U.S. oilfield services companies are primed for another period of growth, one that could expand under former ExxonMobil (XOM) CEO Rex Tillerson, if he is confirmed as secretary of state.
Domestic oil and gas producers are already taking advantage of the international agreement between OPEC and 11 non-OPEC producers to cut production for the first six months of 2017 by ramping up drilling and adding rigs. However, given Tillerson and Donald Trump's friendly stance toward Russia, the playing field for American petroleum producers could get even larger.
It's no secret that ExxonMobil and its former CEO have deep ties to Russia. In 2011, with Tillerson at the helm, Exxon teamed up with Russian oil giant Rosneft. Two years later, the ExxonMobil CEO was awarded the Kremlin's Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors Russia gives to foreign citizens. Sanctions, however, have cost the oil giant hundreds of millions of dollars; Exxon reported a maximum loss of $1 billion in 2014 due to the sanctions against Russia, according to an SEC filing.
Even though President Obama recently issued harsher sanctions against Russian intelligence services following the cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations, Trump was originally skeptical of the conclusions.
Following his intelligence briefing, Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump's top advisers, said the president-elect may reconsider some of the actions President Obama ordered and questioned whether an independent probe into the hacking was necessary. If the Trump does weaken the sanctions once he takes his seat in the White House, Exxon and others could jump on the opportunity to dive into oil-rich Russia.
"If Russian sanctions are lifted, the oilfield services companies will benefit as the current sanctions limit sales of technology in deepwater, shale and Arctic," says James Wicklund, managing director for Energy Research at Credit Suisse. "We actually do very little of any of the three in Russia, but the bureaucratic rules associated with making sure there is compliance are cumbersome."
Wicklund believes diversified oilfield service companies, such as Schlumberger (SLB) , Halliburton (HAL) , Baker Hughes (BHI) and Weatherford International (WFT) would profit from such actions -- all of which are established players in the region.
Separately, Barclays is bullish on North American oilfield services, upgrading its view on the industry to Positive from Neutral.
"In our view, the potential for hyper earnings growth from pricing coupled with strong operating leverage on rationalized cost structures supports current rich multiples given a likely beat and raise scenario starting in the second half of 2017," Barclays research analysts wrote in a note Monday. "Oilfield service stocks are not broadly owned in the market and we should expect to see a rotation as investors move out of Integrateds and E&Ps," they added.
Barclays prefers Halliburton, U.S. Silica Holdings (SLCA) , Forum Energy Technologies (FET) , Superior Energy Services (SPN) and Dril-Quip (DRQ) to own in the space, noting that Halliburton has the most exposure to a 50% increase in E&P spending.
While oilfield services companies await any news on Russian sanctions, the international sanctions on Iran that were lifted last year have yet to prompt any American interest in the OPEC member nation.
"Iran has had little success getting oil companies interested in oil, with the companies more focused on natural gas and petrochemical," says Credit Suisse's Wicklund. "We know of no U.S. oil companies involved, and the oilfield services companies are not allowed to do oil work there, so we see little near-term improvement for those guys."
Similarly, Tillerson expressed a "wait and see" approach to Iran while at Exxon, telling CNBC in March even though American companies were still unable -- at the time -- to conduct business in Iran, it was not necessarily a disadvantage.
"The history of Iranian -- in foreign investment in the past, their terms were always quite challenging, quite difficult," Tillerson said. "We'll wait and see if things open up for U.S. companies."
Tillerson could be the man to open things up, but he faces a tough confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill this Wednesday, especially considering the bipartisan opposition to his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, if the Senate gives its stamp of approval, oil and gas companies could see policy changes work to their benefit.