BP: Is now the time to buy?

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BP: Is now the time to buy?
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With the double threat of $14 billion more in fines for the Gulf of Mexico disaster and further Russian sanctions, BP (London Stock Exchange: BP.-GB) seems to be having almost as bad a year as 2010.

Back then, an explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 people and sent millions of barrels of oil flowing out of the Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico. In the intervening years, the debate over who was responsible, and how big the financial penalty should be, has been fierce.

On Thursday, a ruling from a New Orleans court that the company was guilty of "gross negligence" and "profit-driven decisions" suggested that the sums paid out so far could be dwarfed by the eventual bill. Shares in the oil major suffered their worst day on Thursday since the bad days of the spill, sliding by more than 6 percent.

Yet Citi analysts have just upgraded the stock from neutral to buy, with a price target of 510p.

"We believe the financial implications of this ruling will remain significantly below the maximum," the analysts wrote, and argued that the actual fine should come in at closer to $8 billion.


If the U.S. court makes the maximum award possible, the oil giant could be on the hook for $17.6 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act.

This contrasts with the $3.5 billion BP said they had put aside to settle claims in their last annual report. The final amount will not be announced until early next year, and is then subject to appeal - and BP has been very firm in its commitment to appealing the judgment, and the figure put on the size of the spill.

The Citi upgrade also comes at a time when the oil giant is gearing itself up for further damage from the West's sanctions against Russia over the tensions in Ukraine. BP has a long - and sometimes turbulent - history in Russia with substantial holdings in oil and gas exploration.

One thing which has kept BP investors loyal through the lean years is its regular dividend payouts, which were only suspended during the darkest days of 2010.

These are unlikely to be affected for some time, if at all, by the most recent judgement, according to many analysts.

Jason Gammel, an equity analyst at investment house Jefferies, said in a note that the payout should not be hit because of the oil giant's good liquidity position.

"There's still plenty of arguments to be heard...and plenty more ink to be spilled about this claim," Jim Nicholson, senior vice president, Asia at Argus Media, told CNBC.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc

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