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By Jennifer Hiller
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N> on Wednesday kept its fourth-quarter dividend flat at 87 cents a share, signaling 2020 will be the first year since 1982 that the U.S. oil producer has not raised its shareholder payout.
The largest U.S. oil producer by volume was caught off guard by the sharp decline in energy prices and demand this year. U.S. prices are off 39% since the start of the year and globally demand has tumbled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exxon has pledged cost and jobs cuts that could be announced as early as Friday. The decision to retain the quarterly dividend could indicate it expects margin improvements from cost-cutting will allow it to continue making the hefty payout.
At $3.48 per share, the annual dividend is equal to 10.6% of its share price.
The company posted its first back-to-back quarterly losses this year and is projected to report a full-year $2 billion loss, Refinitiv estimates show, excluding asset sales or write downs. It reports third-quarter financial results on Friday.
Exxon has a "narrow path" to maintain the dividend without borrowing more, said Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov. Even with U.S. oil prices trading around $45 per barrel, the dividend would deplete the company's cash balance by the end of 2021, he said.
BP PLC <BP.L>, Equinor ASA <EQNR.OL> and Royal Dutch Shell PLC <RDSa.L> earlier this year cut their shareholder payouts by at least half.
Four years ago, Exxon stopped buying back its own shares, giving greater prominence to the dividend, which reached $14.7 billion last year. Officials said in July they were committed to maintaining the dividend.
"We have doubts about the sanctity of the dividend longer-term," said Jennifer Rowland, analyst with Edward Jones. "There is greater potential for a dividend reduction in 2021 if demand doesn't fully recover."
Exxon shares traded at $31.57 on Wednesday, down 3.8%, and at the lowest point in more than two decades. The dividend announcement came after market close.
(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Christopher Cushing)