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Private OFS Operators Holding On With Price Breaks, Layoffs, Compensation Cuts

The best customers are getting the best prices for services in the U.S. onshore, but those price breaks are cutting sharply into revenues for privately held companies, a new survey has found.

Privately held oilfield service (OFS) companies working in domestic basins have reduced their rates by 20% or more since 2014, when oil prices began falling, according to a survey conducted March 1-18 by energy investment banker Citadel Advisory Group. Citadel surveyed more than 500 owners and C-level executives of private OFS operators that represented "every major U.S. basin." Most respondents have been in business for more than 10 years.

"Most of the service and manufacturing company executives that we've spoken with came into 2016 with low expectations for any meaningful recovery and are planning for another down year," Citadel Managing Director Chris Frevert said.

Since 2014, when oil prices began to fall, more than 61% of the respondents said they had reduced rates by at least 20% for their top customers. Nearly 20% have reduced their rates by more than half. Most of the respondents have seen their work volumes decline since July 2014 by more than 50%. And almost two-thirds said gross revenues had fallen by close to one-third.

The responses mirror the business downturn cited by the largest publicly held OFS companies, which include Schlumberger Ltd., Halliburton Co., Baker Hughes Inc. and Weatherford plc. All of operators, private and public, are making deals to maintain relationships and be ready for an eventual upturn.

"I would say that the most difficult part of the downturn (as a service company) is not necessarily the product prices," said a respondent to the Citadel survey from the Rocky Mountains. "It is the desperate 'race to the bottom' with my competition. There are so many people out there that got into business during the boom that have no business being in business. We can ALL still make a profit when work is slow and oil prices are low. We cannot all make a profit if we continue to bid out work just to stay busy and not make a profit."

Most of those responding to the survey, 76%, said they expect the West Texas Intermediate oil price to remain below $40/bbl at mid-year. Most (55%) don't expect a recover until 2017.

"The real loser in the downturn is the energy sector worker, as 92% of respondents have reduced their workforce, including 41% that have laid off more than 30% of their staff," Citadel said. "Only 25% of these company execs plan to hold current staffing levels or add employees in the next three months, giving rise to more layoffs for the majority of companies."

For people able to maintain their jobs, "there will likely be changes to compensation for some," as more than half indicated that salary reductions had been or would be implemented. Changes to benefit programs were cited by almost 36% of those responding, while the same number had reduced the number or size of their locations. More than 28% had sold assets.

"There is a very real emotional toll that's being taken as these execs deal with letting good people go," Frevert said.

"Production oversupply" and policies by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) were cited as the main culprits of the industry setback, "although the majority of respondents cited several factors working together, which led to the ongoing downturn."

Said a respondent in the Bakken Shale, "Proactive and positive political policies need to be implemented to encourage business in the energy space. There needs to be better education to the public in how energy provides so much to North America's standard of living." Another respondent in the Rockies said, "We should be doing our part to make sure that our allies are supplied with friendly crude..."

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