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I'm not certain how many times since I've been in and around the energy industry I've watched current trends extrapolated ad infinitum, only to see them do a 180-degree pirouette in the blink of an eye. So it may very well be with the effects of our current U.S. gas glut on the four biggest oilfield service providers, Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) , Halliburton (NYSE: HAL ) , Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI ) and Weatherford (NYSE: WFT ) .
Think about it. It was about as recently as the births of today's kindergarteners that those within and outside the natural gas industry had nary a doubt that our country was using the last of its rapidly dwindling gas supplies. But since that time, producers have unleashed a technologically improved hydraulic fracturing process, and we now know that we're sitting atop more domestic natural gas than we'll be able to use before those same kindergarteners' great-grandchildren receive their own retirement watches.
Not so great expectations
Oh sure, Halliburton reported its quarterly results on Wednesday, and they were disappointing, if not surprising. With the number of natural gas rigs employed in the U.S. sliding by 18% year-on-year, and given the resulting surfeit of fracking equipment among the service providers, the pricing advantages have moved to the producers. Largely as a result, Halliburton's earnings fell nearly 12% from the same quarter of 2011.
Similarly, the analysts who follow the group have recently been girding for less spectacular results than they earlier anticipated for Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, both of which will check in with their results on Friday. Both companies have seen expectations for their performances fall. In Schlumberger's case, the per-share consensus has dipped from $1.10 per share to $1.06 in the past month. Those figures compare to $0.98 a share a year ago, so either way the company has hardly fallen on its face.
In Baker Hughes' case, the prognosticators have rethought their estimates to an $0.84 consensus. That compares to a perceived target of $0.89 a month ago, and to $1.18 per share for the third quarter of 2011. Baker and Halliburton are more susceptible to North American fluctuations than is the more geographically diversified Schlumberger.
Why the softness is temporary
But rather than gnash the only set of choppers I'll ever have over concerns about low gas prices being here to stay, there are factors that I believe will likely render the current gas-related pricing softness a temporary phenomenon for the big services companies:
- We're not the only game in town. Sure, we've shot the proverbial lights out by cranking up a somewhat frenzied fracking scene that has ballooned our domestic reserves significantly. But Poland, Ukraine, and China, among others, aren't sitting on their hands any longer. All are beginning to tap their own shale reserves, and they'll shell out a pretty penny -- or a lovely yuan -- for advice from the U.S.-based experts.
- U.S. LNG production isn't far away, with Cheniere Energy (NYSEMKT: LNG ) focusing on a 2015 start-up for a Sabine Pass processing facility. As we move closer to that date, domestic gas prices will anticipate it and arbitrage their way to higher levels.
- To the legitimate chagrin of the coal industry, cleaner-burning gas is becoming the fuel of choice in a progressively larger number of power facilities. Add to that a slow movement toward increased use of gas as a transportation fuel and heightened demand for natural gas as a petrochemical feedstock, and you've stumbled upon other commodity price supports. That scenario will also result in increased services from Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, et al.
- Somewhat quietly, natural gas prices have nearly doubled since they cavorted near $2.00 in early June. With prices now near $4.00, I'm betting that those producers who have put clamps on their output will soon begin reversing course.
There's lots more that can be said to induce you to pay rapt attention to the information that'll be provided by Schlumberger and Baker Hughes on Friday. Both are technologically superior companies that are at the forefront of the energy scene worldwide. Schlumberger's releases are especially informative, since the company includes insights on its work around the globe. So giving the release a perusal, will bring you up to speed on energy goings on in Kazakhstan, as well as in the Eagle Ford Shale or the Gulf of Mexico.
In the meantime, you needn't wait until Friday's release time to add both Schlumberger and Baker Hughes to your version of My Watchlist. Keeping tabs on the two big service providers will enhance your familiarity with the rapidly changing global energy scene.