February 25, 2016 / 7:56 AM / 3 years ago

UPDATE 3-Spain's Repsol cuts dividend to keep investment grade

* Repsol cuts dividend by around 20 percent

* Group posts first annual loss as oil price slide bites

* Say steps already taken enough to keep investment grade

* No decision made on selling down Gas Natural stake (Adds CEO comments on investment grade, dividend, Gas Natural)

By Julien Toyer and Jose Elías Rodríguez

MADRID, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Spanish oil company Repsol said on Thursday it would cut its dividend by around 20 percent after posting its first annual loss, aiming to protect its investment grade credit rating after a plunge in oil prices.

Europe’s fifth-biggest oil company, which met ratings agencies this week, also said it had not made any decision to sell down a 30 percent stake in Gas Natural, contradicting a press report, and suggested such a move was not among its priorities.

The group reported a 1.23 billion euro ($1.4 billion) net loss for 2015 as weak oil and gas prices forced it to write down the value of assets.

It said it would pay as a result a complementary dividend of 0.3 euro per share instead of the 0.5 euro previously flagged.

This is in addition to a 0.466 euro payment made in January, making a total payout to shareholders for 2015 of around 0.77 euro per share versus 0.96 euro in the three previous years.

Italy’s ENI became the first oil major to announce a dividend cut last year followed this month by U.S. company Conoco, which slashed its payout for the first time in at least 25 years.

It is the third time in less than six months that Repsol has taken steps to prop up its finances and protect its credit rating. In October, it said it would sell assets worth 6.2 billion euros and cut spending on exploration and production investments by 40 percent over the next four years.

A further drop in oil prices forced the group to go further in January and announce a new cut in capital expenditure to around 4 billion euros in 2016, as well as new asset sales.

“We feel confident that we’ve committed more than enough to keep our investment grade,” Chief Executive Office Josu Jon Imaz told a conference call with analysts.

“We assume that perhaps we will need to take additional measures, we’re ready to do that and we have assets in our hands to go further but we will take reasonable decisions not to destroy value for the company,” he added.

GAS NATURAL

Imaz’s comments were a hint that selling down the stake in Gas Natural is currently not the preferred option.

The stake boosts annual profits by around 450 million euros, generates about 270 million euros of cash from dividends and is seen as a key safety net in bad times.

Denying a report in Expansion newspaper, Imaz said Repsol’s board had not made any decision on cutting the stake.

Shares in Repsol were up 7.13 percent to 9.19 euros at 1215 GMT. They had fallen about 30 percent over the previous three months, against a 15.9 percent decline in the STOXX Europe 600 Oil and Gas index.

Repsol said adjusted net profit for the year, not taking into account the 2.96 billion euros hit from writing down the value of its oil reserves, rose 9 percent to 1.86 billion euros.

It has cut its cash generation break-even point in upstream operations to $40 per barrel from $50 after interest and dividends, which it said was one of the lowest in the industry.

The company also cut its debt by 1.2 billion euros in the fourth quarter to 11.9 billion at the end of 2015, helped by recent asset sales.

Repsol said on Thursday it had sold its British wind power business to China’s SDIC Power and booked a 109 million euro capital gain on the deal.

($1 = 0.9065 euros)

Reporting by Julien Toyer and Jose Elias Rodriguez; Editing by Keith Weir and Mark Potter

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