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Low Oil Prices Spark Caution for Diverse US Manufacturers

Posted by October 20, 2014

The shaky global economy already has pressured shares of diversified U.S. manufacturers, and many of these industrial companies face another worry: the drop in oil prices.

The concern for these manufacturers is that oil and gas customers will reduce their capital spending because of fears of a lack of return with energy prices low.

Two manufacturers with significant exposure to oil markets, General Electric Co and Honeywell International Inc , said in interviews they did not see any short-term impact, but that sustained lower prices could alter the picture.

The landscape could become more certain as other manufacturers with significant oil and gas customers report results this earnings season. They include Emerson Electric Co , which sells equipment such as valves, as well as automation software and services to help manage operations; and Rockwell Automation Inc, which offers control, power and safety products to the industry.

Large supplies of oil, coupled with a gloomy economic outlook pushed down the price of benchmark Brent crude last week to below $83, the lowest since 2010.

JPMorgan analyst Stephen Tusa, who covers U.S. diversified manufacturers, said in a report on Monday that "oil prices have become the biggest tangible and topical near-term risk."

According to Tusa, oil and gas represents about 11 percent of the business for these companies generally, although it is a far more significant market for some of them.

"Oil/gas is tied for non-residential construction as the single largest identifiable driver of organic growth for the group," Tusa said in his report.

In an interview on Friday, GE Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein said the company believed most exploration projects would progress with prices at around current levels.

The U.S. conglomerate has made $14 billion in acquisitions since 2007 to increase its ability to provide an array of equipment and services. Its oil and gas division now comprises about 17 percent of GE industrial revenue.

"If energy prices stay low for an extended period of time, it may delay how big international or national oil companies think about project investment down the road," Bornstein said. "But I don't think that's knowable today."

Honeywell derives about 15 percent of its revenue from oil and gas customers, largely through its Performance Materials and Technologies segment.

With more of Honeywell's customers being "downstream" businesses such as refiners, its sales are thought to be less vulnerable to the price decline than operations in the "upstream" exploration area.

Honeywell CFO Tom Szlosek said in an interview on Friday that its backlog is largely in "projects where our customers have already built out the plant, and we're now at a point where we're putting in our technology.

"If you see sustained oil and gas prices for some period of time, then you might see some differences in approaches from the oil majors," he added. "But as to the impact on us, right now it's not a short-term impact."

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf and Andre Grenon)

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