BP shares fall further as Fitch slashes rating close to junk

LONDON (AFP) – BP shares dived again on Tuesday after international ratings agency Fitch slashed the troubled energy giant's rating close to junk, owing to soaring costs from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The share price sank 3.78 percent to close at 342 pence after Fitch cut BP's rating by six notches from AA to BBB, which is the agency's lowest investment grade. The wider London market finished 0.30 percent higher.

The company's stock had already plunged by as much as ten percent in intra-day trade on Monday, as investors fretted over spiralling costs and the future of the group's shareholder dividend.

"BP continues to remain under pressure after Fitch downgraded its debt six notches from AA to BBB, two notches above junk status," said CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson.

"With US President (Barack) Obama scheduled to address the US nation this evening about the oil spill, the fear is, that in an attempt to boost his ratings he will indulge in further BP bashing, to show that he is control of the situation, and thus increase the pressure on the share price ahead of his meeting with the BP chairman tomorrow."

The Fitch downgrade will increase the cost of BP's borrowing as investors demand higher returns for taking greater risk.

Obama was on Tuesday visiting Florida, one of the four southern states bearing the brunt of the devastating eight-week spill, before his debut Oval Office speech in a prime time 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) address to the nation.

The president has summoned BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to the White House for talks on the crisis on Wednesday, expected also to be attended by BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

Fitch, meanwhile, blamed the ratings downgrade on rising estimates for the size of the oil spill and US political calls for it to place up to 20 billion dollars (16.2 billion euros) in an escrow account to fund any damages claims.

Fitch added in a statement that BP's estimated costs for dealing with the oil spill had soared to between 3.0-6.0 billion dollars, which was higher than the ratings agency's estimate of 2.0-3.0 billion dollars.

And the agency also warned that fines from the incident could be as high as 8.0 billion dollars.

"The scale of today's rating action has been partly driven by the increased risk that the balance between long-term and near-term cost payments may now be skewed much more heavily towards the near-term than previously anticipated by Fitch," Fitch said.

The oil spill has already cost BP some 1.6 billion dollars since the Deepwater Horizon rig it leased sank on April 22.

"The principal changes in circumstances ... include the indication late last week from US government scientists of a significantly higher spill rate than previously announced by all parties, which Fitch expects will materially increase BP's exposure to Justice Department fines," Fitch added.

It also noted that there was a "significant step-up in action from the US government surrounding calls for pre-emptive escrowing of damage claims."

"Both of these events have a direct bearing on BP's fundamental financial flexibility."

Fitch also cast doubt over whether BP would press ahead with the group's shareholder dividend.

"Fitch would be surprised if BP did not suspend quarterly cash dividend payments until the operational and financial impact of the incident is clearer," it said.

BP's board of directors had met on Monday to discuss cutting the dividend for the first time since August 1992.

Other news