By Don Miller
A massive slump in oil exploration spending pummeled Schlumberger Ltd. (SLB), the world's largest oilfield services corporation, as profit fell 17% in the fourth quarter. But the company said curtailed spending could be setting the stage for a rebound in oil and gas prices as supplies dwindle.
Schlumberger is pulling back as a collapse in petroleum prices led to a sharp drop in exploration spending by its customers.
Commodity prices have plummeted in recent months, as recessions in some of the world's largest economies dampened demand. Like all oil producers, Schlumberger has been hurt by the plunge in the price of oil, which has fallen from $147 per barrel in July to about $42 per barrel now. The company has also seen its budget for exploration cut by 40%.
Schlumberger reported net profit of $1.15 billion, or 95 cents per share, down from $1.38 billion, or $1.12 per share, although revenue rose nearly 10% to $6.87 billion.
Schlumberger Chief Executive Officer Andrew Gould told investors on a conference call that the company was cutting 5,000 jobs out of 87,000 worldwide, and did not rule out more cuts in the first half of 2009, if necessary.
"It is a good sign that they're coming front and center and acknowledging things have gotten a lot worse," Mark Brown, an analyst at Pritchard Capital Partners in New York, told Bloomberg News. "We had to get this negative news out there."
Schlumberger's results echoed the sentiment of energy analysts who have forecast spending by oil and gas producers would drop by one-fifth or more in 2009 as companies move to conserve cash.
Spending by companies around the world on oil and natural gas exploration will fall to $400 billion in 2009, according to a Dec. 19 report by analysts James Crandell and James West of Barclays Capital Research.
The biggest decline in exploration spending is expected to come in North America, where U.S. spending will fall 26% to $79 billion and Canadian spending will slide 23% to $22 billion, Barclays said. By contrast, capital spending outside North America will fall only 6% to $300 billion.
"At current prices, most of the new categories of hydrocarbon resources are not economic to develop," Gould said in the statement. "We expect 2009 activity to weaken across the board with the most significant declines occurring in North American gas drilling, Russian oil production enhancement and in mature offshore basins."
Russia is part of Schlumberger's largest regional market, which includes Europe and Africa.
In Canada, big producers like EnCana Corp. (ECA), Canadian Natural Resources and Husky Energy Inc. (PINK: HUSKF) have cut 25% to 30% from their capital budgets, according to Gary Leach, president of the Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.
But all those spending cuts may soon lead to a significant rebound in prices, Gould said.
Despite heavy spending by producers to develop new resources in recent years, the supply situation is still depressed and the cuts in investments hitting the industry now will "sow the seeds of strong rebound," Gould said.
That seemed to be reflected in at least one of Schlumberger's units.
Even though it posted a 68% drop in profit and a 25% drop in revenue in the quarter, Schlumberger's WesternGeco seismic business – which measures prospective oil and gas reservoirs – is sitting on a record $1.77 billion order backlog.
And the gloomy earnings report from Schlumberger did nothing to dispel the notion among investors that oil prices will move higher.
"The fact that because this wasn't the quarter that was prophesying the end of the world, it's causing people to rethink their pessimism," Bill Herbert an analyst at Simmons & Co. in Houstonsaid told Bloomberg. Indeed, oil services stocks rebounded in trading Friday.
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