France's Total keeps dividend stable in 'exceptional circumstances'France's Total keeps dividend stable in 'exceptional circumstances'
FILE PHOTO: The logo of French oil and gas company Total is seen in a petrol station in Paris

By Bate Felix

PARIS (Reuters) – French energy major Total kept its dividend stable despite a sharp fall in first-quarter net adjusted profit, hit by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and deep falls in the oil price. Its shares rose 7.5% in early trade.

To preserve cash as the industry suffers a collapse in demand, some peers have halted shareholder payouts. Royal Dutch Shell last week said it was cutting its dividend for the first time since World War II.

But Total said it was keeping its first quarter interim dividend stable at 0.66 euros ($0.7199) per share and it would be paid in cash exclusively.

“The group is facing exceptional circumstances: the COVID-19 health crisis, which is affecting the world economy and creating major uncertainties, and the oil market crisis, with the sharp drop in oil prices since March,” Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanne said in a statement.

Total had planned to accelerate its dividend growth in the coming years, with a guidance of increasing the dividend by 5% to 6% per year.

The company’s net adjusted profit fell 35% to $1.78 billion, but beat analysts’ forecasts.

The market had expected Total’s net income for the quarter to be $1.3 billion, the mean estimate of 4 analysts, based on Refinitiv data, found.

Its share price outperformed the broader market, with France’s CAC 40 up around 0.8%.

Total said that as oil prices fell by more than 30% on average in the quarter, its cash flow slumped by 31% year-on-year to $4.5 billion.

Although its oil and gas output rose by 5% to more than 3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (mboepd) in the quarter, production for the year is expected to fall by at least 5% to between 2.95 mboepd and 3 mboepd, it said.

As lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus destroyed fuel demand, Total announced an action plan on March 23 to cut its planned investments for 2020 by more than 20% to $15 billion.

The company said on Tuesday it will reduce its investments further to $14 billion in 2020, while increasing cost savings to more than $1 billion.

For oil majors, the coronavirus crisis compounds the environmental crisis that has led some investors to shun fossil fuel producers.

Total also said on Tuesday it plans to cut its carbon emissions, with the aim of reaching net zero emissions from its operations and its energy products sold to customers in Europe by 2050 at the latest.

(Reporting by Bate Felix; editing by Jason Neely and Barbara Lewis)