The Oil Market Crisis

Commentary: In the darkest phase of the crisis, the objective of the financially sound OPEC countries will be diversification from oil to more technologically advanced and expanding sectors, without neglecting the oil sector. For the less financially sound countries, it will be about implementing great political reforms, which may at least stabilize the countries floundering in severe economic crisis, or having their oil assets quickly sold by the richest Arab countries.

Photo: Reuters

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a crisis or rather a real collapse in the oil barrel price, down from approximately sixty US dollars just before the coronavirus spread to the current twenty dollars - with downward peaks before the end of April 2020, still significantly lower than the current twenty dollar average.

The origin of the price collapse is obvious, i.e. the closure of the purchasing countries’ economies and the major crisis in the car market, in particular, with the lockdown of all public and private mobility.

Moreover, for many producing countries, twenty dollars a barrel is a price well below break-even points and sometimes below the mere production cost.

Fifty-sixty US dollars a barrel is less than the cost of oil extraction in the Arctic, for example, and less than what is necessary to break even European and Brazilian biofuel production, but also US and Canadian shale oil. In Great Britain the oil barrel cost is 52.50 US dollars, while in Saudi Arabia the cost for producing an oil barrel is still 10 US dollars approximately.

Saudi Arabia, however, also needs much higher prices, at least from eighty US dollars per barrel upwards, to rebalance its public budget and seriously invest in production diversification, not to even mention the social stability of this country and, in other ways, that of the Russian Federation.

World demand has therefore plummeted, with a reduction of 29 million barrels per day from the over 100 ones a year ago.

This also means that storage capacity has reached the saturation point, with countries selling directly at sea, with a view to avoiding the high and unpredictable costs of overproduction and, by now, even at direct agreement low prices.

According to some specialized analysts, oil production will fall by at least 9.3 million barrels per year, until the time in which the coronavirus epidemic stops significantly. But this is a very optimistic forecast.

As is already seen, the most predictable effects of collapse in oil prices will most likely be the bankruptcy of small and medium-sized oil companies in the United States and Canada, where the banks had also strongly supported these companies with debt.

The economic, financial and social repercussions on these countries’ productive systems will be immediate and hard to manage.

Some extraction of US and Canadian "zombie" companies has continued, in view of cashing immediate liquidity, but, obviously, this cannot last very long.

It is hard to speak about public support for oil companies, considering their international corporate structure and, above all, because of the large mass of liquidity that would be greatly needed and would inevitably be drawn from other budget items, which are more socially necessary and with a strong psychological and hence electoral impact.

Nevertheless, the whole economy of producing and of typically consuming countries - which, for various wrong or short-term choices, have never established their own "OPEC" - will be severely affected by the vertical fall in oil prices, even though the US IAEA supported and legitimized the cut in production last April. The initial sign of an inevitable agreement between producers and consumers in the future, also at financial and investment level.

Furthermore, some producing countries have considerable financial funds to stand up to the fall in the oil barrel price, probably even until the end of the pandemic, but this is certainly not the case with other producers.

Saudi Arabia, the UAEs and Kuwait can last relatively long, albeit stopping their plans for economic expansion and diversification in the short term. Just think here of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan.

Iraq, Iran and Venezuela - with Iraq which is currently one of Italy’s largest exporters - will certainly have to withstand periods of extreme social crisis and even political legitimacy.

In Africa, Nigeria and Libya will face further political and social crises of unpredictable severity - in addition to internal wars by proxy, as in Libya.

China itself, the current largest oil buyer, has stopped as many as 10 oil shipments by sea from Saudi Arabia.

The tax break-even point reveals the complex internal dynamics and trends of manufacturers: Saudi Arabia is at 91 US dollars; Oman at 82; Abu Dhabi at 61; Qatar at 65; Bahrain at 95. Iraq is currently at 60 US dollars, but it should be noted that Iran is now at 195 US dollars, Algeria at 109 and Libya at 100 - to the extent to which Libyan oil exports can work after General Haftar’s closure of oil wells - while Nigeria is at 144 US dollars and Angola has only a cost + tax per barrel of 55 US dollars.

