What does 2011 have in store for BP?
BP investors were likely to have breathed a sigh of relief on 31 December as a disastrous year for the company was brought to a close.
Investors watched shares in the company plummet to a low of 296p last June in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill which sent shockwaves through the market.
While today they remain some way off their 52-week high, with a new American chief executive and a pledge to improve safety procedures, there is little denying that the British oil major is making all the right noises following a turbulent 2010.
So what next for the company which barely made it out of the headlines last year?
Perhaps the most pressing of questions is that of liability for the Macondo explosion which occurred last April, killing 11 men.
Investors were anxiously awaiting the release of the official US Oil Spill Commission report into the accident, published last week. For all that the Commission is unable to establish policy or indeed punishment, its findings are certain to have a bearing on future civil and criminal cases relating to the spill.
While it heaped blame on management failures, crucially it also highlighted the wrongdoings of contractors Transocean and Halliburton, while also drawing attention to the wider flaws within the oil industry and inferior legislation.
The report proved a godsend for the embattled oil major, as analysts agree it sharply reduced its chances of being found guilty of gross negligence - a black cloud that has hung over BP from the outset.
Unless evidence comes to light revealing BP to have singularly disregarded safety measures in the run up to the disaster, the Department of Justice is unlikely to reach a different conclusion to the Commission.
Peter Hitchens, analyst at Panmure Gordon, said: "Although BP is very much seen to have a major part in the Macondo tragedy, it appears less likely that the company will now be held solely responsible and hence the chances of being found grossly negligent are diminishing. BP will also be able to recoup much of the clean-up costs from its partners."
Analysts at Evolution Securities agree with this sentiment, noting that they had always found it unlikely that BP would face such a charge, and said as well as clawing back monies from its partners, it may also be able to recoup costs from the likes of Transocean and Haliburton.
Merrill Lynch analysts added: "The recent US Spill commission report, pointing to industry-wide root causes for Macondo has removed some uncertainties around BP's future. Whilst there are still other open fronts in terms of litigation/compensation, we now see investor attention focusing on management's ability to unlock value and long-term growth potential post disposal plan."
In the wake of the report, chief operating officer of BP's exploration and production arm, Doug Suttles, announced his decision to leave.
While BP maintained he has "chosen to retire," reports suggested he became the latest casualty from the Macondo fall-out, which saw the departure of chief executive Tony Hayward last October and exploration and production chief, Andy Inglis, as the company seeks to shake up its exploration and production unit to restore confidence.
Earlier this week, BP announced a deal with Russian oil major Rosneft to explore and develop three licences on the Russian Arctic continental shelf.
The licences span up to 125,000 square kilometres in a "highly prospective" area of the South Kara Sea and were given the thumbs up by investors, sending the shares over 2% higher and adding to the 13% outperformance over the last quarter and 7% in the last month.
In what BP has hailed a "ground-breaking deal," it has opened up a unique opportunity for the company to gain access to a prospective new frontier area, where direct access as a non-Russian company would have been impossible.
Jon Rigby, analyst at UBS, said one of the key dangers post-Gulf of Mexico was that BP would be nervous about striking new deals, or simply be blocked because of reputational issues. However, he said this deal shows neither appears to be the case and the evidence suggests that BP has not lost its appetite for bold strategic moves.
Prior to the Gulf of Mexico, BP had been focused on building the US as its key source of growth, but with the company's reputation in tatters, analysts believe chief executive Bob Dudley is under pressure to find new reserves.
Hitchens at Panmure Gordon commented: "With it becoming more difficult to operate in the Gulf of Mexico following the Macondo incident, the company has decided that it will look towards Russia to fuel its future growth."
The likes of Iraq, Libya and Oman will also play a vital role in helping BP develop its growth strategy going forward, analysts believe.
However, analysts at BNP Paribas warn that BP's Russian move increases its exposure to political risk.
Rosneft is 70% government owned and there are political concerns having the national oil company as a major investor, they argue.
"The major concern is the risk that BP's Russian assets are expropriated after making major discoveries. TNK-BP already provides around a quarter of production and the commitment to further significant additional capital to Russia may be seen as a material negative shift in its risk exposure," they said.
They went on to caution that the deal may also have a "negative impact" on already-tarnished relationships in the US.
However, analysts at Merrill Lynch predict further tie-ins with national oil companies (NOCs).
In order to achieve long-term growth and unlock as much value as possible, they believe BP will entertain a number of strategic routes including deepening the collaboration with NOCs, setting NA alliances to reduce the number of Gulf of Mexico operated assets and further downstream disposals.
Last July, BP set itself a target of selling assets worth up to $30 billion over the next 18 months, primarily in the upstream business.
David Cunningham, head of UK equities at Standard Life, said Britain's benchmark index of 100 leading companies will hit 6,900 points by the end of 2011 as firms raise their dividend payments and increase their profit.
Looking further ahead, brokerage ING tagged the stock with a 'buy' rating and price target of £7.12p, based on its analysis of the group's value creation over the next five years.
It said the group ranked ahead of the pan-European sector and would continue to grow thanks to its strategic delivery, operational momentum, sound cash management and profitability with good earnings that appear to be "undervalued by the market" relative to peers.
The biggest disappointment for shareholders over the latter part of 2010 was the suspension of dividend payments.
In June, the company announced that circumstances forced it to be prudent and cancel the dividend payment scheduled for the first, second and third quarters of 2010.
Prior to the April explosion, BP was the largest dividend payer in the UK, with Capita suggesting that the cancellation of pay-outs during 2010 cost shareholders an estimated £5.4 billion.
However, a brighter horizon awaits investors, as BP made clear its intention to "review future dividends with the full year results in early 2011."
Analysts widely believe that shareholders will see the payout reinstated as early as February as the group looks to move on from the disaster.
George Godber, fund manager at Matterley Asset Management, expects the quarterly dividend to be reinstated at around 4.5p - around half the level paid prior to the Macondo well blowout.
Analysts at Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, said: "We see quarterly dividends reinstated at $0.07 per share with potential to introduce a share buyback programme once the disposal plan is complete."
Collins Stewart analyst Gordon Gray was of the same opinion, also forecasting $0.07 per share on a quarterly basis, offering a 3.6% prospective yield. However, they warned that going forward, BP's share price and appeal may lose some of its momentum as their risk/reward balance becomes less convincing.
"We think further news flow of a similar magnitude to the Rosneft announcement may be needed to sustain the shares' upward momentum beyond the (results) but are unconvinced that this will be forthcoming."
So while BP has enjoyed a promising start to 2011, it still has a long way to go yet.
This article was written for Interactive Investor
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