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Oil services firms face end-2016 order vacuum as clients axe projects

Peter Rose's problem of uncertainty is typical for the oil and gas services industry at the moment. New orders have dried up and he has no idea how profitable his firm will be next year and beyond.

[LONDON] Peter Rose's problem of uncertainty is typical for the oil and gas services industry at the moment. New orders have dried up and he has no idea how profitable his firm will be next year and beyond.

The outlook for companies such as Hunting, where Rose is finance director, seems grim as clients in the energy industry have already cancelled US$200 billion in investments due to weak oil prices, and more cuts are likely.

There are exceptions among the businesses that supply oil and gas projects with anything from anti-corrosion paint to computer software that simulates pipeline installation.

Those active in areas where oil and gas can be extracted cheaply are doing better, while diversified groups with strong finances are trying to snap up weaker rivals.

But benchmark crude is back below US$50 a barrel after rallying in the spring, and prices above US$100 - as they were until mid-2014 - are a distant memory. The energy producers are therefore saving hard by cutting or cancelling projects, hurting their suppliers who rely heavily on plentiful order books.

This makes financial planning difficult, if not impossible, for services firms like Hunting, a British-based group founded in 1874. Rose may exaggerate to make his point, but the problem is clear.

"I haven't got an order book. We don't know if revenue will continue at the current rate or whether it will decline," he told Reuters last month. "What is Hunting going to deliver in terms of profitability? I haven't got a clue."

European oil and gas services companies performed relatively strongly in the first six months of 2015 as they worked through the backlog of existing orders. But delivering these results, they also warned of tough times ahead.

Their typically well-fed project pipelines are running thin towards the end of next year, with little sign they will be replenished quickly.

"The backlogs of oil service companies tend to look light in aggregate for second half 2016 due to the time lag of installation work start-up from project sanction and award," said Rohan Murphy, energy equities analyst at Allianz Global Investors. "I am concerned by this threat."

The FTSE All Share Oil Equipment and Services index has fallen 14.4 per cent since early May, when crude prices started slipping again after the brief upturn, and analysts expect many of the stocks to fall further as they factor in the full impact of the project void.

In a worst-case scenario where oil prices don't recover until 2017 and energy companies reduce spending further, analysts at Canaccord Genuity said the five most affected companies would jointly need as much as US$7 billion in capital to stay in business. They named these as Italy's Saipem, Swiss Transocean and France's CGG, plus Seadrill and Subsea 7 of Norway.

Oil prices are widely predicted to stay weak for longer than previously expected, with many banks including Goldman Sachs, Barclays and UBS slashing their 2016 forecasts.

Therefore, further capital expenditure cuts among oil and gas developers are likely. The exception is the Middle East and Asia where crude is cheaper to produce and new projects therefore depend less on high prices. Suppliers with a strong presence there are better placed.

The division of Amec Foster Wheeler that includes the Middle East, for example, grew six per cent in the first half of the year. Chief executive Samir Brikho told Reuters that he expects revenue to continue growing in 2016 and 2017.

Those which offer more diversified products and have a stronger financial backbone can hunt for opportunistic deals.

Oilfield services provider Halliburton has made an offer to swallow rival Baker Hughes for US$35 billion, while Schlumberger has weighed in on equipment maker Cameron International in a US$14.8 billion deal.

Firms which specialise in one part of the services market, such as offshore drilling, are in a more difficult situation.

Credit rating agency Moody's said it expected virtually all oil and gas drilling companies to see "significant credit erosion" if conditions remain weak. The agency recently placed as many as 11 offshore drillers on review for downgrade.

In such a cut-throat environment, the services companies are accepting heavy discounts for the few deals they can secure as customers have the upper hand at the negotiating table.

North Sea oil producer Enquest, which hires services firms, said it had negotiated discounts of up to 50 per cent on some contracts, while the industry consensus on new rates is around 20 per cent below previous years.

"We give our contractors all notice that we're going to fire them. So we sit with them and say: 'Do you want to negotiate or do you want to bid things out?'," Enquest chief executive Amjad Bseisu told Reuters.

Stuck in a weak bargaining position, the services companies also have to take on a higher share of project risks which oil producers are increasingly unwilling to shoulder themselves.

"We are able to be selective and in different circumstances to transfer a bit of risk to the service side," said Tony Durrant, chief executive of North Sea oil producer Premier Oil .

Rig providers, for example, now charge lower rates for days when their equipment is not used due to poor weather, a risk that lay previously with the client. "When rigs are very short they are quite happy to use their negotiating power. It's a balance," said Durrant.