Hess Hits New One-Year High On $2.1B Russia Sale

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Hess ( HES) hit a new one-year high on Monday after the energy giant said it sold a Russian subsidiary to OAO Lukoil ( LUKOY) for $2.1 billion.

The move comes amid a breakup plan pitched by the New York-based driller and opposition to the company's efforts from activist investors Elliott Management and Relational Investors, which argue the company still isn't going far enough in unlocking the value of its assets and restructuring its oft-criticized Board of Directors.

While some recent asset sales may have underwhelmed investors and Wall Street analysts, Hess's Monday deal was received strongly, as shares gained over 2% to a new one-year high of $73.87 in early afternoon trading.

Hess shares have gained nearly 40% year-to-date as the company works to sell terminal, refining and non-core energy assets and become more focused on drilling assets in promising U.S.-based shale basins.

Hess will be selling 100% of its Russian subsidiary Samara-Nafta to OAO Lukoil, in a deal the company says will garner after-tax proceeds of $1.8 billion. Samara-Nafta is currently producing 50,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the Volga-Urals region of Russia, Hess said in a press release announcing the deal.

"As the sale of Samara-Nafta indicates, we are making excellent progress in executing our asset sales program, which is a central component of our plan to transform Hess into a more focused, higher growth, lower risk pure play exploration and production company," John B. Hess, Hess Chairman and CEO, said in a Monday statement.

In March, Hess said it sold a 4,300-acre Eagle Ford Shale oilfield to Sanchez Energy ( SN) for $265 million, in a deal that fetched about a third of the value that more optimistic analyst had forecast when the New York-based driller put the assets up for sale in 2012.

According to Hess, the company has raised $3.4 billion in announced or completed deals to sell interests in the Beryl field in the U.K. North Sea, the Eagle Ford play in Texas, and the Azeri, Chirag and Guneshli fields in Azerbaijan.

" By applying the proceeds from these divestitures to reduce debt and strengthen our balance sheet, Hess will have the financial flexibility both to fund its future growth and also to direct most of the proceeds from additional asset sales to returning capital directly to its shareholders," CEO Hess added in the Monday statement.

Asset sales come at a crucial time for Hess, which is embarking on an ambitious strategy to spin off its refining and marketing businesses and become a pure-play oil and gas driller with a leading position in promising shales like the Bakken.

Still, as Hess continues a sharp 2013 share price rise on optimism that it may be prodded into unlocking the full value of the company, management continues to face scrutiny from large investors.

Hess's proposed split off of downstream businesses, its recent announcement of a $4 billion share repurchase plan and a previous planned sale of its East Coast terminal network come just as activist hedge funds Elliott Management and Relational Investors take large positions in the driller and seek board seats.

Unimpressed by the details of Hess's decision to deconsolidate its integrated energy empire, Elliott and Relational are pressing their own slate of directors to counter the company's proposed board reconstitution, which will add directors with experience at TNK-BP Russia and Royal Dutch Shell and lead to a board of 13 of 14 independent members.

Given a strong reaction to Hess's international asset sales and indications of weakness in U.S. divestitures, the company's mixed results may also underscore challenges that the drilling industry faces in trying to fetch top dollar for non-core shale acreage, amid balance sheet repair and asset rationalization across the industry.

Such risks are present not just for Hess, but other notable activist investments in the sector such as Chesapeake Energy ( CHK) and Sandridge Energy ( SD).

Chesapeake Energy, which has welcomed Icahn to the company's board, recently announced an underwhelming $1 billion pricetag to a long-running sale of its Mississippi Lime joint venture. The Oklahoma City-based driller is also looking to divest non-core Eagle Ford Shale assets similar to those of Hess.

"It seems like acreage that is on the market is taking longer to sell," Phil Weiss, an energy analyst with Argus Research, said in a march March interview about recent Hess and Chesapeake Energy asset sales.

"It at least makes me wonder if there is hesitancy on the part of acquirers because of the spending required to hold acreage."

Tudor, Pickering, Holt analysts had forecast Hess could fetch as much as $820 million for its Eagle Ford assets. The firm saw reason to temper expectations of Eagle Ford sales by Chesapeake Energy from $1.25 billion to $600 million, after Hess's March 19 disclosure

While Hess may find its underwhelming Eagle Ford Shale deal a one-off headache amid a battle with hard-charging activist investors, the potential for similar results at Chesapeake Energy could be an issue.

Currently, Chesapeake Energy faces a $3 billion funding gap for 2013 even after recent deals, meaning the company may need to sell more valuable cash generating acreage, according to Tim Rezvan of Sterne Agee. The analyst cut his rating on Chesapeake Energy to 'underperform' on Mar. 19 citing the prospect other non-core asset sales fail to deliver to management's guidance.

Chesapeake recently indicated it expects to sell $4 billion in assets in 2013 to meet its projected funding gap -- capital expenditures versus cash flows -- indicating any proceeds beyond that amount could be used to pay down the company's $12.8 billion in debt as of 2012.

The acreage up for sale includes the Eagle Ford Shale, the Marcellus Shale, the Utica Shale and assets in Wyoming and Michigan.

Hess may be pressured by activists to begin executing divestitures as activists circle, however, it doesn't face the funding gap or financial pressure of Chesapeake.

In its deconsolidation plan, Hess has put assets up for sale stretching from oilfields in Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia, to a refinery network in the U.S., which Tudor Pickering Holt forecasts could raise over $6 billion in total proceeds.

With proceeds from asset sales and a reduction in overall expense, Hess appears to be ready for a more aggressive drilling program that could increase the company's oil and gas production growth rate in coming years.

The company now targets a five-year production growth rate of 5% to 8%, and forecasts 'mid-teens' production growth between 2012 and 2014.

Shareholders also will see an immediate payout as Hess executes the multi-year plan to focus exclusively on oil exploration and production.

Hess on Mar. 4 said that its annual dividend will increase to $1 a share beginning in the third quarter. The company also said it had authorized up to $4 billion in share buybacks tied to the timing of asset sales.

Selling shareholders on the spinoff plan, a focus on core exploration and production businesses and increasing shareholder payouts will be crucial, given Elliott Management and Relational Investors' opposition.

Other energy sector giants such as Transocean ( RIG), Nabors Industries ( NBR) and Murphy Oil ( MUR) face the heat of investors ranging Carl Icahn to Pamplona Capital and Third Point's Dan Loeb.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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