July 24, 2018 / 3:53 PM / 5 months ago

PREVIEW-Spotlight falls on Cenovus debt reduction, rail contract talks

July 24 (Reuters) - Canadian oil sands company Cenovus Energy investors will scrutinize quarterly earnings this week for details on Chief Executive Alex Pourbaix’s debt-cutting efforts and crude-for-rail contract negotiations to help resolve pipeline jams.

After last year's unpopular acquisitihere of ConocoPhillips' assets, Pourbaix, who inherited a company last October with C$9.51 billion in long-term debt, is giving himself until 2019 to turn Cenovus around and bring that figure down.

He also took charge of a company with low staff morale and rising investor angst. He told Reuters in May his target is to reduce Cenovus's balance sheet to 2 times EBITDA. Cenovus' leverage was 2.8 times as of Dec. 31, 2017, according to its latest filing here

“Once the deleveraging is complete, we will consider balancing returning cash to shareholders with investing in growth projects,” he said in the interview with Reuters.

Douglas Kee, chief investment officer at Leon Frazer & Associates, said Cenovus is not expected to increase dividends until later in 2019. He sees a rise of 10 to 15 percent at best. In the first quarter, Cenovus declared a dividend of 5 cents per share representing an annualized yield of about 2 percent.

Investors wiped out about a fifth of the Calgary-based company's market value here when it bought Conocophillips' oil sands assets for C$17 billion last year. Shares are now up about 51.4 percent after plunging to a record low in February.

Analysts on average expect Cenovus to report a second-quarter profit of 3 Canadian cents on revenue of C$5.28 billion on Thursday, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. It reported revenue of C$4.04 billion and earnings of C$2.37 cents per share in the year-ago period.

But its turnaround plans have been complicated by pipeline bottlenecks that are choking oil flow from Canada. A supply crunch of heavy oil from Venezuela has increased demand for Canadian oil sands, but Pourbaix told Reuters that opportunity has been challenged by the pipeline crunch.

Transport bottlenecks, the result of pipelines running at full capacity, have deepened the discount for Canadian oil over U.S. light crude and Cenovus’ differentials per barrel jumped 67 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier.

Pourbaix, who has been negotiating with rail companies about increasing locomotive hauling capacity for oil, said for rail to be competitive costs have to be closer to $10 or $12 a barrel than around $20 currently to get to the U.S. GulfCoast.

He said in May that he expects significant volumes of oil to move via rail out of Alberta over the third and fourth quarters and into the new year, but he declined to give a number.

Pourbaix has also trimmed the company’s middle and upper management and initiated changes to improve employee morale, including “coffee chats” with employees.

The changes seem to have softened investors and two headhunters in Canada said there are fewer Cenovus employees looking for job changes.

“His message that capital allocation is more important and he is cutting costs, cutting jobs, willing to sell more assets I think that has certainly helped,” Laura Lau, portfolio manager at Brompton Group said. ($1 = 1.3150 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee and Laharee Chatterjee in Bengaluru Editing by Susan Thomas)

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