A Driller Undeterred

Noble (NYSE: NE  ) fittingly leads the offshore-driller earnings cortege this quarter. Even after its king abdicated, the company continues to prove itself worthy of the people's admiration.

Things are looking good all around. Noble mustered a 68% contract drilling margin in the quarter, reaching Ensco International (NYSE: ESV  ) and Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO  ) territory. Contracts continue to reprice higher, as seen in the 43% lift in dayrates over last year and the 10% sequential increase.

Jackups, the rigs that operate in shallow water, have been belittled lately; consider them the jack to the semisubmersible's king, if you will. But Noble's fleet of jackups, exclusively working outside the crowded Gulf of Mexico market, are performing admirably. Utilization is off just a hair at 95%, but dayrates have jumped 60% since last year. This jump even beats the fleetwide rate rise.

In its earnings call, management reported feeling "a lot of comfort" in the international jackup market, but analysts remain skittish. Some of that comes from Chevron's (NYSE: CVX  ) exercise of an early termination right in Nigeria; Noble reassures us that this had more to do with a payment issue with Chevron's partner.

Other worries surround the Indian market, where indigenous entrants are undercutting the international players' bids. That's certainly a short-term challenge, but I don't consider it a game-changer. Domestic drillers haven't particularly hurt Noble in Mexico or Brazil, and they won't keep it out of India, either.

In short, Noble is chugging along quite nicely, despite a shakeup in the executive suite and the ongoing foreign corruption investigation. The company has reinforced my belief in the continued strength of the offshore market, and I look forward to reporting different viewpoints as we hear from the likes of Rowan Industries (NYSE: RDC  ) and Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) in the weeks ahead.


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