Exxon Mobil Corp. kept the S&P 500 Index’s third-largest dividend after this year’s rally in commodity prices eased analysts’ fears that the payout was becoming unaffordable.
The Exxon first-quarter dividend will be 87 cents a share, the same level as the previous seven payouts, the Irving, Texas-based company said in a statement on Wednesday. The decision means Exxon, for now, remains one of corporate America’s “dividend aristocrats,” defined as companies that have increased the shareholder distribution consistently for 25 years or more.
The oil giant’s precipitous 41% drop last year, the worst annual performance in at least four decades, led some analysts to speculate that the payout was becoming too expensive. Exxon cash flow has been too small to cover its dividend and capital spending for the past eight quarters, leading to a dramatic increase in debt.
Executives have vowed to defend the payout and reduced capital spending plans by about $10 billion a year to 2025 to support this goal. A rally in crude prices and refining margins in recent weeks, spurred by the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, should also ease Exxon’s near-term cash shortfalls.
As such, Wall Street analysts are warming to the stock. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Well Fargo & Co. and Barclays Plc have all upgraded Exxon to ‘buy’ in the past six weeks. Years of underperformance have left the stock trading at low valuations compared with peers, leaving it well-placed to gain from this year’s recovery in commodity prices, they said.