BP plc (ADR) (NYSE:BP) is in a weird place at the moment. It’s simply difficult to construct a bull case for BP stock that doesn’t create a better case to buy a different stock. And BP earnings on Tuesday morning did little to change that problem.
Want to buy an oil and gas “supermajor”? Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) is the worldwide king. Like BP, its upstream and downstream divisions hedge oil price exposure, leading to (hopefully) solid performance in all markets.
Want a dividend payer in the space? Royal Dutch Shell plc (ADR) (NYSE:RDS.A) pays a 7%-plus dividend — one slightly larger that that of BP stock — and doesn’t have the legacy financial and reputation issues of BP’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
For investors who are looking for oil price exposure in a low-price environment, BP stock clearly is not the choice. The company still is guiding for breakeven at $60 Brent this year (Brent trades below $52 at the moment), and BP is hoping for $35-$40 by 2021. U.S. shale plays like Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (NYSE:APC) or Sanchez Energy Corp (NYSE:SN), among many others, are better stocks in a “lower for longer” scenario.
This doesn’t mean BP stock necessarily will decline going forward. But it’s extremely difficult to make the case that BP is better than other oil plays for investors’ specific needs.
So while the company’s Q1 earnings report looked strong, I’m skeptical it was strong enough to change the story surrounding BP stock.
BP Earnings Were Strong
To be sure, BP earnings were solid. “Profits on an underlying replacement cost basis,” a non-GAAP BP metric, came in at $1.5 billion, well ahead of estimates of $1.26 billion. Operating cash flow excluding Gulf of Mexico-related costs rose 47% year-over-year to $4.4 billion. BP’s dividend was maintained at $0.10, easing long-held concerns that a cut or stock dividend might be necessary.
In the upstream (i.e., exploration) business, production increased 5% year-over-year. CFO Brian Gilvary said on the BP website that additional new production efforts were going well. A new gas facility in Trinidad has come online. Another play in that country is being developed, and new projects in Egypt and the U.K. are coming online by 2020, boosting production in the process. Gilvary added that the projects driving 2020 guidance were 15% under budget.
The downstream business did see a modest profit decline YOY. But there, too, BP focused on the good news going forward. A major rollout in Mexico has commenced, and a JV in Indonesia provides another potential growth driver.
In its release and website commentary, BP seemed to focus on its improving execution, with Gilvary citing the “operational momentum that’s building in our businesses.” To be fair, BP does have a point, as execution looks to have been rather solid in Q1.
Yeah, But …
I’m not sure it’s enough, however.
The mid- to long-term concerns surrounding BP stock still hold coming out of BP earnings. Long-term debt increased by $8.6 billion year-over-year, as BP had to borrow to fund its dividend and its capex. BP is selling non-core assets to help deleverage, including the $1.6 billion divestiture of its 50% ownership of a Chinese joint venture, announced this week. But with free cash flow for 2017 likely to be negative, BP’s debt should continue to rise into 2018.
Meanwhile, it’s simply not possible for BP to execute well enough to offset a substantial plunge in oil prices, particularly in Brent crude. And it seems likely that the market’s reaction to BP earnings will be much the same as it was for Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) last week. Both companies’ reports looked solid; neither stock really moved. Investors already are looking forward to Q2. And with oil prices down and BP guiding for relatively flat production quarter over quarter, Q2 seems likely to be worse than Q1.
BP Stock Still Lacks A Catalyst
Admittedly, it’s tough for a single quarter to move an oil stock, particularly a giant like BP. And I do think the results imply some modest incremental optimism toward BP’s story and its ability to hit its 2020/2021 targets.
But a problem for BP in the short term is precisely that the stock remains a reasonably long-term play — as even management commentary suggests. The bull case for BP stock is based on the idea that by the end of the decade, production will ramp and the cash costs related to Deepwater Horizon will (finally) come to an end.
The issue for BP stock is that the 10% drop in Brent crude over the last three weeks does more to negate that story than the BP earnings report does to support it. Waiting three years for a turnaround that will drive a breakeven oil price maybe $10-$15 below where BP can produce crude isn’t an enticing proposition.
Add to that increasing debt, an uncertain dividend, and the fact that higher oil prices could hurt downstream profits — the same problem facing XOM stock — and the story with BP stock remains simply too tough.
BP can’t fix that problem simply by executing better.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.