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BP Narrowly Avoids Third-Quarter Loss

Laura Hurst
·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- BP Plc used a surprise third-quarter profit to reassure investors that it was on the road to recovery, while also warning that it would be a long journey.

BP has had a turbulent few months. The company cut its dividend for the first time in a decade and its share price plunged to a 25-year low after Chief Executive Officer Bernard Looney announced a companywide overhaul toward greener energy. It also plans to cut 10,000 jobs.

However, the company defied analyst expectations to eke out a small profit, as a rebound in earnings from fuel marketing offset “extremely weak” refining margins. While it’s positive news after a year of multibillion dollar write-offs and record low oil prices, it points to a slow recovery in a world where demand is still at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is going to be a quarter-by-quarter, year-by-year slog and I’m sure we will prevail,” Chief Financial Officer Murray Auchincloss said in an interview with Bloomberg.

BP shares set yet another multi-decade low on Tuesday, closing down 2.1% at 195.74 pence, the lowest since 1994.

While crude prices have recovered from historic lows seen in April, BP’s profit was down 96% from a year earlier as restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Europe and the U.S. kept fuel demand at bay. The company warned of a “volatile and challenging trading environment” where “the shape and pace of the recovery is uncertain.”

Consumable Boost

Despite volumes of fuel being sold in the company’s marketing business being down 15% compared to last year, the unit had its best quarter in seven quarters, Auchincloss said. “People are buying more consumables at our sites.”

Another positive sign for BP was a drop in net debt to $40.4 billion at the end of the third quarter, down from $46.5 billion a year earlier. After cutting the dividend in August, reducing debt is necessary to give investors confidence that the payout is now sustainable.

“Funding the dividend remains our first priority and we are confident in moving toward our $35 billion net-debt target,” Auchincloss said in a statement released earlier.

Once net debt reaches that threshold, BP will be able to begin share buybacks, which Auchincloss said could happen between the fourth quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. However, the CFO added that buybacks redirecting capital expenditure into its low-carbon business remains higher up in the priority list.

BP reported an adjusted net income of $86 million for the third quarter, down from $2.25 billion a year earlier. That’s an improvement from the second quarter, when the company posted a $6.68 billion loss.

BP’s trading division, which last quarter brought in “exceptionally strong results,” wasn’t able to cushion the blow this time around. With a less volatile market and fewer opportunities for so-called contango plays -- a trade that profits from buying and storing oil during a glut -- the unit’s earnings were “significantly lower,” the company said. “It’s hard to replicate 2Q,” Auchincloss said in an interview with Bloomberg, adding that gas trading had performed better than average, while oil “slightly” below.

Other oil majors, who report later this week, have already told investors they experienced the same headwinds as BP. “Refining margins are absolutely terrible,” Patrick Pouyanne, Total SE’s chief executive officer, said earlier this month. Royal Dutch Shell Plc warned that its trading performance will be “below average” in the third quarter.

Despite BP’s better-than-expected third-quarter performance, some of those other companies still offer a better balance of risk and reward for investors, RBC analyst Biraj Borkhataria said in a note. Shell in particular has a core business that generates more cash and a dividend that should grow over time, he said.

Shares for BP slid to 199.28 pence at 12:40 p.m. in London, while the firms market capitalization tumbled to below $40.4 billion. But Auchincloss remains convinced that the stable results puts BP on the right trajectory for the future.

(Updates with share price in fifth paragraph.)

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