Whopping dividend puts obscure oil refiner in spotlight

June 12, 2010

Calumet Specialty Products Partners is one of Indianapolis’ lowest-profile public companies. But the oil refiner is generating a lot of buzz these days among investors who scarf up stocks paying rich dividends.

A recent decline in Calumet’s stock price has swelled its dividend yield to a whopping 10.5 percent—higher than all but 30 U.S. companies tracked by Dividend.com.

That’s an alluring figure in this low-interest-rate environment. And investors could enjoy even larger gains if the stock price surges back. The shares now fetch around $17, down 30 percent since late April.

But some investing observers, including Motley Fool columnist Ilan Moscovitz, have been wondering if Calumet is the gusher it appears to be. Moscovitz noted that, while dividend income helps investors smooth out market volatility, the strategy fails if firms run short of cash and have to slash their payouts.

Calumet’s chief operating officer, Jennifer Straumins, went surprisingly far attempting to quell such concerns during the company’s May 5 quarterly conference call.

“At this point in time, I would not be concerned at all about distributions being lowered,” Straumins said.

But the financial underpinnings for the current quarterly dividend—45.5 cents per share—seem less than sturdy. In the first quarter, the payout totaled $16.4 million, slightly more than the company’s cash flow.

Straumins attributed the shortfall partly to seasonal fluctuations in Calumet’s results and expressed confidence the company would generate 1.3 to 1.5 times the amount it needs for distributions in future quarters.

But some analysts say these are volatile times for Calumet, and it’s far from clear how it will perform this year and next.

The company—which has three refineries in Louisiana and also has operations in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas—churns out vehicle and jet fuel, along with solvents, waxes and other specialty petroleum products.

Calumet’s first quarter was dismal because of weak “crack spreads”—the difference between the price of refined products and the price of oil. Though sales rose 17 percent, to $485 million, Calumet plunged into the red. Despite cost-saving production cuts, it lost $13 million compared with a $76 million profit in the same quarter a year earlier.

Crack spreads have since improved, but they march to their own beat and are notoriously hard to project. Because the first-quarter loss caught analysts by surprise, they’re jittery about the second half of the year.

“Visibility into a sustained improvement in … refining margins remains limited and highly sensitive to fluctuations in oil prices, economy-driven demand trends, etc.,” Raymond James analyst Darren Horowitz said in a report.

The good news for investors is that, even if Calumet were to announce a dividend cut, the new yield likely still would be higher than that of the vast majority of dividend-paying companies.

That’s because Calumet is an unusual animal. It’s organized as a publicly traded partnership, a structure popular in the oil and gas industries. Such firms don’t pay corporate income taxes and thus are able to funnel more earnings to investors in the form of rich dividends.

But usually not this rich. So Calumet could be a great opportunity, or it could be trouble. As Dividend.com says on its website, “Watch out for ‘dividend traps’—stocks having a dividend yield of 10 percent and above are usually very risky investments.”

Bye to Bayh

Susan Bayh, who’s taken a lot of grief over the years as a director of Emmis Communications Corp., will be leaving its board if CEO Jeff Smulyan completes his $80 million buyout.

Critics, including an Elkhart money manager, have questioned whether Bayh was truly independent—given that she is a former charitable-giving consultant for the company and that Smulyan is an unabashed political supporter of her husband, Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh.

The planned departure of Susan Bayh, 50, was disclosed in a recent Emmis regulatory filing. She has been on the board since 1994, the year the company went public.•

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