I've noted on several occasions that one of Schlumberger's (NYSE:SLB) inherent strengths lies in management's unusual ability to cogently spell out both the company's progress and the macro trends that prevail in the global world of energy at any given time. Rarely, however, have I seen that valuable trait on display as was the case last week, when CEO Paal Kibsgaard addressed Howard Weil's energy conference last week.
A three-way gander
Kibsgaard's comments were divided among three themes: the global economy and its effects on the energy sector, Schlumberger's own financial trends, and the more noteworthy growth markets the company is serving. The result was the imparting of information that can benefit Fools investigating most aspects of the energy sector.
The company's still relatively new chief executive first noted that, for four years running, "the global economy has faced continued uncertainty." No surprise there. Nor is it easy to quarrel with the notion that "[t]he Chinese economy is improving with growth having accelerated for several quarters in a row." I suppose I'd feel somewhat better about that statement were Chinese economic metrics more transparent to those of us outside the country.
However, the economist in me tends to blanch at the assertion that the U.S. has posted "relatively encouraging employment data." Sure, our technical unemployment rate is ever-so-slowly trending lower. But add back those individuals who have thrown in the towel and ceased seeking employment, and the quantitative picture becomes radically different.
A repeat of 2012?
Regarding the impact of these basic economic trends on the global demand for oil, Kibsgaard expects the 2013 supply-demand picture to approximate that of the prior year. The delta in demand is likely to be about 1%, or 900,000, with much of the offsetting production growth occurring in North America. "As a result," he predicts, "the oil market is expected to remain tight, and this will continue to support oil prices in the band that we have now seen since 2011."
Natural gas presents a different set of circumstances. For now, demand for LNG has pushed Asian prices close to parity with oil, a trend that Schlumberger believes is likely to continue. In Europe, reduced demand has been offset by that same increased Asian LNG demand, thereby actually boosting European spot prices of late.
From an operating perspective, these still uncertain economic circumstances have induced Schlumberger's customers to seek "much closer partnerships with us," including "more collaborative problem solving utilizing our complementary expertise and further leveraging our wide technology offering, integration capabilities, and global footprint."
A trio of key geographic venues
You're generally familiar with the company's most recent financial results, and its first-quarter report is looming on the horizon, and so I'll move to a quick look at Kibsgaard's assessment of a few of Schlumberger's key markets. Let's examine its status in the Middle East, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa:
- In looking to the Middle East, the CEO focused on Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The kingdom, where Schlumberger first began working in 1941, continues to expand its production efforts, with a rig count that is expected to reach 170 units this year. As is the case with, say, Mexico, Saudi Arabia provides an argument for an oilfield services component in Foolish energy portfolios. Outside services companies are permitted to participate in both countries' exploration and production efforts, while none is permitted into Mexico, and only Chevron (NYSE:CVX) is involved upstream with Saudi Aramco.
Schlumberger's base in Iraq is located in Rumaila, where it is staffed by nearly 1,000 engineers, operators, technical specialists, and petrotechnical experts. That locale is also the site of a BP (NYSE:BP)-led effort to expand production on the country's giant Rumaila field. Schlumberger anticipates generating approximately $600 million in revenue from Iraq this year.
- In Russia, Schlumberger employs about 14,000 people, of whom 96% are Russian nationals. The company is active off Sakhalin Island, in the Caspian Sea, as well as in Timano-Pechora, and Western Siberia. Its state-of-the-art seismic unit is already conducting marine surveys in the Kara Sea, where Rosneft is involved in partnerships with ExxonMobil and Italy's Eni, among others.
- To the energy industry, sub-Saharan Africa largely means Nigeria and Angola, although Schlumberger is active in 18 countries in that portion of the continent, which it serves from 84 operational bases. A portion of its 6,900 employees in the region are located in Angola's Kwanza basin, which has recently been discovered to possess a deepwater pre-salt play, similar to Brazil's Santos Basin. Before our planet's continental shifts, those two areas appear to have been joined, hence the geologic similarities.
This is just a tiny sampling of the myriad of operating venues wherein Schlumberger is plying its trade. Among the more nascent areas where it is working, I would include the South China Sea, where it is involved in horizontal drilling for CNOOC. And in Argentina's unconventional -- and promising -- Vaca Muerta play, it's in the early stages of an integrated services contract with Royal Dutch Shell.
The Foolish bottom line
We obviously could hopscotch to still other markets where Schlumberger is aiding national oil companies, international oil companies, and independent producers in their exploration and production efforts. But by now you probably get the message: A technological leader with a wide geographic representation, Schlumberger is unlikely to diminish in importance before oil and gas become insignificant to our world. That event is unlikely to occur in any of our lifetimes.