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US oil service companies face tough quarter despite high crude prices


EVEN as crude prices hover near four-year highs, US oilfield service firms' third-quarter results due out in coming days will reflect a shaky recovery, as their customers face drilling constraints and pressure to hold down spending.

Oil producers are holding off finishing new wells, and cost pressures from tight labour markets and US tariffs on imported steel are driving up service firms' costs.

Meanwhile, shale producers including Devon Energy Corp and Oasis Petroleum Inc are doing more work traditionally handled by service companies.

The west Texas drillers that drove the shale revolution have overwhelmed the region's infrastructure, with oil production driving up costs, depressing regional oil prices and slowing the pace of production growth.

"The risk for a number of (oilfield service) firms is to the downside," said Brad Handler, a Jefferies equity analyst in New York who follows the oilfield service sector.

Wall Street is trimming earnings forecasts for oilfield market leaders Schlumberger NV and Halliburton Co, and for pressure pumper Keane Group Inc and sand provider US Silica Holdings Inc. Schlumberger kicks off third-quarter reporting by the sector on Friday.

The cuts are coming despite third-quarter oil prices that are up more than 40 per cent from a year earlier.

Schlumberger is expected to report a profit of 47 US cents a share, up from 39 US cents a share, in the same quarter a year ago, according to Refinitiv. Halliburton's per share profit is expected to be 49 US cents, compared with 42 US cents a year ago.

Weakness in completing wells is worrisome because such services have carried the day for firms still waiting for offshore drilling to pick up.

Completing a well by fracking and tying it to pipelines represents about 60 per cent of onshore well expenditures. With producers holding off completions until new pipelines start up next year, there is less demand for services.

"The market for frac spreads is very soft, below even what we started in 2018," Bill Thomas, chief executive of EOG Resources Inc, told investors at a New York conference last month.

The number of active hydraulic fracturing spreads or fleets in the Permian, the largest oilfield in the US, has fallen to 172 from 192 earlier this year, and such fleets active across the US have dropped to 460 from a peak of 480, according to data provider Primary Vision.

"Lower utilisation and increased completion efficiencies are creating more slack in the system, with pressure pumpers most at risk heading into year-end," Barclays said in a note this month.

Producers' unwillingness to raise spending despite higher oil prices also is taking a toll. Analysts at Barclays estimate that more than 80 per cent of producer upstream budgets will be tapped out soon if third quarter spending was similar to the second quarter's.

Bernstein analysts estimate there could be a 15 per cent further decline in fracking activity, but they expect the market to bottom early next year.

"There is still risk of further declines as we approach winter and roll into the new E&P (exploration and production) budget cycle," Colin Davies, a senior analyst for Bernstein wrote in a note. REUTERS

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