Well, just yesterday ConocoPhillips (COP) announced a substantial dividend cut which has now become the talk of the blogosphere. I can’t honestly say that I was the least bit surprised by the move… Matter of fact, I thought the writing was on the wall months ago, and in full disclosure I will confess that I had recently opened up a short position on COP prior to yesterday’s announcement…
But let’s set the record straight here — For the most part, I am a long-term investor/speculator. I am absolutely dreadful when it comes to market timing so the short game really isn’t suited for someone like me… Nevertheless, when one of those “brain dead opportunities” pops up every now and then, I’m willing to throw aside a small amount of gambling money in hopes of winning it big…
Just like Kinder Morgan (KMI) before it, one of the energy sector’s most beloved companies is now residing in the doghouse…
Hey, no one said investing was easy! In an era of Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP) and Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP), you gotta do what you gotta do to try and secure some “stable” income! When it comes to stocks, most every retail investor has flocked to the high yielding energy stocks, despite the fact that the world is beyond oversaturated with oil right now, China is slowing down, global trade has grinded to a halt, and the world has essentially entered into a stealth bear market that is highly deflationary for all commodities.
Anyway, as readers are well aware, I hate chasing after assets that everyone else is fixated on… For example, once Bay Area real estate really caught fire, I said, “See ya later!”
And right now, oil is still SEXY! Everyone and their mother is out looking to buy, with many claiming that the oil majors, such as Chevron (CVX), Exxon Mobil (XOM), and hey, even COP are “buying opportunities of a lifetime!”
When the retail investor isn’t running for the hills in fear, I ain’t interested in buying! It really takes no skill at all for anyone to examine the balance sheets of many of these companies (not all) to find that there are some serious cracks in the foundation…
For instance, CVX has been cash flow negative for awhile now, and has even taken on debt to continue servicing their enticing “5% yield”.
From Seeking Alpha:
For instance, despite the reduced future capital expenses, their amount is still too high compared to the earnings and the free cash flow of the company. More specifically, while Chevron is expected to earn just $3.35 B this year, the expected capital expenses are $26.6 B for this year and about $22 B per year for 2017-2018. As the annual dividend of $8 B is much higher than the expected earnings, it is evident that the company will struggle to maintain its dividend this year. This is already evident from the free cash flows of the last 5 quarters (see chart below, assets sales are not included), which have been clearly insufficient to support the dividend.
Of course the company sold assets worth $6 B last year and plans to divest another $5-10 B of assets during 2016-2017 but still it cannot cover the wide gap between its dividend and its free cash flows. That’s why the company increased its net debt (as per Buffett, net debt = total liabilities – cash – receivables) from $65 B in Q3-2014 to $86 B in Q3-2015. Obviously, the company cannot keep adding debt at this pace for long. This is also confirmed by the rating cut of the company by S&P today.
Further, CVX has slashed CAPEX/exploration, laid off employees, and is basically doing everything possible to appease its shareholders.
No, no, no, no…
Dude, you’re doing it all wrong!!!
And I’m the Idiot?
First, let’s start with the insane idea of taking on more debt to fund a dividend… Call me crazy, but I thought that dividends were a function of POSITIVE earnings and free cash flow… I mean, that’s Real Estate Investing 101 for you… Never buy a rental property that doesn’t generate POSITIVE cash flow on Day 1!
Last year, I refinanced two rental properties to pull out ~$200,000 in capital… To do that, I had to take on more debt, which in turn increased my monthly mortgage payments. My rationale was that I was being “smart” because I was creating more liquidity for myself… In other words, I feared a prolonged market downturn and wanted to have lots of cash on hand to be more nimble (and more ammo to chase assets selling for pennies on the dollar).
However, despite the added burden created by refinancing, I was still very much cash flow positive on each rental (meaning my tenants serviced 100% of PITI and I still had $$$ left over each month). So, yes, the debt load went up, but it wasn’t me who was paying for it! Since my rentals are currently priced about $400-$500 BELOW MARKET RATE, I would say that I’m sitting in a comfortable position. Obviously, real estate and leverage are never without risk, but c’mon give me a break here!
In life, you know how freekin’ difficult it is to have all your ducks in a row?!?
When does that ever really happen!?!
So, I’m just doing the best that I can… And I’ve got over $400,000 in liquid funds, uncorrelated with real estate to help me out in case things get rough.
Despite my best efforts, I still received a ton of criticism and flak last year when I made the original announcement of my refinancing. Critics were calling me an idiot for confusing debt with “real cash”. In their minds, my $200,000 wasn’t legitimate, and if anything, I was just digging a larger hole for myself…
As I’ve always believed, and still do today, “It’s not debt that will destroy you. It’s the lack of liquidity!”
Everyone knows that real estate is the ultimate inflation hedge. Unlike these private companies, my debt service for all my rentals are also 30 year fixed, low interest rates… And for these two rentals in particular, they are among my best assets and located in Class A locations…
So, long-term, I very much believe that I will come out of all this a mile ahead… But I’ll gladly confess that having an extra $200,000 in liquidity for a rainy day gives me a lot of peace of mind…
But going back to a company like CVX, their “cash flow” isn’t sufficient to service their expenses (debt, G&A, dividend payouts to shareholders, etc.), so they’ve been forced to get “creative”.
