Wall Street Journal:
The world’s biggest oil companies are struggling just to break even.
Despite billions of dollars in spending cuts and a modest oil-price rebound, Exxon Mobil Corp. , Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Chevron Corp. and BP PLC didn’t make enough money in 2016 to cover their costs, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
To calculate each companies’ free cash flow—the excess cash remaining after costs—the Journal deducted the firm’s dividends and capital expenditures from its cash from operations. All four firms fell short of cash flow for the year, although Exxon said it broke even by its own metrics, which exclude dividends. The analysis also showed that the four companies ended last year with more debt than they began it.
For companies once known as profit machines—whose executives were hauled before Congress in 2005 to explain their enormous earnings—their cash problems demonstrate just how unprepared they were for a historic crash and tepid recovery in oil prices. They have maintained the same large dividends they had when oil prices were over $100 a barrel, piling on debt and selling off assets to prioritize shareholders above all else.
The result is that spending on dividends and capital investments has ballooned above cash generated from their businesses. The issue has worried investors who expect those steady dividends because oil giants don’t have the capacity to grow much. Exxon, Shell and their competitors are under pressure to show they can drum up cash to keep shelling out dividends.
Exxon, Shell and their peers spent much of the past three years scrambling to reassure investors that their dividends were safe amid the oil-price crash. These companies were already struggling to live within their means at elevated oil prices.