The ability of Canadian oil producers to lure investors with generous dividends is being tested as cash flow is squeezed by crude trading near five-year lows.

Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. (COS) will cut its quarterly dividend 42 percent to 20 cents a share in late January, the Calgary-based company said in a 2015 budget forecast statement today after the close of North American markets. Companies will have to choose between reducing spending or payments to shareholders, said Sprott Asset Management LP’s Eric Nuttall.

“The true sustainability of the dividend model at current oil prices in Canada is highly challenged,” said Nuttall, who oversees C$120 million ($106 million) at Sprott in Toronto. He predicted capital spending will fall 15 percent next year and dividend reductions may follow if prices stay low. “The current oil price does not work for the industry.”

Canadian energy companies, such as Baytex Energy Corp. (BTE) with average dividend levels higher than their U.S. peers, are grappling with tough choices after oil fell as much as 40 percent from its high in June. The plunge accelerated last week after OPEC committed to maintaining its current output target amid a supply glut and a global battle for market share.

‘Strong Signal’

Canadian producers in the Standard & Poor’s/TSX energy index have a dividend yield of 3.59 percent, 35 percent more than the average of the U.S. companies in the S&P 500 Energy Index today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The yield, which measures annual per-share dividends relative to a company’s share price, is rising for many producers as their stocks fall.

Dividend yields approaching 10 percent are a “strong signal that the market fears their sustainability,” said Robert Mark, director of research at MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier Inc. in Toronto, which manages about C$6 billion.

At yesterday’s close, Baytex was yielding 12.8 percent, Canadian Oil Sands was at 10.5 percent, Penn West Petroleum Ltd. (PWT) yielded 14.9 percent and Crescent Point Energy Corp. (CPG) was at 9.4 percent.

Baytex plunged 54 percent through yesterday’s close from oil’s June 20 high, compared with the 24 percent decline in the S&P/TSX energy index. In that time, Penn West slumped 65 percent, while Canadian Oil Sands fell 45 percent and Crescent Point dropped 39 percent.

The S&P 500 Energy Index fell 19 percent over the same period.

Locked In

Nuttall said the pain should ease for producers if West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, rises above $75 a barrel next year, as he expects. It rose 0.7 percent to settle at $67.38 today on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Some companies are also partially shielded from oil’s slide after locking in future prices with hedging. Crescent Point had 37 percent of its 2015 output secured at prices above C$93 a barrel as of Oct. 28, the company said in its third-quarter earnings statement.

“This is a great investment opportunity for people to collect a pretty high yield on a low-risk company,” which has never lowered its dividend through six downturns in the price of oil, Crescent Point Chief Executive Officer Scott Saxberg said today in a phone interview. “Our hedging program keeps our cash flow strong and allows us to maintain our dividend, maintain our capital program and battle through this.”

Penn West will maintain its dividend if it’s pressured by persistent low oil prices by reducing its 2015 capital spending, Greg Moffatt, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

‘Later Stages’

“Depending on the extent and duration of commodity price weakness in 2015, we can adjust our capital plan as required in the second half of the year,” Moffatt said.

Siren Fisekci, a spokeswoman for Canadian Oil Sands, declined to comment in advance of the company’s budget announcement. Andrea Beblow, a spokeswoman for Baytex, also declined to comment.

“Cutting a dividend tends to be in the later stages of what you do,” Craig Bethune, a fund manager at Manulife Asset Management Ltd. who focuses on energy and natural resources investments, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Toronto office today. “Some will continue to fund their dividends through the tough times, choosing to make asset dispositions, really anything but cut the dividend.”

Extra Cash

Reducing the dividend yield would free up extra cash for development at Baytex, Mark Friesen, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities Inc. in Calgary, said yesterday in a note.

“Balance sheet preservation is paramount and it will be important to see evidence of this in the company’s 2015 capital guidance,” Friesen said.

Canadian Oil Sands, the largest owner of the Syncrude Canada Ltd. mining project, has seen its dividend challenged because it gets all its production from oil and doesn’t use hedging, Michael Kay, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, wrote in a Dec. 1 note. A $10 change in the price of oil results in a C$240 million change in cash flow, according to an Oct. 30 company document.

The prospect of lowering dividends is particularly likely for some Canadian producers, Mark said.

“The risks of dividend cuts skew toward the juniors, the oil-heavy and the debt-laden,” he said.
Source: Bloomberg

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