DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia’s oil giant Aramco announced Monday it will issue international bonds as it seeks a cash infusion to help pay for billions of dollars in dividends the company promised shareholders before the global coronavirus pandemic sent oil prices plummeting.
In a statement posted on the Saudi Tadawul stock exchange, the company said it plans to issue U.S.-dollar denominated bonds but did not specify the size of the issuance. The bonds, which range from three to 50 years, are targeted to institutional investors with a minimum subscription of $200,000. The amount issued and the returns are subject to market conditions, the company said.
Aramco floated a sliver of the company last year as part of an ambitious plan by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to divert those earnings toward investments that can help fuel the kingdom’s growth as he tries to steer the economy away from its dependence on oil revenue for survival.
Prince Mohammed sought to encourage Saudi citizens and investors to buy Aramco shares and push up the company’s valuation for its stock market debut by promising an annual payout of at least $75 billion.
Even so, almost all of this dividend money goes to the company’s majority owner, the Saudi government, to help cover state spending.
Monday’s announcement to issue bonds is aimed at raising capital needed to pay the promised dividends, which at $18.75 billion a quarter exceeds Aramco’s current cash flow.
The decision to pay an annual $75 billion in dividends was made at a time when Aramco was the world’s most profitable company, and before the coronavirus made its debut. The pandemic, which led to unprecedented lockdowns and border closures globally, also ultimately weakened demand for oil and pushed oil prices down.
Saudi Arabia has cut production, along with other oil producers, to support oil prices from sliding further.
Aramco, which has exclusive rights to produce and sell the kingdom’s energy reserves, saw earnings plunge by 50% in the first half of 2020. It also got knocked out of it’s top spot as the world’s most valuable listed company.
Aramco’s third quarter earnings of $11.8 billion showed a slight improvement from the first six months of the year, but were still down nearly 45% compared to last year.
This month, Fitch Ratings revised Aramco’s outlook to negative from stable, but affirmed the company’s long-term “A” rating. Fitch said Aramco’s ambitious dividend target could result in cash flow turning negative in 2020 and 2021, before breaking even in 2022.