What Is Schlumberger Preparing to Tell Us?

On Friday, oil-field services giants Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) , one of its largest peers, will kick off earnings season for their sector. Unless the 34 analysts who follow the bigger company are proverbially out in left field, its results are anticipated to be about flat year over year.

As things now stand, the consensus expectation for the quarter has per-share earnings coming in at about $0.99, just a penny higher than the equivalent figure for the first quarter of 2012. Revenues for the quarter are anticipated to reach about $10.75 billion, up from $10.61 billion for the comparable quarter a year ago.

For the sake of sequential comparisons, in the December quarter, Schlumberger's adjusted per-share figure came in at $1.08, again a penny higher than the consensus expectation. Revenues for the quarter were $11.17 for last year's final quarter. It's important to note, however, that the last quarter of each year tends to be buoyed at Schlumberger by operators' last-minute purchases of multi-client seismic data.

The reasons for flatness
Results for the first quarter of 2013 will likely be affected positively to the tune of about $0.02 per share by the company's having reached a new compensation agreement with PDVSA, Venezuela's state-controlled oil and gas firm. In a statement immediately following the close of the quarter, Schlumberger management said that receipts from the energy-rich country "have improved to the point we will recognize all revenue" from the first quarter. The company had been experiencing difficulty obtaining timely payments for its services from PDVSA.

In an effort to focus on causal factors that might suppress results for the quarter, the most logical expectation is that – as has been the case for several recent periods – weak North American natural gas drilling stands out as the major culprit. While Schlumberger's relative exposure to North America is less pronounced than that of, say, Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) , the second-largest member of the services contingent, it nevertheless has sufficient exposure on our continent to be of consequence. In addition, it's probable that downtime for rig maintenance in the Gulf of Mexico also played a part in Schlumberger's inability to keep pace with last year's 14% revenue gains.

A superior lowdown
As with no other company, Schlumberger provides a clear and usable look at global operational, economic, and geopolitical conditions for the industry. That approach renders attention to the company's release and subsequent conference call worthwhile even for those with little interest in the company as a potential investment. There's no reason to anticipate that CEO Paul Kibsgaard and his team will fall short of that standard on Friday.

A rundown on achievements
Among the specific subjects almost certain to be elaborated on the post-release call will be Schlumberger's attractive new deal in the red-hot Eagle Ford play of south Texas. Under the terms of an agreement with Forest Oil (NYSE: FST  ) , wherein the two companies will develop 27,000 acres in the play, Schlumberger will pay $90 million in "drilling carry."

In essence, those funds will finance Forest's drilling expenses. In exchange, Schlumberger will receive a half interest in Forest Oil's Eagle ford acreage. One observer has calculated the value of the agreement at $3,300 per acre for Schlumberger, vastly lower than the going rate in excess of $20,000 per acre for recent Eagle Ford deals.

At the same time, we'll likely be informed that Schlumberger's WesterGeco seismic unit has initiated the acquisition of its Ice Bear 2 multi-client 3D survey in the western Barents Sea. That body of water lies in the Arctic, north of Norway and Russia. The area being surveyed in Ice Bear 2 is north of the prior Havis and Skrugard discoveries.

A Foolish takeaway
It's reasonable to anticipate that Friday could be the most significant single day during earnings season for the energy sector. I suggest that energy-investing Fools listen in to Schlumberger's conference call, if only for their own edification on conditions in the worldwide quest for oil and gas.

Another oil-field services company worthy of your attention is National Oilwell Varco. The company is perhaps the safest investment in the energy sector due to its industry-dominating market share. This company is poised to profit in a big way; its customers are both increasing the number of new drilling rigs and updating aging fleets of offshore rigs. To help determine if it could be a good fit for your portfolio, you're invited to check out The Motley Fool's premium research report featuring in-depth analysis on whether NOV is a buy today. For instant access to this valuable investor's resource, simply click here now to claim your copy.


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