Baker Hughes Butchers a Quarter

I hope this doesn't become an exercise in trite aphorisms. One of my wife's favorites is the basic and well-known, "If you snooze, you lose." That one doesn't need any explanation. But I hope you'll excuse me if I offer that a good expression for those in Baker Hughes' (NYSE: BHI  ) headquarters might be something like "If you miss, you get dissed."

OK, I won't do that to you again. I will note, however, that Baker Hughes did miss expectations rather severely when it released its results for the quarter ended Dec. 31 on Wednesday. With earnings of $1.02 per share, the results represented a 36% improvement over the $0.75 recorded in the final quarter of 2005. And what's worse for at least the short-term performance of the company's stock, analysts had anticipated earnings of $1.19. The quarter included a $46 million pre-tax ($0.12 per share) estimated charge to resolve an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the energy services company's business in Angola, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria.

On a sequential basis, or compared with the preceding quarter -- often a reasonable approach with energy-related companies -- Baker Hughes' per-share earnings declined more than 6% from the $1.09 for the quarter ended in September. And as a coup de grace for the stock, which opened down more than 8%, management's guidance for current-quarter per-share earnings is in the $1.08 to $1.10 range, versus expectations of about $1.20. Finally, because of uncertainty about future results for the company's business in North America, management chose not to provide guidance for full-year 2007 earnings.

To some extent, following Baker Hughes today is an exercise in geography. The company, which helps oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , and BP (NYSE: BP  ) , along with smaller independents, with their production efforts worldwide, has initiated a "west to east" strategy. With this it foresees something of a softening of energy production activity in and around North America, and a consequent need to move its business to other producing horizons, including Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. As a result, the company added about 5,500 employees worldwide in 2006 alone, with an attendant need for training that ate into the bottom line.

Before proceeding further, I must make two confessions to Fools: I own shares in Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) , and I once followed the energy services industry (including Baker Hughes) as an analyst. And while I continue to consider energy services to be an area where significant investment profits can be made for years to come, right now I would be on the sidelines with regard to Baker Hughes. After all, if the company's management is uncertain enough about North America to avoid providing a 2007 earnings range, I'll not be too sheepish about allowing that management team to improve its vision before I invest in the company.

In the meantime, I also continue to believe that Schlumberger -- with its size, its worldwide representation that includes a lower percentage of its business generated in North America, its participation in the seismic arena, and its superb management -- is an excellent proxy for the energy services sector.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith owns shares in Schlumberger, but not in the other companies mentioned. He welcomes your comments or questions.


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