Lawmakers eye suspending BP dividend

Sign outside of BP headquarters in London

Oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Politicians continue to be angry. And investors, mostly, continue to dump BP stock. Shares did bounce back today amid a tidy rally on Wall Street. But people are starting to pay a lot of attention to BP shareholders -- specifically, the dividend they're scheduled to get in a couple of months. Given how much BP's stock has dropped in value since the oil spill began -- it's basically half its value -- that dividend is one of the only attractive things left about being a BP shareholder. Unless Washington has anything to say about it.

By Jeremy Hobson

When BP's shares started falling uncontrollably yesterday, the company said it was unaware of any reason for the stock drop. That may have been a clever way of signaling to worried investors that the dividend was still on the table.

"BP is in a position to give a dividend. They can if they want to," said analyst Alex Morris, who covers BP for Raymond James. "It all comes down to how big this public pressure coming out of Washington gets and whether they're going to bow to that."

That pressure increased again today. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked if BP should withhold its dividend until it has paid claims from Gulf Coast victims.

"Of course, and that would be their best public relations," Pelosi replied.

The mayor of London has responded to Washington's anger with a reminder: Many of the shareholders who'd be affected by a dividend cut are British retirees -- some of whom rely on the dividend for income. And 39 percent of BP shareholders are right here in the U.S. That includes public funds in California and Texas.

"If they suspend the dividend, there are certain pension funds and some income funds, that under their charter cannot hold the stock and they have to get rid of it," said Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research with Oppenheimer & Co.

That's something that would drive BP's stock price down even further. British Prime Minister David Cameron will discuss BP with President Obama by phone this weekend. He may have to channel the concerns of more than a few annoyed constituents -- thousands of miles from the oil spill.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.
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So why should we care about the health of BP? And why should BP shareholders get a bite before compensating all the people whose lives BP's mess has destroyed?

No, BP will never be able to compensate people for the human tragedy in the Gulf, and yes, it will take a long time (if it even possible) to repair the environmental damage. Yes, I think we can all agree that BP must pay.

But, BP has accepted responsibility for the spill, committed to pay for it, substantially reduced the leak, and bent over backwards to meet almost every other demand Washington has made except this one critical to it's survival. At the same time, I've never known these Washington types to accept responsibility for anything negative, much less offer to pay for *their* mistakes except with *our* hard-earned money.

Now, in the name of what I can only assume is political theatre, politicians are on the war path against our pensions (potentially bankrupting the world's fourth largest company at the same time). That's right, more economic hardship and suffering, straight from your elected officials -- just in case the recession wasn't enough for you.

Suppose we said they pay the current dividend, but the next 2 will be suspended pending developments? At 9% of the stock price annualized the current dividend is undoubtedly unsustainable unless the stock price recovers. It's not healthy when the arbitrageurs are betting on whether the dividend will be paid, so let's see what happens if we let one shoe drop.

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