NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The recent deal signed by BP ( BP) with Russia's Rosneft was seen as a signal that it was finally back to business as usual for the British oil giant, and that the six-month distraction of the oil spill had finally cleared, but it might be next week's earnings report from the oil company that delivers the more important news to investors in the form of a reinstated dividend.

News related to the BP dividend, suspended since the oil spill, and on its ongoing liabilities from the oil spill, will not surprisingly be marquee items in next week's BP earnings.

BP shares are up 5% year-to-date, and have near doubled since the oil spill low share price of $26.

The rise in BP shares has been sharp enough that Collins Stewart this week downgraded BP shares to a hold, citing valuation.

Big oil companies have been reporting strong fourth quarter numbers, buoyed by the price of oil. Most major oil companies are now trading at or near 52-week highs, and energy stock bullishness experienced a huge day on Wednesday.

While the ultra-bull view at the end of 2010 that $100 crude was just the starting point for a major move up in the new year has turned out to be at least a little hasty -- crude had six straight losing sessions in a row before Wednesday's big day -- even if crude stays between a range of $80 and $100 it's a comfort zone for the energy stocks. Critics of the most optimistic crude forecast worry that an ever-higher price in oil would actually clamp down on the economic recovery anyway.

If ever-rising crude might not propel oil companies to ever-higher 52-week share prices in the near-term, and improvements in the refining business are already embedded in shares, for BP in particular, a little more pop in shares could depend on the level of a dividend reinstatement and no surprises regarding the Gulf of Mexico liability when earnings are released on Tuesday, at 2 a.m. ET.

BP already provided one surprise this week, when a group of Russian oligarchs filed a court injunction to stop the just-signed deal between BP and Rosneft.

BP shares were down sharply in London early on Thursday due to the news, but were down by 1% at the close in London, and less in U.S. trading in the afternoon.

BP is widely expected to announce that the dividend will be reinstated. A Reuters poll of analysts pegs the dividend reinstatement at half of the former level -- roughly 42 cents for American depository receipt shares, versus a previous dividend of 84 cents.

Keep in mind that BP's former dividend was rich on a relative basis to its peer group, too. Fadel Gheit, analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. noted in an email to TheStreet that BP will probably announce next week a new dividend in line with other European oil companies on a yield basis of about 4%, roughly half the rate before the oil spill, or in the neighborhood of 40 cents.

Phil Weiss, analyst at Argus Research, agrees, modeling a 42-cent-per-ADR dividend policy.

Oppenheimer's Gheit said that any dividend a few cents above or below the 40 cent level won't move BP shares.

It's a dividend whisper number, and it means that if BP falls short of the 40 cent to 42 cent dividend expectation in a major way, or if it exceeds that estimate in a new dividend policy, BP shares will be poised to react either lower or higher.

Argus' Weiss wrote in an email to TheStreet that the dividend policy is being teed up as probably the biggest earnings catalyst, though he cautioned that at times even basket-trading sectors like energy can see stocks move more on company-specific earnings items.

Case in point: the oil service stocks. They all reported earnings beats in the past five days and were all trading near 52-week high levels, but the reaction from the market has not been consistent across shares.

Baker Hughes ( BHI) is up 11% in the past five days based on much better margins -- and relatively low expectations. Halliburton ( HAL) is up 8% since its earnings, and trades at the lowest multiple in the group, at 14 times earnings. While Schlumberger, which trades at the highest multiple in the group and saw a tax rate increase that could impact earnings by 15 cents to 20 cents a year, according to Argus Research, is down since reporting its earnings beat last Friday.

There has also been chatter that maybe liabilities were not as bad as they at first seemed in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. When Obama administration oil spill claims chief Kenneth Feinberg said he might not even need more than half of the $20 billion set aside by BP to cover claims, it was read by some as a sign of optimism about potential liabilities.

It wasn't read that way by Argus Research's Weiss, though. "My sense is that some chose not to use the fund because of some of the associated limitations. You cap what you can get by using the fund." This view isn't based on, but is in line with the anti-claim fund rhetoric that the government and BP were more or less trying to rush claimants into giving up a much bigger court payday.

In any event, the Argus analyst remains more attuned to any potential negative surprises from BP in regards to ongoing liabilities than a significantly changed-for-the-better oil spill outlook.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.


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