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BP's investment taps still turned on, but for how long?

BP is still investing into new ventures, even if today’s dividend rise is a sign that cash returns are more of a priority.

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BP (LON:BP.) is still investing into new ventures, even if today’s dividend rise is a sign that cash returns are more of a priority.

Against a backdrop of volatile oil markets this is good news for mid-and-small cap oilers, which depend either directly or indirectly on the trickle down of capital from Big Oil.

Whether or not this trend can continue will hinge upon oil prices in the coming months.

The direction of crude pricing will determine whether the likes of BP can avoid going into austerity mode in the way that the world’s largest mining firms have.

Raising the quarterly pay-out to shareholders (by 5% to 10 cents per share) is a classic defensive move out of the blue-chip handbook.

It reassures income-focused fund-based investors that their yield is safe, even though benchmark crude prices are some 25% lower than at the start of the year.

That said, for growth-centric investors in the broader sector the alarm bells are not yet ringing.

It is too early to deduce whether BP is abandoning capital intensive projects in the same way the major miners have had to shelve investment programmes as metal prices collapsed.

That BP ploughed some US$16.3bn of organic capital expenditure in the first nine month of 2014 shows it is keeping one eye on the future.

The oil major expects full year capex of US$23bn, which is only a shade shy of its previously targeted US$24-25bn range – though this shortfall could simply reflect the scheduling of contracted payments.

Indeed, it is also positive that BP increased cash flows by almost a third to US$9.4bn for the three month period – and for nine months the figure was US$25bn.

BP has in the past nine months moved on a number of new ventures, some of which are in areas of particular interest for investors further down the oil and gas food chain.

Teaming up with Dana and ENI, the British oil major secured 50% stakes in the El Matariya and Karawan concessions via Egypt’s recent government bidding round.

It also secured acreage in Australia’s increasingly high profile Canning basin with a deal farming into two exploration permits in the ‘outer offshore’ area.

Both locales are the focus of investment from smaller firms on both London’s main board and AIM; in Egypt this includes companies such as Sea Dragon Energy, Circle Oil and Petroceltic, while Oilex is among the notable investors in the Canning basin (albeit onshore).

During the first nine months of 2014 BP also saw momentum in its exploration division, which previously enjoyed its most prolific year in 2013.

Major discoveries were made in Brazil’s Campos basin, with Total making the Xerelete find, and in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico a Chevron led programme unearthed the Guadalupe discovery.

Nearer to home BP is the operator of one-half of the Vorlich-Marconi discovery which spans two adjoining blocks in the Central North Sea.

Investment and success in emerging projects are clearly encouraging for the future, even if the immediate focus has the emphasis on income and cost control.

As something of a caveat it has to be noted that the budgets for 2015 and beyond remain unclear.

And when the bean-counters set about balancing investments and shareholder returns, the continued slump in crude prices may be an inescapable factor.

A lot depends on the in-house view for crude over the longer term, says Canaccord Genuity analyst Richard Griffith.

He reckons most of the listed oil majors will avoid guidance on next year’s spending until around February, so the movements of the crude price in the meantime could prove significant in strategic decision making.

“It all begins with whether you think the oil price stays here,” Griffith said.

“If they think the oil price remains at US$85 then they’ll be looking to adjust CAPEX and OPEX budgets accordingly, because they’ll still want to pay dividends and keep balance sheets roughly at the current level of gearing.

Should US$85 per barrel become the new normal for the oil sector then something would have to give, he concludes.

Quick facts: BP PLC

Price: 499.25 GBX

LSE:BP.
Market: LSE
Market Cap: £100.12 billion
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