No light yet at end of tunnel for oil services industry

Customers have dwindled by the week at Indian Masala Hut, a curry stall in Singapore's shipyard heartland. Manager K. Muralidoss blames the slump in oil rig-building that led to the elimination of thousands of jobs, many held by workers from India and Bangladesh.

"The lunchtime crowd has more than halved," Mr Muralidoss says, surveying the almost-empty Benoi Road food court, where only four of 12 hawker stalls were open one afternoon last week.

As recently as last month, he was busy filling orders from companies trying to sate hungry labourers working overtime. "That has come down quite a bit because there are fewer projects being worked on."

More than US$400 billion (S$555 billion) of proposed energy projects worldwide have been delayed since mid-2014 and pushed into next year and beyond, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

In Singapore, the global centre for oil-rig construction for decades, the slowdown contributed to the economy contracting the most in four years in the third quarter.

BP abandoned oil exploration off the Great Australian Bight, it said last week, five years after beginning a search for resources in one of the world's last frontier regions. BP had previously estimated the drilling programme would cost more than A$1 billion (S$1.1 billion).

More than two years of tumbling oil prices have wiped more than US$24 billion from the market value of Keppel, Sembcorp Marine and Singapore's other listed oil-services companies - or about two thirds of their pre-July 2014 capitalisation.

Decisions like this ripple through Singapore's oil and gas services industry, from Keppel and Sembcorp Marine, the world's biggest builders of oil rigs, to companies supplying anchors, chains and other components, to the eateries feeding an offshore engineering workforce that tripled over a decade to peak at more than 90,000.

More than two years of tumbling oil prices have wiped more than US$24 billion from the market value of Keppel, Sembcorp Marine and Singapore's other listed oil-services companies - or about two thirds of their pre-July 2014 capitalisation. Since then, at least 25,000 jobs have been axed and one company, Swiber Holdings, has defaulted.

"We'll see more failures within the oil services sector," said Mr Song Seng Wun, regional economist with CIMB Private Banking. "Stronger companies, like Keppel and Sembcorp Marine, will survive and take advantage of opportunities. They have deeper pockets."

Output in the marine and offshore engineering sector fell 29.7 per cent in the first eight months of the year, the worst-performing industry in Singapore, according to data from the Economic Development Board.

The down-cycles in a few industries like offshore and marine, and falling oil and commodity prices have dampened demand in the region, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at a company's media event. "But those are short-term factors, those are cyclical factors," he added.

Keppel shares rose 1.31 per cent to $5.42 yesterday while Sembcorp Marine fell 1.12 per cent to $1.325. They have fallen 18 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively, this year.

Profit at Keppel, which reports third-quarter earnings today, is forecast to slump to the lowest in a decade this year. Sembcorp, which posted a 69 per cent drop in first-half profit, is slated to report on Tuesday. 

Both companies declined to comment on whether more job cuts are likely amid a decline in rig orders, citing a pre-earnings blackout period.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'No light yet at end of tunnel for oil services industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe