Wednesday 24 August 2016 7:09 pm

Oil major debt climbs to record high as crude prices continue to wallow

Some of the biggest global oil majors are being weighed down by record levels of debt.

Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Chevron hold a combined net debt of $184bn (£138bn) — more than double their debt levels in 2014, according to analysis by the Wall Street Journal.

The drop in the oil price has been blamed for the soaring debt levels. The price of a barrel of oil remains less than half of what it was in the summer of 2014.

Read more: The World Bank has hiked its 2016 forecast for oil again

The enduring low oil price and soaring debt levels have caused some investors to question whether the majors will be able to fork out for new investments and dividends in coming quarters. 

The price of oil took another hit today after an unexpected increase in crude stocks in the US reinvigorated worries about a global supply glut.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) released figures showing domestic crude supplies rose by 2.5m barrels in the week ended 19 August to a total of 523.6m barrels, far from the 455,000 barrel fall that had been expected.

Where do the big players stand?

Last month BP revealed it had taken a knock in its most recent quarter as it battles low oil prices and aims to move on from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

The oil giant reported underlying replacement cost profit – the key measure of profitability for the sector – of $720m for its second quarter of 2016, down from $1.3bn for the same period last year but up from $532m in the last quarter.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 workers and gushed nearly 5m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, may have taken place more than five years ago, but BP has been paying the costs since.

However, the company has recent made some progress, including arriving a certain key settlement figures in court, to give it some certainty of what the total costs will be for the future.

Dividends depths still to be plumbed

Royal Dutch Shell last month announced it would retain its dividend despite recording a massive dip in earnings during the second quarter of 2016, which it blamed partly on the continued weak oil price.

Income attributable to shareholders fell by 71 per cent to $1.18bn from $3.99bn in the second quarter of last year.

Shell said its earnings were largely impacted by the weak oil price but also by its £47bn takeover of BG Group which was agreed last year. The company said that, compared with the second quarter 2015, operating expenses excluding identified items decreased by $900m before increasing by $1bn "due to the consolidation of BG".

Exploration spend has been slashed

Exxon Mobil had a difficult first half to 2016, with earnings sliding 62 per cent. Earnings fell to $3.5bn in its first half – and skidded 59 per cent to $1.7bn in the second quarter alone.

Upstream earnings fell to $294m, down $1.7bn from the second quarter of 2015, while downstream earnings fell $681m to $825m.

Read more: Statoil brought in to North Sea venture by Jersey Oil & Gas

Exxon has scaled back its exploration costs heavily: today's results showed it has cut back by 38 per cent in the second quarter alone, spending a mere $5.2bn in the past three months.

Investments aren't off the table

In July a group of integrated oil companies led by Chevron announced one of the largest investments since the beginning of the oil price slump.

The group is planning to pour $36.8bn in to a project that will boost production at Kazakhstan's Tengiz field.

Chevron reported $2.8bn in impairments for its second quarter, dragging it to a loss of $1.5bn, or 78 cents per share, compared with a profit of $571m in the year-earlier period.

Revenues were $29.3bn, down around 27 per cent from $40.4bn in the second quarter of 2015.

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