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EARNINGS PREVIEW: U.S. Oil-Field-Service Providers Face Shrinking Margins on Pricing

By Melodie Warner TAKING THE PULSE: The U.S. energy sector has been shifting drilling crews and heavy equipment into oil fields as prices for natural gas hit 10-year lows. But the rapid buildup of hydraulic fracturing capacity during the recent boom in vast shale formations around the U.S. has lowered the prices that oil-field-service providers can charge for their services. Oil fields are harder to tap than natural-gas reservoirs and the rising operating costs are cutting into profit margins. To be sure, activity in international markets and a resurgence in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico could help to mitigate the pressure. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Schlumberger Ltd. (SLB) - reports July 20 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of $1 a share on $10.41 billion in revenue, compared with 87 cents a share and $9.62 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: Strong oil-drilling activity in the U.S. and abroad helped to drive Schlumberger's first-quarter earnings up 38%. But the largest provider of oil-field services has warned that prices for its pressure-pumping services in North America continue to weaken as drilling rigs move from natural-gas fields to oil areas. Baker Hughes Inc. (BHI) - reports July 20 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 77 cents a share on $5.26 billion in revenue, compared with 93 cents a share and $4.74 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: Baker Hughes's first-quarter margins were tamped down by challenges in its North American pressure-pumping business, and Chief Executive Martin Craighead has said he expects North America margins for the second quarter to decline. While he attributed the projected decline primarily to seasonality in Canada, pricing in pressure pumping will likely continue to decrease throughout the end of the year, he said. Halliburton Co. (HAL) - reports July 23 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 75 cents a share on $6.96 billion in revenue, compared with 81 cents a share and $5.94 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: Halliburton saw its first-quarter margins shrink from the year before amid higher fracking costs and declining demand for the service in natural-gas fields. And last month, the second-largest provider of oil-field services warned its second-quarter North America margins will be affected more than previously expected by a rise in the cost of guar gum. Concerns of potential shortages later in the year for guar--a legume whose juices are used in hydraulic fracturing--has rapidly inflated prices, Halliburton said. Nabors Industries Ltd. (NBR) - reports July 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 43 cents a share on $1.76 billion in revenue, compared with 23 cents a share and $1.36 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: Nabors's first-quarter profit jumped 62% on a strong performance from its continental U.S. drilling business, despite industry challenges. The company's U.S. offshore operations also rebounded, swinging to a operating profit that was also better than its fourth-quarter operating income. The world's largest driller of onshore oil and gas is continuing to reshape itself after acknowledging it strayed off target in its exploration and production forays. Nabors is shedding noncore businesses, like oil and gas properties, and plans to use those asset sales to reduce its hefty long-term debt of $4.5 billion, as of March 31. Weatherford International Ltd. (WFT) - reports July 25 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters recently expected a profit of 24 cents a share on $3.64 billion in revenue, compared with 17 cents a share and $3.05 billion, respectively, a year earlier. Key Issues: Weatherford has described its second-quarter North American revenue as "flat to up" as it continues to move operations from natural gas fields, where activity is slowing, to more profitable oil fields. The company also expects its international segments' revenue to rise 20% and operating income to double in the second half of the year as activity in China and Latin America ramps up. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) Write to Melodie Warner at melodie.warner@dowjones.com

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