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Shell and BP’s Debt Problems Are Getting Worse

The pandemic has now forced both of the U.K.’s oil majors to slash the value of their assets by billions of dollars. This is more than just an accounting issue for BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc. In the real world, it makes it even harder for them to meet targets for cutting leverage — targets they were already straining to hit.

Shell said on Tuesday it would take a $15 billion to $22 billion post-tax impairment charge after cutting its long-term view on oil and gas prices. BP warned earlier in June of potentially $18 billion in impairments.

Whereas most non-financial companies assess leverage by comparing some measure of cash flow to net debt, BP and Shell do not. They use “gearing,” or net debt as a percentage of both net debt and equity. That equity number is the wildcard. If it suddenly falls, as happens with impairments, then gearing goes up. Shell says the impact of its impairments will push up gearing by three percentage points.

Both BP and Shell are now even further away from their gearing goals. Shell aspires to about 25%. The measure rose steadily throughout 2019, and was 29% in the first quarter of 2020. BP’s gearing was last at 36%, against a target range of 20%-30%.

It has always been easy to explain away or divert attention from repeated misses on these targets, as though they don’t really matter. Forthcoming disposal proceeds would bring gearing down, the companies would say. Shell could point to juicy cash returns to shareholders in dividends and buybacks. It’s hard to pay off debt when you’re doing that. On analyst calls, gearing is played down as a “noisy” number and just one among many ways of measuring leverage.

But today, debt reduction is becoming important. ​​​The oil price will probably be volatile for some time, so balance sheets need a cushion. Investors have historically afforded a loftier valuation to the less highly geared U.S. oil majors. If gearing targets haven’t worked in the past, are there better ways of holding BP and Shell to account for attacking their debt piles?

Shell has reduced its dividend, and analysts expect BP to follow. That will help. But it’s worth considering scrapping the existing gearing targets and starting over. One option would be to fall in with the rest of the corporate pack and measure leverage using cash flow metrics. That would be more helpful in assessing the ability to service debt. It’s probably also more in tune with how these companies manage their finances day to day.

If gearing really is the best measure of leverage, then BP and Shell are going to need to set out a credible plan for getting it back down over time. Otherwise pick another type of target — one that can be met.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.


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