GE's Baker Hughes reports surprise negative free cash flow, shares fall

(Reuters) - Baker Hughes reported negative free cash flow for the first quarter at a time energy investors have been pushing companies to aggressively shore up capital for dividends and buybacks, sending its shares down as much as 8.5 percent.

FILE PHOTO: A Baker Hughes sign is displayed outside the oil logistics company's local office in Sherwood Park, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Oilfield service companies, including bellweather Schlumberger NV and Halliburton Co, are planning to spend less in 2019, following in the footsteps of oil producers who have cut budgets in response to shareholder pressure for capital discipline rather than spending to grow their top line.

Baker Hughes on Tuesday posted negative free cash flow of $419 million, compared with analysts’ estimates of a positive $188.5 million.

Baker Hughes Chief Financial Officer Brian Worrell attributed the reasons for the negative cash flow to annual payments related to employee compensation, delay in realizing some revenue and higher inventory that was built in expectations of more activity in the forthcoming quarters.

“It’s an overall negative print because of the cash flow... working capital has been an issue for a lot of oilfield services companies, but this was particularly weak and their capital expenditure also was higher-than-expected,” BMO Capital Markets analyst Daniel Boyd said.

Jennifer Rowland, an analyst at Edward Jones, called the negative free cash flow “unsettling for people.”

Worrell added the company continues to expect to generate free cash flow this year. Analysts on average estimate it to be about $1.2 billion.

Shares of the Houston-based company were down 6.4 percent at $24.31 as investors shrugged off a slight beat on quarterly profit. The quarterly profit beat was driven by higher demand for equipment and services from its international customers.

International revenue from the company’s oilfield services unit surged 15.5 percent to $1.83 billion, while total revenue from its oilfield services business, which constitutes roughly half of its total sales, rose a better-than-expected 12 percent.

Unlike bigger players Halliburton and Schlumberger, Baker Hughes has limited exposure to the North American pressure pumping sector, where demand has weakened.

Adjusted net income attributable to the company rose to $76 million, or 15 cents per share, in the three months ended March 31, from $38 million, or 9 cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected the company to report a profit of 13 cents per share.

Total revenue rose to $5.62 billion from $5.40 billion.

Reporting by Debroop Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by James Emmanuel