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BP Looks to the Future After Settling Deepwater Horizon Claims

07/27/2015 | 11:04am US/Eastern
By Sarah Kent 

LONDON--As BP PLC prepares to report on Tuesday its first financial results since settling all federal and state claims over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, investors say they want to know how the company plans to move forward from an event that defined its corporate strategy for five years.

"We're entering into a period where the company needs to decide what it's going to be," said Paul Mumford, an investment manager at Cavendish Asset Management Ltd. "When the results come out, I would hope the company would give a clear outline of where it expects to move in the future."

But don't expect an abrupt about face, analysts said.

Once the world's biggest independent oil producer, BP has slid down the rankings of oil giants in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which claimed 11 lives and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past five years, it has sold off more than $40 billion in assets to help pay for legal and cleanup costs and carefully crafted its business around a smaller set of high-value assets and a regime of cost cuts.

Given the steep drop in oil prices over the past 12 months, that focus on A-grade projects and improving returns is likely to remain, analysts said.

The company has already announced plans to trim costs and reduce capital spending by around 20% and it is in the midst of a two-year, $10 billion divestment plan. As prices fell over the past year, BP has taken one of the most austere approaches among the big oil companies. According to Wood Mackenzie, it has delayed approval on six projects so far this year, three times the number of projects delayed by Exxon and Shell.

Chief Executive Bob Dudley has been vocal in expressing his cautious take on the downturn, warning that he expects oil prices to remain "lower for longer."

"I wouldn't get ahead that they're going to roll the dice big. I don't think that's Dudley's style," said Citigroup oil-and-gas analyst Alastair Syme.

Still this month's $18.7 billion settlement gives the company more breathing room and allows it to focus on the future. The agreement settled BP's largest legal exposures, including penalties for environmental damage under the Clean Water Act and claims from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida.

Though hefty, BP's payments will be spread out over 18 years leaving room to maneuver with the balance sheet.

"I think they really have a chance now to rise from the ashes," said BP investor Richard Hulf, manager of the Global Energy Fund at Artemis Fund Managers.

Now could be the ideal time to stage a comeback, some investors said. The oil-price slide could open up interesting acquisition opportunities, though analysts say BP's ambitions are likely to be far more modest than the $70 billion acquisition of BG Group by Anglo-Dutch rival Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Still, assets in the U.S. or Africa could prove attractive if the price is right.

"They've got a chance to completely reset the strategy," said Jonathan Barber, a portfolio manager at Columbia Threadneedle Investments, which has limited its investment in BP because of the cloud cast by the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Indeed, acquisitions could prove a necessity. BP's production has shriveled since 2010 and last year it failed to find enough oil to replace what it pumped. Its elite set of assets--though carefully pruned and curated--isn't risk free either. A $7 billion investment in Indian gas, made right after the Gulf of Mexico disaster, has largely fallen flat. Last year, it restructured its onshore business in the U.S., after struggling to profit from the shale boom, and it remains exposed to significant political risk in Russia through its stake in state-owned oil company OAO Rosneft.

Moreover, the five years of belt-tightening that BP endured in the wake of the Macondo blowout has left it better placed than many of its peers to weather the current downturn in oil prices.

BP's balance sheet remains strong. At the end of the first quarter, its net debt amounted to $25.1 billion, slightly lower than a year earlier. Its ratio of net debt to equity, or gearing, remains below pre-2010 levels. The ratings agency Standard & Poor's revised its outlook for the company on Thursday from negative to stable, praising its cost-reduction efforts and control on spending.

It is a symbol of the effort BP has deployed to regain shareholder confidence, despite a 40% drop in its stock-price since the 2010 blowout. Though it suspended its dividend in the wake of the disaster, it has raised it pretty consistently ever since reinstating it at the beginning of 2011.

Write to Sarah Kent at sarah.kent@wsj.com

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