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Shell’s Profit Down 56 Percent on Depressed Oil Prices

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Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 00.11.12Shell’s Profit Down 56 Percent on Depressed Oil Prices

By STANLEY REEDFEB. 4, 2016

LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell became the latest big energy company to file a damage report on the impact of depressed oil prices on Thursday, saying that its adjusted profit fell 56 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to a year earlier.

Shell said earnings adjusted for inventory changes were $1.8 billion, down sharply from $4.2 billion in the comparable period of 2014.

For 2015, Shell’s earnings fell 80 percent to $3.84 billion, compared to $19 billion in 2014.

In a statement, Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive, said that the acquisition of the British oil and gas producer BG Group, which is expected to close in a few weeks, would be an opportunity for further streamlining of Shell.

Mr. van Beurden repeated earlier predictions that 10,000 full-time and contractor positions would be eliminated from the two companies, as a result of that merger.

“We are making substantial changes in the company, “ Mr. van Beurden said, “as we refocus Shell and respond to lower oil prices.”

Mr. van Beurden also said that to conserve capital, Shell was postponing two major projects: a liquefied natural gas facility in Canada and a deepwater oil and gas development off Nigeria.

It was the latest sign of how plunging oil prices are cutting sharply into the profits of the oil majors. Chevron last week reported its first quarterly loss since 2002. BP on Tuesday reported a $3.3 billion fourth-quarter loss. Exxon Mobil on that same day said that its profit for the quarter had declined 58 percent.

For Shell, despite the cushioning effects of its large refining and chemicals business, the falling prices of oil and gas are still doing damage. Each $10 a barrel change in the oil price, the company says, has an impact of about $3.3 billion on annual earnings.

Shell had forecast the gloomy earnings two weeks ago, before the much-anticipated vote by shareholders on the proposed acquisition of BG. A few days later, investors approved the acquisition.

With petroleum prices down about 70 percent over the last 18 months, the oil industry is experiencing its most brutal downturn since the late 1990s. That period, a time of widespread job losses among oil companies, was a time of industry consolidation, as BP acquired Amoco and Exxon merged with Mobil.

Back then, Shell stayed on the deal-making sidelines. But during the current downturn, the company has been the only big oil company to make a bold move by agreeing to acquire the BG Group, a medium-size oil and gas company based in Britain for cash and shares now worth about $50 billion.

That deal proved controversial with investors, some of whom worried about Shell making a large takeover at a time when oil prices were still on the way down. But shareholders from both companies have now approved the takeover, which is expected to formally close in the middle of this month.

Mr. van Beurden has long tried to persuade investors that the BG acquisition is not an expensive gamble but rather an opportunity to choose the best of both companies and to cut jobs and expenses like exploration. BG will also raise Shell’s status as Europe’s largest oil and gas company. But that distinction may be difficult to celebrate at a time of falling fuel prices.

Big oil companies have responded to plummeting prices by cutting capital spending and operating expenses. But with prices lower than most forecasts, analysts and rating agencies are beginning to argue that Shell and other companies may need to go much further.

On Monday, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Shell’s long-term credit one notch — to A+ from AA- — and put five other European oil majors, including BP and the French company Total, on watch for similar potential downgrades.

In explaining its downgrade of Shell, S.&P. said it expected the company to generate significantly less cash than it planned to pay out in dividends and capital expenditures through 2017. The agency also said that Shell might be further downgraded after the completion of the BG acquisition.

“We now believe many major oil and gas companies’ current and prospective core debt coverage metrics are likely to remain below our rating guidelines for two or three years as the industry adjusts to lower prices,” S.&P. said in a statement.

The pressure on the companies’ earnings also raises questions about whether they can continue to pay the generous dividends that are now a crucial attraction for investors — particularly if prices remain in the current range of $30 a barrel, or even lower.

BP, in announcing its big loss on Tuesday, said it would continue its 10-cents-a-share dividend but planned to review it each quarter. In a note to clients on Wednesday, Biraj Borkhataria, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in London, wrote that “2016 is likely to be a year of transition for BP with limited ability” to cover its dividend unless oil prices rose substantially.

So far, most oil company chiefs have stuck by their commitments to continue paying dividends. But the dividends, which cost the companies billions of dollars each year and were set when oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel, could prove hard to sustain.

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