronavirus spread globally and demand for energy cratered.
“We saw early signs of a recovery in the third quarter due to improved economic activity, despite the headwinds facing global energy markets,” Chief Executive Officer Amin Nasser said. “We continue to adopt a disciplined and flexible approach to capital allocation in the face of market volatility.”
Although the results suggest the worst of the pandemic’s impact on energy demand may have passed, Aramco still faces a brittle market. Oil prices fell to a five-month low this week amid fresh travel restrictions in Europe aimed at stemming a surge in virus cases.
OPEC and allied producers — who agreed to slash crude exports in April — are weighing whether to delay an easing of those curbs to buttress crude prices.
In addition to crushing demand for fuel, the pandemic has also hit Aramco’s refining and chemicals businesses. The downstream unit swung to a $795 million loss before interest and taxes in the third quarter from an $801 million profit a year earlier.
Aramco had gross refining capacity of 6.4 million barrels a day at the end of September. It’s seeking to cement its position as one of the world’s biggest crude processors by having the capacity to turn some 8 million to 10 million barrels a day into fuels such as gasoline and diesel.
–With assistance from Bruce Stanley.