What's powering oil servicers' profits? (It's not fracking)
Earnings season has been a mixed bag so far, but one industry has been beating the Street across the board: oil field servicing.
Each of the world's three largest publicly traded oil field servicing companies trumped analysts' earnings expectations for the final three months of 2013.
This week, Halliburton and Baker Hughes reported better-than-expected earnings per share and revenues. Schlumberger topped consensus estimates by 3 cents when it reported last week, though revenues missed.
Those surprise figures can be chalked up not to the U.S. energy revolution that has made fracking a household word but to a different energy growth story—emerging markets.
"This [revenue] success can largely be attributed to meaningful share gains in high-growth markets such as the Middle East and Africa,'' Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead said in a statement after it reported earnings Tuesday.
Halliburton's earnings, also reported Tuesday, reflected similar findings.
"In 2013, we set revenue records in every international region and in both divisions," said CEO and Chairman Dave Lesar. "We achieved record operating income in our Middle East/Asia region as well as six of our 13 product lines."
When Schlumberger reported results Friday, CEO Paal Kibsgaard noted that "international revenue grew by $3.2 billion, or 11 percent, from higher exploration and development activity—both offshore and in key land markets." The North American division, in comparison, grew $400 million, or 3 percent.
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The Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific and Russia are the emerging markets that have provided the biggest boosts.
Baker Hughes posted a 27 percent revenue rise in its Middle East and Asia Pacific operations in the fourth quarter, despite temporary interruptions for operations in Iraq. Its second-biggest revenue jump—10 percent—was from combined operations in Europe, Africa and Russia.
Halliburton's revenue from Middle East and Asia Pacific operations climbed 13 percent, and Schlumberger's surged 18 percent.
Why did overseas operations post such big gains?
"Historically we've seen strong growth from the demand perspective in emerging markets, but that's also where a lot of the resources are," said Mike Urban, a director at Deutsche Bank Securities who covers the oil field servicers.
The companies' overseas strength reflects a shift from a years-long "mismatch" in where oil companies were expanding and where the servicers were operating, he said.
Oil companies' international spending in markets other than North America has represented 70 percent to 75 percent of their total capital spending. Oil field servicers, on the other hand, have had roughly 45 percent to half of their revenues tied up in North American operations.
The bigger international numbers reflect the companies' catch-up expansion into overseas markets that Big Oil has been cultivating: hence, the "high growth" to which Craighead at Baker Hughes referred.
But the international focus also stems from pressure on North America operations from several factors that don't weigh on the other markets. They include a drop in the number of rigs that need servicing, and an oversupply of hydraulic fracturing equipment in places such as North Dakota and Texas that, along with stiff servicing competition, has depressed prices.
Low natural gas prices tied to ramped-up production have also affected the domestic outlook.
These "challenges of the land markets," as Kibsgaard at Schlumberger called them them, have resulted in markedly lower profit growth in North America.
The company reported 3 percent revenue growth in the region, largely from business in the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore activity commands more services at higher prices. Baker Hughes posted a revenue gain of 7 percent in the region.
Halliburton, the largest servicer of fracking equipment in the U.S., said North American revenue in the fourth quarter was up 2 percent year over year but down 1 percent from the third quarter. It said it is taking steps to cut costs to help offset pricing pressures.
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Still, analysts including Urban say that while emerging markets will continue to offer growth opportunities, 2014 could be when North America operations—particularly in Mexico, Canada and U.S. offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico—shine in profit terms.
"This year ... it's going to be North America," he said. "You have a transition going on from where we've been for the last several years. But in the long run, it's still going to be the international markets like the Middle East and some of the 'gassier' markets like East Africa."
—By CNBC's Morgan Brennan. Follow her on Twitter