“Well written and an interesting perspective.” Clan Rossi --- “Your article is too good about Japanese business pushing nuclear power.” Consulting Group --- “Thank you for the article. It was quite useful for me to wrap up things quickly and effectively.” Taylor Johnson, Credit Union Lobby Management --- “Great information! I love your blog! You always post interesting things!” Jonathan N.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BP: Dividends to Stockholders Despite a Sordid Safety Record

As BP was wrestling with stopping the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and cleaning up the oil, a controversy broke out between the company’s stockholders and the  US Government on whether any dividends should be declared and paid before the company has taken care of the Gulf.  BP earned more than $16 billion in 2009. Based on higher oil prices, in the first quarter of 2010 the company’s profit more than doubled to $6.08 billion from $2.56 billion  in the first quarter of 2010.  BP’s dividend payment accounted for about £1 of every £8 handed out by British companies in 2009. Given the higher profit in the first quarter of 2010, stockholders were expecting more in dividends.

The question was how much the company’s costs in regard to the Gulf would or should cut into the dividends; the political question was whether any surplus wealth should be paid to investors before the company’s legal and moral obligations were taken care of in the Gulf region.  Although not suggesting that their company was not obligated to stop the rupsure and fund the clean up, BP officials claimed that their company had already paid in other ways.

Already by mid June, 2010, BP shares had fallen more than 40 percent since the fatal explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April, wiping more than £50 billion, or $73 billion, from the company’s market value. The drop came after lawmakers in Washington called on BP to suspend its dividend and advertising campaign to pay for the cleanup, and a senior official said the Justice Department was “planning to take action.” Most shareholders rejected concerns that the costs of a cleanup and possible damages could force BP into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and said the drop in the share price is not justified by the value of BP’s assets.  BP officials indicated the company’s executives would decide in July whether to keep the quarterly dividend at 14 cents a share for the second quarter. In 2009, the company paid about $10.5 billion in dividends.

By June 10 2010, the company’s cost in regard to the oil spill had reached about $1.43 billion. A BP official said it was “too earlier to quantify other potential costs and liabilities associated with the incident.”  Earlier in June, BP officials told investors that the company had $5 billion cash on hand and that it was generating “significant additional cash flow” as the price of oil remained above $60 a barrel. BP had 18 billion barrels of proved reserves and 63 billion barrels of resources at the end of 2009 that it could draw on.

Iain Armstrong, an analyst at investment manager Brewin Dolphin in London agreed with BP that the company had enough money to pay for the cleanup efforts and also rejected any potential concern that the company might not be able to pay for its debt. “It’s gotten completely out of hand,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It’s a totally overpoliticized situation. There is a disconnect between reality and BP being totally lambasted… . Ironically, by being extremely strong financially, BP has become a target here,” he said. I contend, however, that BP became a target because of its atrocious safety record and its culpability at Deepwater Horizon.

BP falsified regulatory documents by indicating that there was zero percent risk of an off-shore rig accident creating a rupsure and that the company had the technology to stop and clean up such a problem.  Tony Hayward admitted after the explosion that BP lacked the “tools you would want in your tool kit” to close a blown deep-water well.  In other words, the earlier claim to have had the technology was a lie (which MMS never bothered to disconver, as the agency had been captured).  Lest it be said that no group of people is perfect, BP’s history attests to justifiable blame.

In 2005, a blowdown drum overfilled with liquid hydrocarbons at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 and wounded 170.  BP was cited for old equipment, overworked and unsupervised employees and contractors, and managerial inattention to safety. The US Chemical Safety Board put the cause as “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels.”  Meanwhile, a shoddy ballast system was found at BP’s offshore platform Thunder Horse.  In 2006, a corroded pipeline in BP’s Purdhoe Bay field in Alaska leaked thousands of barrels. In the following year, Tony Hayward became the CEO. He promised to make safety his priority. Yet in 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP a record $87.4 million for more than 700 safety violations at the Texas City refinery. Nonetheless, David Nicholas, a BP spokesman, wrote, “Safe, reliable operations have been and continue to be our number one priority.”  Not only has this not been the case, BP managers (and lawyers) have been more interested in minimizing liability than being responsible for the consequences of the lapses.

