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Hess stock buyback folly

A pedestrian walks past the Hess petroleum terminal in Bogota, New Jersey.
Emile Wamsteker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A pedestrian walks past the Hess petroleum terminal in Bogota, New Jersey.

The Hess folly is one for the ages. The $11 billion U.S. oil explorer is selling shares to shore up capital after cheap crude drove the company to its first unprofitable year. Not long ago, it bought back more than twice as many at double the price amid an insurgency led by Elliott Management, Paul Singer's pushy hedge fund.

A dozy board, inefficient drilling operations and some unneeded businesses made Hess an easy and appropriate target for an activist in 2013. The shares were trading at a big discount to rivals when Elliott disclosed its stake and initiated a proxy fight. Hess soon caved to the demands. It got out of refining, plumped the dividend and bought back $4 billion of stock. It later gave Singer's shop three board seats, sold its gas stations and used the proceeds to repurchase yet more shares.