BP bows to reality as it writes down $17bn of assets

The oil giant has ditched its conspicuously bullish outlook and written down the value of its assets. Will it cut its dividend too? Matthew Partridge reports

Thunder Horse oil rig © BP
© BP
(Image credit: Thunder Horse oil rig © BP)

BP has announced that it will slash $17.5bn off the value of its oil and gas assets as it takes a “downbeat” view of longer-term oil prices in the wake of the pandemic, says Anjli Raval in the Financial Times. The company now thinks that Covid-19 will not only have a “lasting impact” on the global economy but will also “accelerate the transition towards cleaner energies”. As a result it is cutting the long-term price assumption for crude oil and natural gas by over a quarter to $55 a barrel in the case of Brent Crude, and to $2.90 per million British thermal units for gas.

BP’s move is long overdue, says Nils Pratley in The Guardian. The recent plunge in crude left BP’s assumption that long-term prices would be around $75 a barrel, already a more bullish outlook that its rivals’, “looking silly”. Still, it means that a chunk of BP’s current oil and gas assets “will never be developed”. This should encourage CEO Bernard Looney to speed up his plan for “greening BP and supporting energy transition”. At present BP’s spending on renewables is limited to a “tokenistic” $500m out of an investment budget that will be $12bn even after the recent “sharp trim”.

Time to go green?

The revised expectations of future oil prices could remove one of the major barriers to increased investment in renewables: higher returns from putting money into oil and gas have “simply been too tempting” for oil majors, says Chris Hughes on Bloomberg. There is even a possibility that BP could decide to “make a virtue of diversification”, offering large business clients “energy from multiple sources in a way that combines security of supply with an increased proportion of renewable provision”.

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However, in the short run the immediate impact will be to weaken BP’s balance sheet by increasing its gearing, the ratio of debt to net assets. Since gearing is a “closely watched ratio”, BP will be under pressure to take action to reduce it, says Emily Gosden in The Times. One option is to reduce debt through asset sales. However, the fact that this is a “terrible part of the cycle” to be selling means that it’s not going to get much cash. This leaves cutting its dividend, at $8.5bn a year the biggest in the FTSE, as the only other option. With rival Shell having already chosen to cut its payout to shareholders, many think it is a question of “when not if” BP will follow suit.

Cutting its dividend could risk anger from shareholders, especially since many think the pandemic will “encourage more people into their cars, pushing up fuel consumption and oil prices”, says George Hay on Breakingviews. BP’s $30-odd billion of cash also allows it to maintain the dividend “for now”. Still, since keeping the payout will hamper further investment in renewables, BP’s choice may be between “annoying shareholders today, or in the future”. In any case, BP’s shares now yield 9%, suggesting investors have already priced in a cut.

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