Halliburton Co.’s pursuit of Baker Hughes Inc. may be just the start of big energy deals as oil prices slump.

Crude has plunged to a more than four-year low amid a U.S. supply glut. That’s making top energy companies, from equipment makers to oil explorers, cheaper for buyers that have the capital to survive and the confidence to strike. Halliburton, a $47 billion provider of oilfield services and equipment, approached Baker Hughes about a deal several weeks ago, a time when the target was trading near its cheapest price in more than a year. Even though talks between the companies have since stalled, the forces that drove them to the negotiating table will likely spur on other dealmaking as well.

General Electric Co. could go after National Oilwell Varco Inc., a $31 billion energy equipment company, to show it’s serious about being big in the industry after last year’s purchase of pumpmaker Lufkin Industries Inc., said Royal Bank of Canada. The drop in crude prices could even make $123 billion BP Plc an acquisition candidate, said Oppenheimer Holdings Inc.

“Low oil prices always triggered industry consolidation,” said Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer. It’s “survival of the fittest. Larger companies view this correction as a window of opportunity to make acquisitions that would improve their own operation and generate synergy benefits.”

Representatives for Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE and London-based BP declined to comment. A representative for Houston-based National Oilwell Varco didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Two Views

A takeover of Baker Hughes, which was valued at $26 billion last week, would be the biggest oil-services deal on record, even before adding a premium. By buying the maker of drill bits and pressure-pumping tools, Halliburton — the second-biggest oilfield-services company after Schlumberger Ltd. — would gain more market clout to help insulate itself from a sustained oil market downturn.

Before news of the talks became public, Baker Hughes shares had slipped 32 percent from their July high, wiping out more than $10 billion of market value. Brent crude is down 28 percent this year.

“Just given the backdrop of the dramatic drop in oil prices, you’ve got probably two different views on whether this is going to be sustained at lower levels or whether there will be a recovery,” Eric Mintz, a fund manager at Eagle Asset Management Inc., which oversees about $31 billion, said by phone. “Baker Hughes might be thinking tougher times ahead and Halliburton wants to be opportunistic here.”

Acquisition Opportunities

That dynamic is setting up acquisition opportunities throughout the energy industry. Buyers with cash to spend aren’t going to let the cheapest valuations in years pass them by and targets threatened by lower prices may become more willing sellers.

“The bigger companies can sharpen their pencils,” Chad Mabry, a Houston-based analyst at MLV & Co., said by phone.

In the exploration and production sector, analysts last month highlighted Laredo Petroleum Inc. as an example of a company whose weak balance sheet may force it to find a buyer. Others such as Pioneer Natural Resources Co. and Oasis Petroleum Inc. are now offering top acreage in some of the best U.S. shale plays at a relative bargain.

Even some of the largest companies could become vulnerable. There’s much less financial uncertainty surrounding BP now that it’s largely put the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history behind it, said Gheit of Oppenheimer. That, combined with lower oil prices, could make the company a takeover target for one of its peers, the analyst wrote in a report this month.

Good Logic

On the oilfield-equipment side, there’s some “good industrial logic” for GE to buy National Oilwell Varco, said Kurt Hallead, an analyst at RBC in Austin, Texas. GE has bought companies including Lufkin, Dresser Inc. and the well-support unit of John Wood Group Plc to help expand the oil and gas division.

National Oilwell Varco “has No. 1 market share in virtually all their areas of emphasis,” Hallead said in a phone interview. “If GE wanted to get bigger and wanted to expand their manufacturing footprint and exposure to different end markets within the energy space,” buying the oilfield-equipment maker is one way to do it.

Regulatory Roadblocks

Halliburton would face antitrust roadblocks in any deal for Baker Hughes. The company has explored options such as setting up a unit to hold assets it’s willing to divest to satisfy regulators, said one person familiar with the matter, asking not to be identified discussing private information.

“My gut is that this is going to have a high degree of scrutiny amongst the regulators, and I would not be surprised if it goes through to see some level of divestitures,” Edward Muztafago, a New York-based analyst at Societe Generale, said in a phone interview.

Regulatory approval of such a transformational deal might inspire buyers to take a closer look at opportunities in more concentrated markets, such as subsea drilling equipment, said Mintz of Eagle Asset. Deals that may have seemed unlikely to pass muster before may become more doable, such as a takeover of FMC Technologies Inc., he said.

A representative for Houston-based FMC Technologies didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company was valued at $13 billion last week.

“Any time there’s a deal, from an investor perspective, it’s going to perk up interest,” Stephen Gengaro, a New York-based analyst at Sterne Agee Group Inc., said in a phone interview. “People are going to dig down and look at more of these deals.”

(Source: Bloomberg)