Image source: Getty Images.

The offshore drilling market continues to go from bad to worse. For evidence, we just need to look at Atwood Oceanics' (NYSE:ATW) deepwater fleet, which has been completely idled, with the result that the company has recorded no revenue from those vessels during its fiscal third quarter. The company did, however, partially overcome the problem by driving down costs and buying back a huge slug of its debt at a discount. And that debt buyback resulted in a hefty gain on the extinguishment of debt, which kept its earnings from sinking as deeply as they would have otherwise.

Atwood Oceanics results: The raw numbers

MetricFQ3 2016 ActualsFQ3 2015 ActualsGrowth (YOY)
Revenue $227.8 million $330.6 million (31.1%)
Net income $99.5 million $113 million (11.9%)
EPS $1.53 $1.73 (11.6%)

Data source: Atwood Oceanics, Inc.

What happened with Atwood Oceanics this quarter? 

Atwood Oceanics earnings are holding up thanks to falling costs:

  • Atwood's revenue sank primarily because it had to idle its entire deepwater fleet. As a result, deepwater revenue plunged from $77 million last year, and $59 million last quarter, to zero during the company's fiscal third quarter. Meanwhile, revenue from jackups was basically cut in half because of idled vessels. On a slightly more positive note, revenue from ultra-deepwater drillships rose 4.6%.
  • Falling costs helped keep earnings afloat, with drilling costs plunging nearly 40%. But the company still recorded $10 million in deepwater drilling costs despite the lack of revenue, because it has to pay to idle these vessels.
  • The other thing that kept earnings from taking a deep dive was the huge gain Atwood Oceanics recorded after repurchasing $145.8 million of its senior notes on the open market at an average discount of 34.8%. That move resulted in a gain of $50.5 million, or $0.55 per share, on the retirement of debt.
  • After the quarter's end, the company completed a tender offer and acquired an additional $42 million in debt at a 25% average discount. The company will record another gain on the extinguishment of debt next quarter as a result. So far, the company's debt repurchases have reduced long-term debt from $1.7 billion to $1.4 billion.

What management had to say 

CFO Mark Smith commented on the company's results on its quarterly conference call:

The company generated quarterly revenues of $228 million on 634 operating days, versus $296 million on 779 operating days in the previous quarter. The reduction in revenue is primarily due to the Atwood Falcon completing its contract late in the second quarter, and to the idling of the Atwood Eagle following the assignment of its remaining contract term to the Atwood Osprey. ... One rig incurred several days of downtime for BOP bulk replacement, and the Achiever and Condor were both on 95% standby rate for the month of June.

As Smith made clear, the roll-off and adjustments of rig contracts drove the revenue decline during the quarter. However, these rigs aren't likely to be going back to work anytime soon, and their idleness is expected to weigh on the company's results for the foreseeable future. 

Looking forward 

Right now, Atwood is focusing its attention on marketing just three of its rigs, because these vessels have the best opportunities to be awarded work during the current environment. CEO Robert Saltiel provided the following update on the company's marketing progress:

We're currently progressing additional marketing opportunities to fill the available time in 2017 on the Osprey's schedule. Achieving these important fixtures on the Osprey also bodes well for our prospects to secure work in Australia for the Atwood Eagle. We'd obviously prioritize filling the Osprey schedule ahead of that for the Eagle, so we can now focus on pursuing drilling programs exclusively for the Atwood Eagle that begin in early 2018. Finally, we continue to make good progress on our inaugural contract for the Atwood Admiral in Brazil.

Filling the schedules of these rigs will provide valuable revenue at a time when offshore work is hard to find. Saltiel, meanwhile, ended his prepared remarks on the call reminding investors that the company remains "bullish on the longer-term prospects for offshore drilling, as we know that this downturn will eventually give way to recovery."

He continued: "We plan to be there on the other side with our modern, technically advanced rig fleet and our reputation for operation and safety excellence intact. In the meantime, we will take all steps to ensure that our company is positioned to get through this difficult period."

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.