By Marta Nogueira and Simon Webb
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brazil's state-controlled oil company Petrobras <PETR4.SA> will pay its first shareholder dividend in three years if the company turns a profit in 2017, Chief Executive Officer Pedro Parente said on Wednesday.
Parente took the helm of the world's most indebted energy company a year ago and said he is ahead of schedule with an aggressive restructuring plan to cut its $95 billion debt, reduce costs and sell assets.
Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, made a record operating profit in the first quarter and if that continues throughout the year, chances are good that the firm will pay a dividend, Parente told Reuters in an interview in New York.
"We really are keen to start paying dividends as fast as we can," he said. "If at the end of the year I have a profit, we would be more than happy to start paying dividends."
Petrobras' bylaws say that shareholders are entitled to dividends if the company turns a profit, pending approval from the board and considering factors such as cash requirements and investment opportunities. Company executives have in the past said Petrobras is not obliged to pay dividends on its profits.
Rising output in Brazil's prodigious offshore fields is helping Parente turn Petrobras around from its nadir in 2014, when the firm last paid dividends.
Then, investors lost confidence as Petrobras sank into a political and financial maelstrom with the oil price fall reducing its revenues, a corruption scandal swamping the company and losses mounting due to government fuel subsidies.
Ratings firms downgraded Petrobras' creditworthiness, landing the firm with a huge interest bill to service its debt, which then stood at around $130 billion, accumulated to finance development of massive reserves in Brazil's deep Atlantic waters.
Parente says he was hopeful about hitting his key metric to reduce leverage by the end of this year - a full year ahead of schedule.
"It is likely we will reach that target ... before 2018. I hope, but I don't know." he said.
He is targeting reducing Petrobras' debt to 2.5 times its adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) from 5.1 times EBITDA at the end of 2015. At the end of the first quarter the ratio stood at 3.24.
Even if he hits that target, Parente has no plans to stop reducing debt or to let up on asset sales.
"We're not going to stop our plan... This is not yet a healthy leverage level for Petrobras," he said.
A more appropriate level that would put Petrobras in line with global oil majors would be around 1.5 EBITDA, he said. He has no plans, for now, to make that a new target.
Investors have rewarded Parente for the turnaround. The firm achieved an interest rate of below 5 percent this week on a five-year bond for the first time since the crisis, Parente said. At the worst point, the rate was around 13 percent.
Parente said he would consider serving as chief executive beyond the end of next year if the government that is elected in 2018 wants him to continue in the post. A full cycle of management at the company would be four years, he said.
Petrobras has yet to decide whether it will participate in three government auctions this year for oilfields, he said. If it does, it will be go for deepwater fields, as operating there is Petrobras' strength, he added.
The company will not adjust its five-year capital expenditure plan of $75 billion through 2021 to finance the development of new fields, Parente said, adding that the firm would fund any expansion through cost reductions.
Petrobras will not bid for onshore or shallow water oilfields, he said, and is committed to selling its participation in onshore and shallow water fields as part of a $21 billion divestment plan, he said.
He declined to say how much cash he hoped to raise with field sales.
Rising Brazilian output, both from Petrobras and from international oil firms operating there, has contributed to a strong rise in output from non-OPEC producers this year that is making it hard for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to curb global supply and end a two-year glut.
Petrobras' crude exports rose to 725,000 barrels per day in the first quarter, up 72 percent on the year. The rise came in part because of higher output, but also because a recession in Brazil has hit domestic oil demand. Output stood at 2.182 million bpd, up from 1.980 million bpd from the year earlier.
Parente declined to estimate exports for the full year, but said his target was to ensure the country was a net oil exporter and could keep expensive refined fuel imports to a minimum.
Brazil had no plans to join OPEC and non-OPEC producers in curbing global supply, in part because the country's laws would not permit it, he said.
OPEC meets next week to decided whether to extend output cuts agreed in December, when it joined with top non-OPEC producers such as Russia to reduce global supply in an effort to boost oil prices.
(Writing by Simon Webb; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)