Saudi Aramco third-quarter profit slumps 44.6% as pandemic chokes demand

Saudi Arabian state oil giant Aramco 2222.SE on Tuesday reported a 44.6% drop in third-quarter net profit as the coronavirus crisis continued to choke demand and weigh on crude prices.

Share prices of global oil companies have been hammered this year as investors fret over the impact of the pandemic on energy demand and the long-term shift away from fossil fuels.

Oil prices have recovered only slightly since tumbling to their lowest in almost two decades in March, prompting Aramco and other majors such as Shell RDSa.L and BP Plc BP.L to slash capital expenditure this year and next.

Weaker refining and chemicals margins also hit Aramco’s net profit, which fell to 44.21 billion riyals ($11.79 billion) for the three months ended Sept. 30, in line with an analyst estimate of 44.6 billion riyals provided by Refinitiv but down from 79.84 billion riyals in the same period of last year.

“We saw early signs of a recovery in the third quarter due to improved economic activity, despite the headwinds facing global energy markets,” Saudi Aramco Chief Executive Officer Amin Nasser said in a statement.

Aramco’s shares rose as much as 1% and were 0.6% higher at 34.4 riyals by 0830 GMT. Although down 2.3% year to date, Aramco has outperformed the likes of Exxon XOM.N, BP and Shell, which are down by more than 50% while Chevron CVX.N is down by 40%.

Analysts say that is partly because of the broader performance of the Saudi stock market, on which Aramco is listed, but also because the company has guaranteed its dividend payment.

Aramco said it would distribute a dividend of $18.75 billion for the quarter, in line with its plan to pay a base dividend of $75 billion for 2020.

But equity analyst Yousef Husseini at investment bank EFG-Hermes said Aramco would likely have to increase its debt financing in the short- to medium-term, or further cut capital expenditure, in order to be able to maintain the dividend unless oil prices recovered to at least $55 a barrel.

Dividends from the world’s top oil producing company, which went public last year, play a critical role in helping the Saudi government manage its fiscal deficit.

Aramco’s net profit almost doubled from 24.62 billion riyals in the second quarter, which the company attributed to higher oil prices, although it noted that was partly offset by a drop in volumes sold.

Saudi Arabia has slashed its crude production since May under a global supply cut pact with OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+, to support oil prices and demand.

Aramco had free cash flow of $12.4 billion in the third quarter, compared with $6.1 billion in the second quarter.