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Oil dips below $49 as sector faces ‘Hunger Games’

Oil's dramatic fall in price will have serious effects on revenues and spending in the sector, according to some industry analysts, with one investment firm predicting a sector-wide "recession" that will last for several years.

Both U.S. crude and Brent futures fell to fresh 5½-year lows on Tuesday, with the former slipping below $48 at one stage. Weak global demand and booming U.S. oil production are seen as the key reasons behind the price plunge, as well as OPEC's (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) reluctance to cut its output.

This sector slump will lead to a fight to the death for oil firms, according to analysts at Bernstein Research. The research firm likened the current environment to the Hollywood movie "The Hunger Games", which portrays a dystopian post-apocalyptic future where the main protagonists battle each other to survive.

"Our research convinces us an oil services recession is largely unavoidable at even $80 a barrel…The Hunger Games have begun," Nicholas Green, a senior analyst at the company, said in a note on Tuesday morning.

Bernstein's Green believes that offshore activity will also face a "structural recession." He predicts that there will be only half of the new work available in 2015, compared to last year, and forecasts no material recovery before 2017.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

Other possible casualties of the sector's struggle for survival are the high-risk and reward exploration and oil production companies (E&P), ratings agency Moody's said Tuesday. If oil prices average $75 a barrel in 2015, then North American E&P companies would likely reduce their capital spending by around 20 percent from last year, according to Moody's. It could even be cut by 40 percent it oil starts at below $60 a barrel, it added.

Oilfield services companies, or OFS, are companies that provide services to the E&P industry, and could face an earnings crunch of 12 percent to 17 percent if oil averages $75 a barrel in 2014, according to Moody's. An average price below $60 a barrel in 2015 could drive earnings down by 25 to 30 percent, it added. Meanwhile, midstream operators – which are involved in the transportation of oil – would come under significant earnings pressure if this spending is cut, according to the ratings agency.

The warning adds to similar claims last year by the International Energy Agency which predicted that falling oil prices may cut investment in U.S. shale oil by 10 percent in 2015. Oil majors have also been sounding the alarm with BP announcing a restructuring and cost-cutting program in December.

Drilling further into individual stocks, Moody's said Tuesday that majors such as Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Total should be fairly well insulated but feared that smaller OFS companies such as Basic Energy Services and Key Energy Services would come under stress.

In Europe, Bernstein Research on Tuesday firmly reiterated its "sell" rating on Saipem and Subsea 7. The two companies saw their stock prices plunge 44 percent and 34 percent respectively last year. Norway's Aker Solutions was downgraded to an "underperform" by Bernstein on Tuesday, but France's Technip remains its key defensive play despite dropping 30 percent last year.

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