At Deepwater Horizon, when an employee discovered that one pod of the blow-out preventer was leaking, a manager simply shut it down and used the other pod (rather than fixing the leak). Another worker found such low hydrolic pressure in the device that he knew it was time to leave.  In Congressional testimony, Tony Hayward said BP regarded the equipment as the fail-safe mechanism, even as blow-out preventers in general have a 44% failure rate and the device at Deepwater Horizon was known to have a broken pod. Furthermore, after the well fire, the company low-balled the estimated volume of oil going into the Gulf in order to minimize its future liability.  During the first week after the explosion, the company’s estimate was 1000 barrels per day.  During the second week, the company estimated 5000.  Meanwhile, company documents show an estimate of 100,000 per day as a worse-case scenerio. That the wider society would not be sufficiently informed of the magnitude of the clean-up required did not seem to bother the managers at BP, whose concern was mainly to minimize the company’s liability (and thus maximize their stockholders dividends).  Selfishness among the culpable is telling. At the very least, responsibility can be defined as paying for the harm consequent to one’s mistake.  Satisfying such responsibility has priority over dividends, which are residual, after all. In making the protection of dividends (and the stock price) a priority, BP’s managers evinced a reversal of priorities that was ahistoric for the modern corporation.

It is for these reasons, not because BP is a giant corporation or is British, that BP was the target of such scathing rebuke by the American public and the American governments. Mr. Armstrong said that President Obama should not forget that 40 percent of BP shares are owned by United States shareholders. “So he’s not doing them any favors either,” he said. Again, I beg to differ. Acting in the public interest, Barak Obama is doing us all a favor.  Of course, the politics of this matter were no doubt different in Europe.

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, said Thursday that the drop in BP’s shares was slowly becoming a political issue in Britain. “When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP and the BP share price and the vital importance of BP then I do think it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on international airwaves,” he told BBC Radio on June 10th. However, Reuters quoted Prime Minister David Cameron as saying, “This is an environmental catastrophe. BP needs to do everything it can to deal with the situation, and the U.K. government stands ready to help. I completely understand the U.S. government’s frustration.”

In a general sense, the governments are relatively oriented to the public interest, whereas BP, as a private corporation, has a fiduciary obligation to its stockholders.  Robert Reich referred to this obligation as a company’s “corporate social responsibility” on the Countdown with Keith Obermann show on MSNBC on June 14, 2010.  “Social” can admittedly be in reference to stockholders’ social concerns (though “social concerns” is rather vague); however, the term can also refer to society, which is larger than any group of stockholders. To BP’s management, it makes perfect sense in terms of corporate governance to declare and pay dividends as long as the company has enough resources to cover its actual and contingent liabilities related to the gulf.  Considering the billions that the company has in oil reserves, it could satisfy both. In an economic sense, the dichotomy may not make sense.  However, politically, there is resistance to the declaration and payment of dividends, and this “irrational” element is ignored by BP to its economic peril.  Essentially, the political reaction is challenging the right of the company to continue to exist. At the very least, the objection is that the company should not be run as normal.  In other words, the political claim is ultimately that BP has broken the social contract that legitimates its right to conduct business within the US.

Lest we have become too ahistoric, it might be worth our while to study the history of the modern corporation.  Originally, the modern joint-holding company was delegated a function to do for the public by a government.  If the company had enough left over after performing the function, it could give the surplus to the stockholders.  Through the twentieth century, the interests of the stockholders became increasingly central, eclipsing even the “delegated public function” aspect of the charters.  Essentially, a society gives a group of people permission to do a function. This implies that doing the function, and taking care of any adverse consequences caused by the company, are primary.  The political demand of the American governments is that dividends not be declared or paid until BP has rectified the Gulf region as required by law, societal norms, and ethical standards. From the standpoint of BP having been granted permission to operate in the US (leaving aside the billions in contracts from the US Government), the demand is not so much the product of irrational exuberance.

In effect, BP’s managers ignored systemic risk.  In being the closest we have to anyone able to solve the problem, BP is too big to fail. Managers at the company lied about being able to handle a major rupture. The MMS regulatory agency went along, having been coopted by the industry it was to regulate.  This is a failure of business as well as government.  All the emphasis on BP taking orders from the US Government in the wake of the rupture can be interpreted as “reaction formation” given the powerlessness felt in government having been so dominated by private interests ahistorically oriented to their stock price.  If the Gulf of Mexico seemed broken, this condition could be read as a symptom of a political-economic rupture.  I suspect that big business has gotten too big—taking too big risks, capturing governments, and acting with impunity.  As if the financial crisis of 2008 was not enough of a warning call, the oil spill of 2010 depicts too big to fail in very concrete terms.  Whether governments have sufficient power to reassume the driver’s seat in delegating public functions to private commercial associations depends on whether legislators have enough backbone to limit the size and wealth of big business.

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/business/11bp.html?hp
Countdown with Keith Obermann, MSNBC TV, June 21, 2010; Byran Walsh, “The Spreading Stain,” Time (June 21, 2010), pp. 51-59.