For companies like Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB) and Halliburton (NYSE: HAL), 2008 set a high-water mark for earnings that won't be easily surpassed. Last year saw these oil service companies' pre-tax earnings drop 43% and 47%, respectively. For Noble (NYSE: NE), however, the only place you'll find a high-water mark is on the hull of one of its offshore drilling rigs.
The offshore drilling contractor notched a new record in 2009, with pre-tax earnings lifting 5% to $2 billion for the year. The fourth quarter capped off this fine year with contract drilling margins riding high at 70%, and rig utilization at 83%. Per-share net income came in at $1.72, which was well ahead of analyst expectations.
Importantly, Noble's accounting earnings are backed up by solid cash generation; in this case, $2.1 billion for the year. Of that amount, $1.4 billion was directed to capital expenditures, while the rest either fattened up the company's already pristine balance sheet or was returned to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
The performance here has been rock-solid, and I'm not surprised to hear the CEO express frustration with the share price. The stock sports a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of 6.55, which would suggest that Noble is poised on the precipice of a cyclical downturn. If 2009 couldn't usher one in, it's hard to see how 2010 could do so.
One industry forecast has capital spending rising by 12% this year, with a 16% bump in spending by national oil companies (NOCs) like Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) and Saudi Aramco. Between the reasonably strong oil price and the ongoing success of explorers like BP and Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC), it's hard to see Noble or peers like Ensco (NYSE: ESV) and Transocean (NYSE: RIG) having anything other than a pretty solid year ahead.
Noble repurchased $187 million of shares at an average price of $34 last year. While the shares are by no means expensive today, the mid-$30 level would be a fantastic point to fill out a position in this regal driller. The shares tend to be more volatile than the results here, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see such prices offered up later this year.
Disclosure: Author doesn't have a position in any company mentioned.