Investing in the energy industry right now can be scary. On the one hand, oil prices have been extremely volatile and look likely to stay that way. On the other hand, while clean energy, especially wind power, is growing rapidly, valuations are astronomical and, for income-focused investors there are few good options.
With that in mind, investors looking for income in energy have little choice but to turn to the safest conventional energy play available; oil majors. Companies like Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A, RDS.B) have been around for decades, so regardless of what happens to oil prices, these firms have the capacity to deal with virtually any scenario. Profits will, of course, suffer if oil prices stay below $50 a barrel for years, but unlike smaller players, Exxon Mobil is not going to go bankrupt.
So which oil majors are worth looking at if you're focused on dividends? A look through the U.S. publicly traded majors with the highest dividend yields reveals some intriguing opportunities.
Topping the list of the highest dividend yield right now is Italian oil giant ENI (E). It carries a market cap of nearly $70 billion and a dividend yield over the last 12 months of nearly 6.5%. Those dividends have been volatile over the last decade, but the company has been good about tying its dividends to oil prices, so if oil prices recover, investors in ENI would reap the rewards. ENI became the first major to cut its dividend earlier this year, but it still offers attractive payouts for investors.
Next on the list is Royal Dutch Shell. The company trades in the U.S. under two different ADRs (American Depositary Receipt), RDS.A and RDS.B. Both pay a dividend yield in excess of 6%. ENI may pay a higher dividend, but it doesn't have the name recognition or size of the giant that is Royal Dutch Shell. Shell has also been a little bit better about improving its operational efficiency over the last decade, and it shows in their payout history which has improved for the last four years running now.
Coming in third on the list of top yielding oil majors is French giant, Total (TOT), which trades in the US under ticker symbol TOT. The company's dividend payout has been stagnant for a few years, but on the positive side, the company is vertically integrated upstream and downstream, which should enable it to take advantage of margin growth in various spots of the supply chain. For example, the firm is likely to see higher European refining margins over the next year, which should offset losses from upstream production. The French refining operations have encountered some labor strife, but the company appears to be moving in the right direction on cost and efficiency in that unit. Total is targeting $10 billion in free cash flow by 2017, which should bolster the dividend going forward.
Finally, with a dividend of nearly 4.5%, ConocoPhillips (COP) ranks as the number four highest yielding oil major. One nice feature about COP is that the firm has consistently increased its dividend year after year for the better part of a decade now. In 2005, ConocoPhillips paid out $1.18 a share while this year it looks likely to pay out $2.92 a share. The firm has divested billions in assets over the last few years (in hindsight a very savvy choice on the part of management), and its current portfolio is heavy on unconventional and international assets. Between this portfolio, the firm's strong balance sheet, and the fact that ConocoPhillips will likely be one of the only oil majors this year with positive free cash flow, the dividend yield is just the icing on a very attractive cake.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com