BP Will Remain Independent, Poll Says

Rumors of the death of BP are greatly exaggerated, and the oil giant will remain independent, a new survey of investors finds.
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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- It became official on Sunday -- at least as official as an anonymous senior U.S. government official being briefed by a

BP

official -- that BP CEO Tony Hayward is on his way out the big oil door. Hayward's head has been on the media chopping block for so many weeks now that the debate over when the axe will finally drop is about as scintillating as waiting for the world to end in 2012 ... wait, you didn't know about that?

Still, while Tony Hayward's fate seems as sealed as the leaking Macondo well is -- at least for the time being -- the fate of BP as one of the biggest oil companies in the world is still an unknown. Earnings from BP are on deck this week and it will be the first peek from the company into how large it estimates oil spill liabilities to be. Keep in mind -- especially for those who have become accustomed to anything but frankness from BP -- that while FASB accounting standards require BP to estimate its oil spill liability, the accounting principle leaves the door open to a wide range of mathematical whims.

BP needs to provide a "reasonable" estimate of its oil spill liabilities, but reasonable can include a figure way lower than what the actual oil spill price tag will be for BP, and its shareholders. The lowest possible liability math is as "reasonable" as the highest.

BP went out of its way in the last week, ahead of its earnings, to show the markets that it is on top of the liability issue, raising $7 billion in a sale of assets in North America and Egypt to

Apache

, and announcing that it had notified the governments of Vietnam and Pakistan of plans to sell assets in these countries worth an estimated $1.7 billion. The Apache deal, combined with the Vietnam and Pakistan assets, would get near the $10 billion that BP said it hoped to raise as part of cash generation for oil-spill liabilities.

Yet it's still a guessing game as to what the final BP price tag will be. Some think it's to be $20 billion or less, while some analysts and environmental economists think BP's oil spill price tag could easily reach $60 billion to $90 billion. The middle ground opinion is $40 billion, and that's why the

Credit

estimate of $37 billion has become the most-quoted oil-spill price tag in the media.

As BP finally made the first of its expected asset sales last week, and had its first success capping the leaking Macondo well, we asked readers of

TheStreet

the question that does away with the math and gets to the heart of the issue about the future of BP, and that places Tony Hayward where he deserves to be as an oil spill issue -- on the sidelines. We asked,

If BP has finally taken control of the leaking Macondo oil well, will the big M&A action finally come into focus, or fade away?

The response from readers suggests overwhelmingly that whatever your opinion of Tony Hayward's future role at BP, people don't believe that BP won't survive the oil spill.

The rumors of BP's death have, accoring to the investors who answered our poll, been greatly exaggerated. Roughly 72% of survey respondents think that BP will survive as an independent company.

In a striking finding, only 6% of survey respondents think BP will go bankrupt. This might be an indication that estimates as high as $90 billion for BP liabilities just aren't believed, or that readers believe the U.S. government will never allow BP to take the cowardly route of bankruptcy as a way to shield itself from liabilities. On the other hand, it could represent the hope of current BP shareholders that in the worst-case scenario, the company is not allowed to use the bankruptcy courts as a way to weasel out of opening up its check book to anything other than Tony Hayward's golden parachute.

When it comes to the endless stream of M&A speculation in the press about who will acquire BP, more than twice as many survey respondents think it will be one of the integrated oil giants, and not, as feared by many politically minded rumor-mongerers, the Chinese state-run oil companies.

Approximately 14% of survey takers think that a U.S. or European competitor will take over BP. This list isn't long. Read:

Exxon Mobil

,

Chevron

,

ConocoPhillips

or

Royal Dutch Shell

.

Only 8% of readers believe the Chinese state-run oil entities -- who have made various comments to the press about their willingness to help BP through this crisis -- will end up acquiring BP. And skepticism about this outcome seems well-placed, as allowing the Chinese to take over BP as a result of the oil spill seems as if it could be untenable as a U.S. or U.K. political issue.

Petrochina

has its own oil spill to deal with at the moment anyway.

So as of Sunday and the latest anonymous reports in the press, BP CEO Tony Hayward is soon to be a former member of the BP corner office. But at least, according to this poll, the BP corner office is not relocating to China, bankruptcy court or Exxon Mobil headquarters.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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