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In challenging times for oil, investors drill deep into Saudi Aramco

CEO Amin Nasser. (AFP)
CEO Amin Nasser. (AFP)
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18 Mar 2020 02:03:23 GMT9
18 Mar 2020 02:03:23 GMT9

It has been an action-packed few days for watchers of Saudi Aramco. Following last week’s financial results for 2019, on Monday the company opened up to a grilling from international investment analysts in an hour-long conference call where they were able to drill down into the detail of the financial statements. Having listened to the online broadcast of the call, here are my five key takeaways on the current financial state of the world’s biggest company.

First, Aramco did not start the “price war” underway in global energy markets, but it is determined to win it. CEO Amin Nasser was adamant on this point. “We can sustain a low oil price,” he told the analysts. Aramco is confident it can carry on pumping and shipping growing quantities of oil at a faster rate than the Russians or the Americans, thereby winning back valuable market share in the global energy industry. It believes it can offer customers better prices and more reliable supplies than its main competitors.

Second, Aramco has the financial and industrial resources to equip it for a lengthy battle for market share. In addition to production costs among the lowest in the world, it has low gearing and borrowings, and the flexibility to adapt its capital expenditure to maximize financial efficiency. Capital investment plans have already been “optimized” for the current year, and a review of next year’s requirements is underway. “Our unique scale, low cost, low capital intensity and reliability deliver growth and outstanding returns,” Nasser said.

Third, it has the capacity to dramatically increase output in a short time frame. One analyst noted how when Aramco significantly boosted its “maximum sustainable capacity” last decade, it took roughly six years to do so. Now, Aramco will have 12-million-barrel capacity from next month, up from 9.8 million just a few weeks ago, with 12.3 million possible via the use of inventory reserves by the end of the year. It will take a while longer to get to the 13 million the government demanded recently, but that can be done mainly through enhancement and expansion of existing fields and without big capital expenditure.

Aramco is confident it can carry on pumping and shipping growing quantities of oil at a faster rate than the Russians or the Americans, thereby winning back valuable market share in the global energy industry

Frank Kane

Four, Aramco is conscious of its new status as a public company and is committed to keeping its shareholders happy. The shares will always to some degree reflect price volatility in the global oil markets, as they have done in recent days, but public companies have to accept the verdict of the stock markets. Their job is to keep their side of the bargain, mainly by maintaining dividend levels at acceptable levels. Aramco made clear to the analysts that it would stick by its pledge to pay $75 billion per year, the biggest dividend paid by any public company.

Last and by no means least, in days when we are all worried about coronavirus and its economic effects, Aramco will keep a firm eye on the other big global challenge we all face: Climate change. Nasser made clear that the company is committed to maintaining and even improving its status as one of the “cleanest” oil companies, with very low levels of carbon intensity and methane emissions. Its spending on climate change-related technology research and development at research centers around the world will be maintained. Its forthcoming annual review will have a “sustainability” report telling shareholders of its progress in the environmental, social and governance fields so important to modern investors.

Journalists were not allowed to pose questions during the hour-long call, but the market verdict will soon be apparent. The analysts who took part in the call will go away and produce reports based on what they heard in response to their questions, so in the next few days we will see what they made of it all.

For what it is worth in these volatile days, Aramco shares were trading up on Monday after the call, as the investment gurus fed their recommendations into their buying institutions.

• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai.

Twitter: @frankkanedubai

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