And for some strange reason, most of CVX’s shareholders have no problems with that!!! The very same people who were giving me a hard time about my own financial situation are somehow able to turn away from these actions!
What? That makes no sense to me!
Dividends can be blinding!
As investors, we become so damn fixated by passive income that it distracts us from the underlying fundamentals… So many investors who are applauding CVX for being able to “navigate through tough times and keep the dividend intact” are the same ones who are now ripping COP management apart because of their prudence to eliminate an expense that they could not realistically hope to support…
“Management lied to us!”
That’s a COP out!
The writing was on the wall with COP… I don’t even follow the oil/energy space closely and I knew that the dividend was unsustainable…
And anyone who’s willing to spend 5 minutes going over CVX’s balance sheet would know that the situation over there isn’t all that much better either… Yes, CVX is more diversified and vertically integrated, but low oil prices are low oil prices… Unless you know how long this pain will go on for, why take the risk of jumping in right now?
If I continued to take on more debt, eliminated all my positive cash flow from my rentals, sold off my assets at the bottom of the cycle for pennies, do you think anyone would be interested in buying shares of FI Fighter LLC?!?
Truth of the matter is, I am in absolutely no rush to load up on any oil/energy plays right now, especially not the majors.
Simple. As a strong buyer of gold/silver mining stocks, I think I have a pretty good idea of what real devastation looks like in the commodities sector…
And what we are seeing in the oil patch is NOTHING!
In comparison, just take a look at all the gold majors: Barrick Gold (ABX), Newmont Mining (NEM), Kinross Gold (KGC), etc. who were forced to slash dividends years ago…
When an entire industry is in severe liquidation, the following will occur: dividends are slashed/eliminated, exploration grinds to a screeching halt, CAPEX is reduced quarterly, there are massive layoffs, the weak companies start dropping off like flies, juniors trade for less than cash in the bank, the retail investor has ZERO interest in the space, the conferences/events have declining attendance, and the share prices are absolutely decimated!
Will the same thing happen to oil/energy?
Maybe, maybe not.
If not, I don’t buy…
If you are a follower of deep value investing, you really don’t give a sh!t about dividends… Don’t get me wrong, I’m a financial freedom fighter, so I obviously recognize the importance of passive income to sustain early FI, but I couldn’t care less about it when I am hunting for bargains.
As I have stated before, I LOVE Dividend Growth Investing (DGI), but I just so happen to believe that it’s a most suitable strategy for an investor who is already in early FI… Since I’m not quite there yet, my focus is still on capital gains and appreciation.
Of course, I hope that will change in the near future, but until then… I’m shopping for assets with the most upside potential (which I hope to convert to safer, less risky investments, later).
The reality is, if companies are still paying (or even growing) their dividends, they haven’t experienced real devastation yet (this limits the upside potential)…
I would rather “back up the truck” and load up on COP shares at $25/share with a sustainable 4.0% yield, than to buy at $50/share with a fictitious “8.0% yield”. Hell, I would prefer $15/share and ZERO DIVIDEND!
Same with KMI. At around $13/share or so, even if the dividend is only 3.0%, that to me is a way better deal than before.
As if it wasn’t clear already, it’s not that I have anything against oil/energy, or the companies involved in that space, but as a deep value investor, I don’t discriminate!
Real estate, index funds, dividend stocks, gold/silver, oil/energy…
There’s a time and place for everything…
I even bet big on Tesla Motors (TSLA) once upon a time… These days, it’s one of my favorite SHORT candidates!
Look, at the end of the day, my allegiance is to early financial freedom… Whatever vehicle I can take to get me there, I will use.
I don’t get caught up in “shiny object” syndrome (dividends)… Although, gold is quite shiny and alluring in its own right…
Anyway, if you focus on deep value, you really can’t go wrong… I don’t lose any sleep with my gold stocks because they don’t issue any dividends to begin with (the companies I own most likely can’t afford to!)… They have NOTHING to cut! 😉
Gold stocks were already in the dumpster when I finally decided to start getting interested; I’ve been rummaging through the trash trying to find gems ever since…
And that’s just the way I like it!
When it comes to commodities, I will NEVER again invest in the space unless real devastation has already taken hold of the sector.
I’ve seen far too many people getting burned by buying at the wrong time (luckily I sold out of KMI, CVX, SDRL, RIG, LNCO, etc. before things really turned south!); with commodities, you should ABSOLUTELY ONLY buy at/near market bottoms.
I seriously dodged some major bullets there…
Lastly, when a sector struggles, it’s in our own best interest to target the companies with the best balance sheets… There’s a reason I’m a big fan of companies like: Lake Shore Gold (LSG), Klondex Mines (KLDX), Teranga Gold (TGZ.TO), Richmont Mines (RIC), etc.
I pay no attention to any majors who got reckless at the top of the cycle and are now encumbered with so much debt that they have to sell off assets at the bottom of the cycle.
That’s not creating long-term value for your shareholders!
On the flipside, a company like KLDX, cash strong and nimble, buying up Rice Lake assets for $32 million (C$375 million in capital investment had previously been spent on this project) might actually add long-term value for shareholders!
So, while the retail crowd chases after: Freeport McMoRan (FCX), BHP Billiton (BBL), CVX, etc., I look elsewhere…
But what do I know? I’m that crazy lunatic with far too much debt and no gameplan…