Schlumberger vs. Halliburton: Is It Still Close?

Calling the oil services industry a huge disappointment in 2012 would be a gross understatement. This is despite the strong bets placed by many industry experts at the beginning of the year. Now that 2013 has arrived, investors are back at the booth placing their wagers on better improvement.

Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) is one of the names on which many have begun to lay their money. The stock is up almost 10% during the past three months and while this company is far from a sure thing, Schlumberger is the best in the sector. But this distinction was not enough to overcome pricing weakness and soft demand in North America.

Schlumberger has had to rely on international business to offset a host of North American struggles, including an excess of pressure pumping equipment, all of which contributed to a subpar third-quarter report. Then, in December, the company sent a note to investors advising that earnings could be adversely affected by as much as $0.07 per share due to prolonged contractual delays in the Europe/CIS/Africa area.

Essentially, the Street was prepared for the worst. But with revenue advancing 5% sequentially, Schlumberger managed to post results that were "less bad" than expected. Oil service revenue arrived at $11.17 billion -- growing 8% year over year. Granted, this is far from breathtaking. But it was enough to beat Street estimates of $10.82.

Plus Schlumberger's results created a bit more separation from chief rival Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) . Then again, Halliburton also deserves its share of credit. Despite low expectations, the company beat Street projections on both top and bottom lines by posting $7.3 billion in revenue and earning $0.67 per share.

Nonetheless, there is a noticeable difference in performance when comparing these two companies. For instance, not only did Schlumberger advanced revenue roughly 2% more sequentially than Halliburton, but it was almost 6% more year over year. Does this mean that Schlumberger is executing better? It's hard to argue against it. Does it also mean that Schlumberger is gaining market share? If so, how much does it matter?

Although it appears that Halliburton is lagging behind, the company is nonetheless posting record revenue results. This is despite the lower rate of growth. Essentially, yes, Schlumberger is doing well. In fact, I will go far to say that it's doing better, by comparison. But Schlumberger is not necessarily winning more business over Halliburton. The playing field or, in this case, the oil field is leveled in terms of profits. In this sector, the bottom line is critical.

Schlumberger posted net income of $1.08 per share, topping Street estimates by one penny. Although operating income grew 1% sequentially, it arrived flat year over year. Plus, income from continuing operations was not that exciting. Not only did it arrive flat sequentially, but it represented a 3% decline year over year.

Meanwhile, although Halliburton didn't fare any better on the bottom line, the company still posted net income of $981 million. This means it was enough to advance sequentially by 3% and arrived flat year over year. So, from that standpoint, although Schlumberger is winning on the top line, Halliburton is outperforming on the bottom line. But this does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other. The race is clearly too close to call.

However, that's not so when Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) is pulled into the mix. While this company has always had strong potential, it was affected much worse by the weak demand in North America. And, unfortunately, Baker Hughes didn't have the strong international exposure to help offset the tough demand conditions. Consequently, the company recently missed recent EPS estimates by $0.13.

Plus, although Baker Hughes beat on the top line by posting $5.55 billion, it represented a year-over-year decline of 3%. But it wasn't all bad. Amid an obviously brutal quarter, the company was able to post a modest 2% increase in international rig count. Plus, investors should be encouraged that it was able to grow international revenues by 11%. But Baker Hughes is still a bit far behind Halliburton and several oil fields away from Schlumberger.

Plus, that both Schlumberger and Halliburton advanced revenue in Q4 is certainly encouraging. But they both underperformed on the bottom line. Ordinarily, this wouldn't offer a compelling reason to own either stock since this industry is about growing EBITDA, but the sector can't lag forever. From that standpoint, Schlumberger wins. And if the latter can trade at 10 times forward EBITDA, this stock can offer a 12.5% premium from current levels. This would suggest a price target of around $90 per share. I think it's worth a gamble.

Domestic oil & gas service companies have taken a hit in the recent past due to a slowdown in the natural gas drilling boom of the last couple of years. As this market looks to rebound, investors would be wise to consider Halliburton, one of the top companies in the business and one of those most in tune with the domestic market. To access The Motley Fool's new premium research report on this industry stalwart, simply click here now and learn everything you need to know about how Halliburton is positioning itself both at home and abroad.

 


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