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Hess Posts 13th Consecutive Quarterly Loss, Clashes With Hedge Fund

Despite posting its 13th consecutive quarterly loss, Hess Corp. executives indicated Monday the producer would not cut or eliminate the dividend to buy back shares, a position advocated by an activist investor group that has a long-running acrimonious relationship with management.

On Sunday, New York-based Hess reported a net loss of $2.68 billion (minus $8.57/share) in 4Q2017, compared with a net loss of $4.89 billion (minus $15.65) in 4Q2016. For the full-year 2017, Hess reported a net loss of $4.07 billion (minus $13.12/share), compared with a 2016 net loss of $6.13 billion (minus $19.92).

According to reports, Hess' fourth-largest shareholder, Elliott Management Corp., has been pushing the company to cut its 25-cent dividend and use the proceeds to fund a buyback of shares. The activist hedge fund was founded by Paul Singer.

Although Elliott was not mentioned by name during the conference call to discuss 4Q2017, COO Gregory Hill was asked during a question-and-answer session about the position of a "well-known shareholder" for a dividend cut or elimination.

"A number of our shareholders put a high degree of importance on [the] dividend as a show of confidence in our future and our ability to generate cash," Hill said. "We talk to all our shareholders. We have ongoing communications with all of our shareholders. There are other views about the dividend and that one shareholder you were referring to."

On Monday, Reuters reported that Elliott blasted CEO John Hess for "continuing underperformance."

Elliott has clashed with Hess management for years. In 2013 it called on Hess to spin off assets in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Utica shales. While the company pushed back against the idea of selling its unconventional assets, it agreed to exit the downstream business and sell its midstream assets in the Bakken, transforming itself into a pure-play exploration and production company. The dispute then devolved into a nasty proxy fight over the future of the company.

In 2014, Hesssold its retail business, which included more than 1,300 gasoline stations and convenience stores along the East Coast, to Marathon Petroleum Corp. for $2.6 billion. Elliott supported the sale.

During the conference call, the CEO characterized offshore Guyana and the Bakken Shale as the company's "growth engines," and called its assets in offshore Malaysia and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico (GOM) its "cash engines."

"On a pro forma basis, we expect to generate capital efficient compound annual production growth of approximately 10% per year through 2020," he said. "The combination of investing in lower cost assets and divesting higher cost assets, along with a meaningful $150 million annual cost reduction program, is expected to drive our cash unit production costs down by approximately 30% to less than $10/boe by 2020.

"As a result, we expect to generate cash flow growth of more than 20% per year at a $50/bbl Brent oil price and more than 30% per year at a $60/bbl Brent oil price through 2020."

Excluding Libya, Hess reported net production of 282,000 boe/d in 4Q2017, an 8.1% decline from the year-ago quarter (307,000 boe/d) and a 5.7% decline from 3Q2017 (299,000 boe/d). The fourth quarter decline in production was attributed in part to a fire last November at the third-party operated Enchilada platform in the GOM.

Net production in the GOM declined 34.4% year/year to 40,000 boe/d. In the Bakken Shale, increased drilling activity helped boost quarterly production by 15.8% to 110,000 boe/d from , year-ago output of 95,000 boe/d. The company operated an average of four rigs in the Bakken during 4Q2017, drilling 27 wells and bringing 34 online.

Hess plans to  deploy two additional rigs in the Bakken in 2018 to address the "robust inventory of high return drilling locations,” said the CEO. Hill said the fifth rig would be added in 3Q2018, while the sixth would be added in 4Q2018. The producer expects to drill 120 wells this year and bring 95 wells online.

"This year, we are actually reducing the cash flow from the Bakken a bit, because we're moving to the six rigs," the CEO said. "The wells that are drilled by the fifth and sixth rigs are really not impacting production or cash flow in 2018, so we get the uplift on production and cash flow in 2019 from that."

Hess also continued to devote much of its capital expenditures (capex) to the Bakken. The company spent $200 million on the play in 4Q2017, more than double what it spent in the year-ago quarter ($99 million) and up 7.5% from 3Q2017 ($186 million). For the year, Hess spent $624 million on capex in the Bakken, a 45% increase from 2016 ($429 million).

The company as of last November held about 554,000 net acres in the Bakken, with Hess serving as operator and holding about a 75% working interest.

Hess plans to spend $2.1 billion on capex in 2018.

Revenue and nonoperating income totaled $1.3 billion in 4Q2017, down 6.5% from the year-ago quarter ($1.39 billion) and 21.2% lower sequentially. Full-year total revenue increased 11.6% year/year to to $5.4 billion versus $4.84 billion in 2016.

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