Royal Dutch Shell: No Need To Worry Over Proven Reserve Life And Dividend Remains Safe Despite Soft Fourth Quarter Results – Royal Dutch Shell plc (NYSE:RDS.A)

Introduction

Recently the European oil and gas giant, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B), reported results for the fourth quarter of 2019. Unfortunately for shareholders these results saw net income fall 83% year on year and thus were not received particularly well by the market, sending the share price down nearly 5% at one point. This article provides my commentary on several key topics and the outlook for shareholder returns.

Reserve Life

One concerning aspect that has been mentioned was their sixth consecutive decline in their proven oil and gas reserve life, which now stands at only approximately eight years. Whilst this is certainly not an ideal situation, there are a couple of reasons why it is not as alarming as stating that their “…status quo on reserves would put it out of business in eight years” indicates.

The first reason being that this assumes a zero reserve replacement ratio, which history indicates is very unlikely to eventuate. During the last three years their reserve replacement ratio has on average been 48% or 90% if the impacts of acquisitions and divestitures are excluded. If an investor assumes the lower reserve replacement ratio of 48% will continue going forward, this indicates that their reserves would actually last approximately twice as long. Naturally the thought of their reserves actually lasting sixteen years does not sound nearly as alarming and thus indicates they have considerably more time to address this issue. Whilst their future reserve replacement ratio may differ, considering this occurred during a period of industry wide reduced exploration expenditure and was heavily impacted by divestitures, it seems realistic to assume that this could continue at least in the medium-term.

Personally I believe their reserve replacement ratio that excludes the impacts of acquisitions and divestitures is a more suitable way to view their performance as inorganic decisions such as these can work in either direction, which leads into the second reason. Providing they maintain a strong financial position and thus access to capital markets they should be able to acquire reserves in the future as necessary or alternatively further diversify their earnings into other areas, such as renewable energy.

Cash Flows, Capital Expenditure Guidance & Dividend Coverage

Although the headline figures indicating that their operating cash flow decreased from $22.021b in the fourth quarter of 2018 to only $10.267b for the equivalent time period of 2019 sounds dramatic on the surface, the underlying situation was not nearly as severe. If the impacts of working capital changes are removed from both results, their operating cash flow only decreased slightly from $12.9b to $12.3b.

Considering the pressure they are currently facing from not only weak oil and gas prices but also downstream margins, it was reassuring to see capital expenditure guidance towards the lower end of their $24b to $29b range. This is a positive indicator for their capital allocation as it should strike an appropriate balance between ensuring their financial position remains healthy without underinvesting in their future.

Their dividend coverage for the fourth quarter of 2019 was not particularly strong with their operating cash flow of $10.267b only leaving $2.307b for dividends after paying for capital expenditure, investments in joint ventures and associates, net interest expense and dividends to non-controlling interests. This only provided dividend coverage of 61.93% as their dividend payments of $3.725b left a shortfall of $1.418b, however, due to divestitures totaling $2.081b this shortfall was not funded through debt. Whilst this quarter was not stellar, I still maintain that their dividend remains safe as was further discussed in one of my previous articles. Nevertheless their share buybacks totaling $2.848b where clearly partly funded through debt, which as subsequently discussed are being reduced in the short-term.

Future Buyback Outlook

The next tranche of their share buybacks to is be completed by the 27th April 2020 and will not exceed $1b, which is significantly less than the $2.848b that were repurchased during the fourth quarter of 2019. When considering the current macroeconomic backdrop it should come as little surprise that they are slowing the pace of their share buybacks. This indicates that management is making sensible capital allocation decisions that should help ensure their financial position remains secure and thus their cherished dividend payments continue flowing even if times get tougher.

Future Dividend Outlook

Given the current gloomy situation for their underlying commodities as well as their desire to further deleverage and complete their share buyback program, it seems safe to assume that their dividend will be remaining static for a while longer. Considering their dividend yield sits at virtually 7% as of the time of writing, this is not necessarily problematic as going forward shareholders can theoretically still earn a modest return in this low interest rate world even if their share price only trends sideways.

Conclusion

The softness of their earnings should have been mostly expected given the underlying industry conditions that they unfortunately have zero control over. Thankfully it appears that their management is making sensible capital allocation decisions to ensure their core business and cherished dividend payments continue well into the future. Although as a shareholder I would naturally prefer to see stronger results, volatility is par for the course in this industry and thus nothing contained within these results causes me to alter my bullish rating.

Notes: Unless specified otherwise, all figures in this article were taken from Royal Dutch Shell’s Fourth Quarter 2019 report, all calculated figures were performed by the author.

Disclosure: I am/we are long RDS.B. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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