(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Great thirty minutes, guys.
Monday morning's much-ballyhooed earnings call from Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Saudi Aramco, was remarkable chiefly for its brevity. About 25 minutes in, the host was reminding people to get their questions into the queue. Just after 9:30 a.m. in New York, it was time for closing remarks.
Aramco, the biggest oil major in the world, is owned by the government of Saudi Arabia, so the fact it was putting anyone on the line to talk about a published set of accounts is noteworthy. And, to be fair, they had blocked out an hour. Yet the call yielded little new information. That partly reflected the caliber of the questions, with the first amounting to "please explain why your company is so awesome." But it was also a function of the usual reticence of major companies, compounded by the fact that this one is, after all, not merely unlisted but a virtual state within a famously secretive state.
It was, therefore, entirely understandable that Aramco didn't offer up much detail on plans to buy a 20% stake in the refining and chemicals business of India's Reliance Industries Ltd., only made public a few hours before the call got underway.
On the other hand, it was unfortunate that CFO Khalid Al-Dabbagh effectively dodged a decent question on Aramco's capital expenditure and dividend policy. If, as recent reports suggest, Aramco still intends to go through with its IPO and this was a dry run for that, then questions about cash flow and dividends will be the ones that really matter.
In a world where energy stocks have fallen out of favor because of a legacy of excess spending and concern about faltering demand growth, the majors are valued chiefly for their dividends. A public Aramco would be no different in this respect (see this).
The first-half numbers just published confirmed Aramco is a cash-flow juggernaut, generating free cash flow after capex of almost $38 billion and paying its sole shareholder a dividend of more than $46 billion. The details beneath such numbers matter, though. After all, it's immediately obvious that, despite generating more free cash flow in the first half than BP Plc, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, and Total SA combined, Aramco borrowed to pay that dividend to the government. While net debt is just 2% of capital employed, there was a $28 billion swing in net indebtedness in the space of 12 months. And Aramco's capex in the first half looked low - which is why it was questioned - and Al-Dabbagh did allow that "timing" was one reason for that, suggesting it would rise in the second half of 2019.
Roughly 40% of the first-half dividend was an outsize special payment predicated on 2018's "exceptionally strong financial performance," yet sitting oddly with a year-over-year decline in first-half profit. Coming alongside Aramco's acquisition of the government's majority stake in Saudi Basic Industries, or Sabic, this reinforces the sense that the company chiefly represents a financing channel for a government facing chronic deficits at current oil prices. To which one might respond: Duh, like, it's a national oil company, what exactly did you think it was for?
This is the central issue when it comes to Aramco's valuation, however, because the closeness of that relationship with the government affects the risk premium on the company's earnings. Taking the 12 months through June as a whole, Aramco's capex of about $35 billion left it with free cash flow of about $88 billion, more than enough to fund $72 billion of dividend payments. Putting those on an Exxon-like yield of 5% implies a value of $1.45 trillion.
Yet, assuming ordinary dividends are running at $52 billion a year - as the accounts suggest - about $20 billion of that payout is akin to the more discretionary buybacks oil majors use to distribute exceptional income. Aramco's payout was 99% of earnings in the first half of 2019 versus just 52% a year earlier. That cyclical element should be priced at a discount to ordinary dividends, especially in light of Aramco's role in Saudi Arabia's public finances. Price the dividend at 6%, and the value drops to $1.21 trillion; at 7%, a shade higher than the yield for BP and Shell, it falls to $1.03 trillion.
These are still very big numbers (and in line with the valuation I put together last year). They remain, however, far short of the $2 trillion valuation bragged about by Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and this despite those numbers reflecting, in part, an "exceptionally" strong year for the company.
If Aramco's owner still wants to get even close to a two in front of those twelve zeroes on the trading screen some day, then the company needs either a fundamental shift in the outlook for the oil market or a fundamental reappraisal of its ability to squeeze even more dividends out of that market. It has only some influence over the first option. The second would require at least a bit more time on the phone.
Update: A typographical error in an earlier version of this story put Aramco's implied valuation with a 6% dividend at $1.21 billion instead of $1.21 trillion.
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Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.
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