After Another Dividend Cut, Which Oil Driller Is the Best Buy Now?

Another oil driller's dividend bites the dust. Offshore drilling contractor Transocean Ltd. on Sunday announced ahead of its fourth-quarter earnings that its board of directors has recommended slashing the dividend by a whopping 80%. In addition, its CEO stepped down, which caps off a horrible year for the company.

Now that Transocean has slashed its dividend, that makes three major oil drillers to take action on their payouts due to the oil crash. Seadrill suspended its dividend late last year, and Diamond Offshore suspended its special dividend program. With so many dividends on the chopping block, it might seem the entire industry should be avoided. But one oil driller has maintained its dividend through the rough patch, thanks to its industry leadership position. That is Ensco PLC , which looks like the best buy left in the oil drilling space.

Ensco fleet. Source: company website.

2014: A year to forget

The offshore drilling industry was decimated by the sudden, dramatic collapse in oil prices last year. In the span of a few months, West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude prices fell by half, in the steepest decline since the Great Recession. Drilling contractors such as Transocean are particularly at risk in these situations, as the price of petroleum greatly determines how much their customers will spend on new drilling projects, which then has a major impact on the oil drillers' dayrates and utilization.

Because of this, Transocean earnings deteriorated significantly in 2014. Revenue over the first nine months of the year was actually flat year over year, at $6.9 billion. However, Transocean's utilization was 75% last quarter, down 3 percentage points. Transocean also took $2.8 billion in impairments and other charges against earnings. This caused the company to lose $1.2 billion in the period. In addition, Transocean has taken huge writedowns of its deepwater floaters, due entirely to the oil collapse.

The departure of CEO Steven Newman, which happened effective Monday, was not entirely unexpected given all that has gone wrong for the company. Shares of Transocean have lost approximately three-quarters of their value since Newman took the helm in 2010.

Ensco is a beacon in the storm

Despite the drilling industry's significant troubles, Ensco's fundamentals and dividend have so far held up. Revenue grew 9% last quarter, to a company record $1.26 billion. Ensco's average dayrate grew by 5%, which boosted revenue growth. Moreover, utilization stood at a healthy 88%. Compare these results to those from Transocean, and it's clear why Ensco's fundamentals and dividend fared much better during this difficult period.

Going forward, Ensco will be boosted by its impressive backlog. Growth will benefit from more than $1 billion in future revenue opportunities the company added to its backlog last quarter when it signed several multiyear contracts with repeat customers. Ensco is continuously upgrading its fleet, which reduces the number of older, idled rigs that detract from growth. Ensco sold four jackups last quarter at a significant gain. Since the beginning of 2010, it has sold 18 rigs, with five more rigs currently held for sale.

Plus, Ensco's balance sheet is in far better condition than Transocean's. At the end of last quarter, Ensco's long-term debt-to-equity ratio was a comfortable 50%, while Transocean's was a much more concerning 67%.

Ensco's dividend has a fighting chance

In the aftermath of the crash in oil prices, Ensco is one of the only oil drillers whose dividend is left standing. Its $3 annual payout per share yields 10% at its recent stock price. While the oil drilling industry's sky-high yields were mostly too good to be true, Ensco's dividend might survive the downturn, thanks to a conservative balance sheet and strong execution evident from resilient dayrates and utilization. Disenchanted Transocean investors who still want yield should look at Ensco and its impressive dividend.

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The article After Another Dividend Cut, Which Oil Driller Is the Best Buy Now? originally appeared on

Bob Ciura owns shares of Ensco. The Motley Fool recommends Seadrill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days . We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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