January 3, 2019 / 5:19 PM / a year ago

U.S. energy executives' outlook sours for first time since 2016: Fed survey

(Reuters) - U.S. oil and gas executives’ outlook turned negative for the first time since the low point of the last oil bust, according to results of a survey released on Thursday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

FILE PHOTO: A pump jack operates in the Permian Basin oil production area near Wink, Texas U.S. August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

A survey of executive sentiment fell to -10 from 47 in the prior quarter, the first negative reading since early 2016, when U.S. crude prices CLc1 plummeted to $26 per barrel.

More than half of executives said they expect lower capital spending in 2019.

Still, executives predict U.S. crude will end the year trading around $60 per barrel, a 30 percent increase over current prices.

Executives are using a price of $50 to $64.99 per barrel for planning, according to the survey, which was conducted Dec. 12-20. Only 9 percent said they were planning for a per-barrel price below $50 for the year.

The U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude was trading around $46.61 on Thursday morning.

“I can’t help but feel we are in for another extended period of low prices,” one exploration and production executive said. “The only way for me to survive is to quit spending money.”

Though exploration and production firms have come under intense investor pressure in the last year to shore up balance sheets, control spending and return money to shareholders through dividends or stock buybacks, only 7 percent of executives said their top goal was to return capital to shareholders. Meanwhile, 46 percent said their primary goal of 2019 was to grow oil and gas production.

Service firms, which handle drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the oil field, had a more bearish outlook than exploration and production firms. Nearly 58 percent of services firms reported greater uncertainty.

“We are holding the line and hanging on,” an executive with a service firm said.

Another called the recent drop in crude oil prices, which peaked at $76 per barrel in October before plummeting by $30, a “blow to confidence.”

The survey’s respondents included 104 companies focused on exploration and production activities and 63 that operate in the oilfield service sector. The Dallas Fed covers Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Louisiana.

Reporting by Jennifer Hiller; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Paul Simao

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