Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Saudi's oil price-slashing decision makes no sense, even to them

If, like me, you've been trying to make sense of the recent Saudi oil production increase, and its associated price cut, then I think you may as well give up. There is no sense.
Behind the scenes, there is the ongoing spat between Russia and the USA, over Vladimir Putin's belief that the propped-up price of oil was effectively subsidizing the US shale oil industry, which has led to the USA becoming the world's biggest oil producer, as well as over Donald Trump's use of sanctions to stop Russia from completing its Nord 2 pipeline to Germany (yes, Trump had to be involved somewhere in any international crisis!)
But the most immediate "cause", if it can be described as such, grew out of the recent OPEC+ meeting (OPEC+ is the Saudi-dominated OPEC group plus Russia), in which Saudi Arabia was arguing for a further cut in oil production, which would lead to a price increase. Vladimir Putin, however, did not want to agree to more production constraints that may not be in Russia's own long-term interests. So, in retaliation against his refusal to kowtow, and for apparently no other good reason, the Saudis lurched completely the opposite way, and announced that it would substantially INCREASE its oil output, and started offering deep discounts to its global customer base.
This sent oil prices, already down about 30% so far this year, spiralling down to around US$32 a barrel yesterday, before recovering somewhat to US$35 a barrel, but still representing a 24% fall in just one day, the largest single-day loss since the 1991 Gulf War.  It is now at a 21-year low. Given that prices have hovered between about US$60 and US$80 since early 2018, this was a huge shock to the industry, and has led to a rout on global stock exchanges, which were already reeling from the coronavirus hit. Some heavily-indebted US fracking companies may not survive, which would please Putin, and the Canadian oil sands sector, already struggling, will be almost as badly hit. Even shares in Saudi Arabia's national oil company, Saudi Aramco, have been decimated, and the company has lost an estimated $500 billion in value since December, putting its plans for international listing this year in jeopardy.
So, all this was just a hissy fit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Basically, yes. What's even less easy to understand is that Russia can actually withstand low prices better than Saudi Arabia can (according to analysts, Russia needs an oil price of US$38 a barrel to balance its budget, while Saudi Arabia needs a price of US$80 or more!) It was a high-stakes, tone-deaf, reckless, destabilizing, and probably self-defeating move. So, what was MBS thinking? We may never know.

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