A Thought on Weatherford: Don't Touch It

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Typically, we Motley Fool analysts-slash-writers find it appropriate to lead readers through a company's earnings results and operating trends before arriving at a conclusion about its apparent appropriateness as an investment. For Weatherford International (NYSE: WFT  ) , one of the four biggest companies in the oil-field services group, behind the likes of Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) , I'll make an exception, however: Don't touch it.

You probably realize that the company reported its results on Monday, and held its post-release conference call on Tuesday. In both cases, it told us about its significant accounting and controls ineptitudes. It appears that we'll receive more information from the Swiss company later in the month, information on which I'll be reporting from Missouri. Let's assume until we absolutely know better that the forthcoming information just might be subject to additional revision.

We can tell you a little bit
What we do know is that the company recorded a 13% year-on-year increase in revenue to $3.82 billion, and a pre-tax net income of $191 million. According to its release, the latter number would have been $264 million without the inclusion of $73 million in pre-tax losses. The top line number fell short of analysts' $3.9 billion consensus expectation.

What was the company's bottom line? Too early to tell, since operatives both inside Weatherford and in the form of outside consultants -- presumably in Geneva, Houston, and perhaps other locations -- are attempting to complete the task of figuratively sweeping up a mess.

As you likely know, Weatherford provides a wide range of equipment and services that find uses in the drilling, completion, production, and evaluation of oil and gas wells. It operates around the world, including in the U.S., the Middle East -- notably in Iraq -- Africa, and Russia. Candidly, a friend and former assistant of mine when I was monitoring the oil-field services set once commented that, in the services segment, Weatherford seems to do a little bit of everything. Perhaps that's part of its difficulty.

Not a complete bust
However, lest I lead you to the impression that Weatherford is on its last legs, it's worth noting that, from a revenue-harvesting perspective, the company achieved year-on-year improvements in all its geographic locations. North America was up 7%; the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia group expanded by a more-than-respectable 22%; Europe, the SSA, and Russia precisely equaled North America; and Latin America popped by 30%.

The difficulty is that to facilitate moving top-line numbers growth to the bottom portions of a company's income statement requires professional and dependable accounting systems. While Weatherford management assured us on the company's call that it is making great strides in that direction, the logical question becomes one of, what took you so long?

Yet to come
The material weaknesses that the company and its external auditors have uncovered in its controls over financial reporting, and the errors that have subsequently occurred, has resulted in a need for substantial restatements of prior-periods' results. It appears that those periods will include its fiscal years 2009-2011 and the first quarter of 2012. Especially for the most recent period, the errors "related to the accounting for a percentage of completion contract in Iraq." Perhaps lapsing into "accountingese," those restated results will be filed as soon as is practicable on forms 10-K/A and 10-Q/A.

As was included in Weatherford's earnings release: "... [The] Audit Committee of our Board of Directors concluded, on July 24, 2012, that investors should no longer rely on our previously issued financial statements." Clearly, with Weatherford's shares having plummeted by 16% on Tuesday, investors are taking that counsel to heart.

As for the company's efforts to rejuvenate its accounting and controls, CFO John Briscoe said on the call: "I believe we have the best ... team of external experts and internal staff working on the project around-the-clock and seven days a week. No efforts or resources are being spared to complete the project." Fine, but isn't that a little like closing the barn door once the horse has long since scooted off to distant pastures?

CEO Bernard Duroc-Danner added: "If it isn't apparent to all, let me make it clear. Our forthcoming filings will reflect a review of our books as extraordinarily unusual in its depth as its scope." See my above observations about an escaped equine.

The candid conclusion
More detail could turn this article into an accounting treatise. Suffice it to say that, while Weatherford may well return to the ranks of desirable companies from an investment perspective, to say that I'd urge Fools with an oil-field services bent to concentrate their time and pesos on the likes of Schlumberger, Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) (NYSE: NOV  ) , and National Oilwell Varco (NYSE: NOV  ) would constitute the height of understatement.

Case in point, National Oilwell Varco is perhaps the safest investment in the energy sector due to its industry-leading 60% market share. This company, which is mentioned in this article, is poised to profit in a big way; its customers are both increasing the number of new drilling rigs as well as updating an aging fleet of offshore rigs. To help determine if NOV is a nice fit for your portfolio, check out our premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether NOV is a buy now. Click here to gain access to this premium report.

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