Oil majors Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) as well as a slew of energy companies are gushing their best profits in years, yet crude prices are plunging again to levels last seen in November, clouding the outlook for dividends.

Will glimmers of a profit recovery in the troubled energy sector mean a rush to plow money back to shareholders? Or will weakness in oil prices keep shareholder returns muted?

“First and foremost, oil prices need to improve” before the energy sector’s dividends and buybacks return to historical levels, said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at CFRA Research. “Energy earnings are very highly correlated to energy prices. With oil prices at $45 a barrel, it will be very hard for those stocks to perform.”

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