As of Thursday's close, the shares of offshore drillers had risen more than 20% since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, on Nov. 30 moved to cut production by 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day for the first half of 2017.
While that number stands up well against the overall oilfield services sector's performance during the period -- the PHLX Oil Service Sector Index (OSX) has climbed 12% -- the time to invest in the industry is still up for debate.
Barclays, which published a note Feb. 3 advising continued caution over the space, feels the fundamentals will look worse before they look better, and the firm isn't alone there.
Analysts at RBC Capital Markets, Stephens and Credit Suisse have all argued recently that the industry is still struggling despite a swath of recent cash tender offers and debt and equity issuances that have improved many companies' capital structures.
But it now seems the bears are slowly giving way to the cautious and the cautiously optimistic.
Barclays' J. David Anderson, while hopeful for the future, doesn't see many management teams suggesting the market is improving this earnings season.
The proof is in the pudding. Major producers with world class deepwater portfolios like Chevron (CVX) are sticking to U.S. onshore, particularly west Texas' Permian Basin, when it comes to upstream spending, according to Anderson.
Moreover, the offshore floating rig count has yet to bottom. Barclays expects the count to hit rock-bottom at 120 by year's end. But even then, the firm doesn't expect more than 20 rigs being added in all of 2018.
"That pace is simply not enough to impact the fundamentals of the market and we are concerned that substantially higher day rates are now priced into many of these stocks," Anderson wrote in the report.
Indeed, Credit Suisse analyst Gregory Lewis agrees the fundamentals won't be there until 2018. The analyst wrote in a Friday research report that both fleet utilization and pricing will head lower this year.
Still, given the entirety of the offshore drilling space has fallen 75% since the down cycle started to roll in 2013, Lewis asserts the buying opportunity for these stocks may be closer, and better, than the average investor thinks.
"We are in the midst of the deepest driller downturn since the 1980s - last time the market
was this bad," he wrote. "Interestingly, stocks rose sharply off the bottom during the late 1980s recovery. We see potential for a similar scenario with stocks to double or more off the bottom depending on the strength of the up-cycle."
But are we approaching the bottom for stock prices, or is it behind us? That is where the two firms' theories diverge.
Barclays argues that two of the biggest offshore movers -- Atwood Oceanics (ATW) (up 55% coming into Friday's open) and Transocean (RIG) (up 27%) -- have risen at least partially due to short covering as short interest as a percentage of float has decreased meaningfully since mid-November.
This could imply the recent rally is not here to stay, but note that the same cannot be said for Ensco (ESV) and Noble (NE) , which are up 42% and 29% since Nov. 29, as their short interest percentages have increased over the same period.
So why has Credit Suisse shifted its stance to buying opportunistically? Possibly because, not for the first time, sentiment is driving the market over fundamentals.
"Yes we think our call is early especially for short-term or nimble investors and yes we still
prefer onshore completion names," Lewis wrote. "But with offshore drilling stocks looking to be bottoming, now that solvency issues have been addressed, we think we could see a catchup trade in the stocks well ahead of the fundamentals bottoming which we think happens in 2018."
If there's one overriding takeaway from all this uncertainty, it's that uncertainty is perhaps better then the flat-out contempt the industry has experienced over the past 12 months.