BP shares yield an incredible 8% – but can it really keep paying out?

BP has had a terrible few years, yet has promised to keep paying its dividend. Is that tempting yield of 8% really as safe as it sounds? Matthew Partridge investigates.


On a yield of 8% or so, BP is a steal. But is that sustainable?

BP hasn't had a great five years.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon disaster led to endless legal battles and billions in compensation.

High oil prices between 2011 and 2014 helped to offset these losses. But they're gone now. And that's had a big impact on BP's bottom line. This week, BP announced that stated profits had fallen by half to $5.9bn in 2015.

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Yet CEO Bob Dudley has decided not to cut the dividend, in the expectation of prices recovering. On a yield of 8% or so, that would make BP a steal.

But can he keep his promise?

Is betting on an oil price recovery a sensible strategy?

He might be right about rising prices. US shale producers one of the main drivers of the current over-supply are hurting. Credit ratings agency S&P has downgraded many of them. The three biggest shale firms now all have "junk" status. Fadel Gheit of Oppenheimer believes that half the companies in the sector could end up going under.

But this clearout will take time. And even if a clearout does take place, allowing prices to bounce, new shale operators will return to the sector as soon as it becomes viable. That will drive production higher again, and cap prices.

Certainly, it's hard to see how prices could go above $65 a barrel, which research firm Rystad Energybelieves is the "breakeven" level for shale oil. And as technology keeps improving, that breakeven point will only get lower.

BP's dividend policy also makes it particularly vulnerable to unforeseen shocks. For example, Deepwater Horizon still has the potential to spring nasty financial surprises.

BP finally reached a $20.8bn deal with the US government and the states affected. But civil compensation costs continue to mount. And that's just the American claims. The oil giant also faces a legal challenge from Mexican groups, which could further increase costs.

Maybe that won't end up being an issue. And maybe the oil price will bounce back more rapidly than anyone thinks.

But even if there is a rebound in the oil price, BP may be in no state to take advantage. The company is slashing investment. A few days ago it said that it was going to fire 3,000 people in the exploration division. This will hinder efforts to find new oil fields to replace those being exhausted bad news for the long-term health of the company.

So is prioritising the dividend especially when the market clearly expects a cut really the right thing to do?

What you really need to focus on when it comes to dividends

You can calculate the ratio out by dividing earnings per share (EPS) by dividend per share. The rule of thumb is that the ratio should be more than 1.5, and ideally 2. Those firms with a ratio of less than one will probably need to cut their dividends.

It's clear that in the case of BP, the oil giant falls short. Headline EPS of 32p in 2015 and projected profits of 22p this year are simply not enough to cover a dividend of 40p, producing ratios of 0.8 and 0.55 respectively. Indeed, the dividend would have to fall to just under 15p for the payout ratio to rise to a comfortable level.

BP is a good illustration of why investors need to focus on the sustainability of dividends, rather than just the juicy-looking yields. I covered this topic in more detail in the magazine a few months ago. (If you're not already a subscriber, now's a good time to sign up).

Alternatives to BP

And with oil companies cutting production and Saudi Arabia and Russia rumoured to be discussing a potential deal (though it's very much rumour at the moment), prices could recover (or at least bounce) sharply.

The chief executive of Exxon (NYSE: XOM) thinks that the company could be successful at a lower oil price of around $50 a barrel. Exxon has a much more sustainable yield of 3.7% and has enough cash on hand to take over weaker competitors.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri