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Halliburton 1Q profit tumbles 35 percent

HOUSTON – Halliburton Co. kicked off the oil sector’s first-quarter earnings period on a dour-but-not-unexpected note Monday, reporting net income that tumbled 35 percent from a year ago and offering a poor outlook.

The company, which has corporate headquarters in Houston and Dubai, was hurt as oil and natural gas producers, stung by low prices, cut back on exploration and drilling, particularly in North America. That’s bad news for service companies like Halliburton, which help producers with drilling, reservoir management and other oilfield work.

A major barometer of oil-patch activity is the U.S. rig count, which has fallen more than 50 percent since the end of August. Analysts say the count is likely to fall even more — perhaps another 20 to 30 percent — as producers continue to scale back spending amid bloated oil and gas supplies and weak demand.

In a conference call Monday, Halliburton chairman and chief executive Dave Lesar said there are no clear signs when the falloff will bottom out, and he noted the current downturn has happened more quickly than past cycles.

“Industry prospects will continue to be weak in the coming quarters,” Lesar said.

Halliburton said its said net income in the January-March period fell to $378 million, or 42 cents per share, compared with $580 million, or 63 cents a share, a year ago.

Revenue fell 3 percent to $3.91 billion from $4.03 billion in the year-ago quarter.

The most-recent earnings included after-tax expenses of 2 cents per share related to job reductions. Halliburton has said it planned to eliminate some jobs — as have rivals Schlumberger Ltd. and Baker Hughes Inc., among others — but it hasn’t provided a specific number of cuts.

The first-quarter per-share earnings topped the average estimate of Wall Street analysts polled by Thomson Reuters, who expected 41 cents a share. Those estimates typically exclude one-time items.

In a note to clients, Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. called Halliburton’s results a “decent beat” of Wall Street forecasts, but the energy-focused securities firm also noted the company’s “somber outlook.”

Halliburton shares fell 13 cents to $18.65 in morning trading Monday. They’ve traded in a range of $12.80 to $55.38 in the past year.

In the coming weeks, oil producers, service companies and other oil-sector outfits are expected to report the most meager results in years because the recession has sapped energy spending.

Halliburton’s North American business was particularly hard hit as operating income fell 53 percent from a year ago. Outside North America, revenue rose 3 percent, but the company said international oil and gas projects are now being deferred because of the same issues plaguing operations in North America.

On a positive note, operating margins outside North America remained at Halliburton’s target level of 20 percent.

Lesar said the biggest international and state-run oil companies have yet to materially reduce spending, but they’re beginning to re-evaluate the economics of projects. Additionally, he said, “we anticipate continued margin pressure as global customers seek to lower their costs by securing cost concessions from their supply chain.”

A year ago, crude prices were in the triple digits on their way to a midsummer peak near $150 a barrel. But oil prices fell steadily for the remainder of the year and now hover around $50 a barrel.

As such, many producers have drastically scaled back operations, some lowering budgets by 50 percent or more. U.S. drilling for oil and natural gas in the first three months of 2009 dipped to the lowest level since 2004.

To date, the oil and gas sector has avoided the huge layoffs of other parts of the economy, but some have occurred. Schlumberger has said it will cut 5,000 jobs worldwide in the first half of 2009, and more could follow. It’s scheduled to report first-quarter earnings Friday.

Smaller rival Baker Hughes Inc. has said it’s cutting 3,000 positions.

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