(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Occidental Petroleum Corp.’s swing from aggressive offense to deep defense has taken about six months. In May, it elbowed aside much bigger Chevron Corp. to capture Anadarko Petroleum Corp. On Tuesday, it laid out plans to cope with the aftermath.
The messiness of Oxy’s third-quarter results, the first to include Anadarko, was their saving grace. Earnings missed consensus estimates by a mile, but the panoply of moving parts, including merger expenses, makes the number almost meaningless. Far more important is Oxy’s plan for 2020, which can be summed up in one word: austerity.
The company took the unusual step of providing details about spending plans for next year, something it normally saves for the fourth-quarter call. There is a simple reason for this: The stock yielded north of 7% for much of the period since the Anadarko deal closed in early August. There is a fine line between a yield that looks unusually attractive and one that just looks unsustainable, and Oxy has been walking it.
So while the mantra of favoring free cash flow over growth can be heard pretty much everywhere in the oil business these days, Oxy is shouting it a little louder. Analysts were forecasting capital expenditure of $7.5 billion in 2020, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg. Oxy’s target is at least $2 billion lower than that, a figure that happens to cover three quarters of the annualized dividend payment.
Lower capex comes with a catch: guidance for production growth in 2020 is now set at 2% compared with the 5% target mentioned during the Anadarko pursuit. That said, the budget still implies a productivity gain of roughly 16% compared with the consensus forecast, assuming the latter includes capex for Western Midstream Partners LP; Oxy’s budget does not. Such synergies are, of course, the basis of Oxy’s argument for buying Anadarko in the first place, and much of Tuesday’s call was taken up with emphasizing early realizations of those and further benefits to come.
As has been the case with many other E&P acquirers in the past year or so, however, Oxy isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt. As of lunchtime Tuesday in New York, the stock was down almost 6%, making it the worst performer of any size in the sector apart from Chesapeake Energy Corp. — which trumped everyone with a going-concern warning.
The fact remains that Oxy stretched itself enormously to win Anadarko just as the outlook for oil soured. In doing so, it also took on high-priced financing from Warren Buffett that looks set to swallow 40% of the current value of the deal’s cost savings (see the math here). Payments on Buffett’s preferred stock took almost half of Oxy’s adjusted net income in the third quarter. Having begun the year trumpeting reasonable growth balanced with high payouts, Oxy now offers low growth to protect payouts.
In short, having hurt its credibility with investors, Oxy still has a lot to prove in winning it back. And as next year’s guidance shows, that finely balanced dividend yield will have to do much of the work in the meantime.
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Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.
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