Currently Russia has a strong need for a tax per barrel of at least 42 US dollars, while Mexico 49 and Kazakhstan 58 US dollars.

In order to survive, the US, Canadian and Norwegian oil companies need an oil barrel cost of 48, 60 and only 27 US dollars, respectively, to simply break even.

Russia will probably be able to survive ("for ten years", as it says, but probably exaggerating) a pandemic crisis, which has also hit its own population hard, by using its Strategic Fund, which is currently worth 124 billion US dollars.

Every year of crisis, however, is likely to cost Russia 40-50 billion US dollars.

Not to mention jobs, which could be reduced by over a million in Russia.

Saudi Arabia, too, is very liquid, and predicts a loss of over 45 billion US dollars at the end of the pandemic.

If Saudi Arabia makes another deal with Russia and manages to raise the oil barrel price to 40 US dollars, it is supposed to reduce losses to 40 billion US dollars annually.

Iraq, the second largest Middle Eastern exporter, covers 90% of its public spending with oil revenues.

In Iran and Iraq, the closing down of private companies has caused the almost total closure of oil production since last March.

Moreover, Iraq has no sovereign funds. Mexico has already started to implement "austerity" measures, although it has stated there will be no closures or staff cuts in the public sector.

The Nigerian GDP will certainly go below zero. Nigeria was the economy recording the greatest development rate in Africa, but since May it has had 50 million barrels unsold.

The unemployment rate will rise from 25% to well over 25 million people, but Nigeria has a very small Sovereign Fund that owns 2 billion US dollars.

There are very large differences among producing countries. There are countries with a financial power potentially able to further stand up to the collapse of oil prices and countries with an internal social and economic situation on the verge of collapse, as well as other economies floundering in a very severe crisis.

Just think of the Lebanon, which had already defaulted before the fall in oil prices. Obviously neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will help it any longer.

This means that the producing countries with a more "liquid" financial situation can start buying oil assets - not at a very low cost - from their fellow OPEC competitors or even outside that OPEC protectionist framework, while the countries without long or short liquidity, will quickly be economically colonized by the strongest ones and this would make their economic autonomy irrelevant. Especially if they are, like Iraq, truly oil dependent countries.

The GDP for the current year, however, is expected to slightly decrease in Kuwait (-1%) while Algeria and Iraq are expected to immediately fall to a -5%, which could be fatal not only for their economy but also for their social stability.

Libya, just to remind us of a key country for our security, as well as for oil, will record an expected fall in GDP of almost -58%. 

It is easy to understand what will happen and how much impact it will have on Italy.

The International Monetary Fund has also predicted a quick rebound in prices beyond the oil break-even point for the whole oil area between Africa and the Middle East as early as 2021, but the forecast seems to be completely unfounded, given the multi-year length of the buyers' crisis and hence the inevitable fall in producers' prices.

Even if the coronavirus crisis were to end in a month, which is highly unlikely, the economic outlook would not change radically even for 2021.

The fact is that, according to all the most reliable projections, the GDP of non-producing countries will fall even faster than that of oil-producing countries.

Certainly there is the temporary relief and redress of public accounts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) non-producing countries, which is estimated at around 3-4% of their GDP, but these are countries like Morocco and Jordan having little economic weight in their respective geo-economic regions.

There is also another factor to consider: the producing countries’ crisis adds to the much longer-standing crisis in the African countries exporting not oil, but food products.

I am here referring to Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco - which is still a leading country in the world production of citrus fruits, with companies cooperating with the United States - and to the wine-producing Tunisia.

The FAO sugar index has fallen to -14.6% - more than ever over the last 13 years.

The FAO index for vegetable oil is -5.2%. The dairy prices are currently falling by 3.6% and meat prices by 2.7%. Wheat prices, however, are expected to remain stable, although storage, and hence the future final cost, will increase from now on.

Certainly the "rich" producing countries, i.e. those with greater liquidity reserves, have already begun to inject liquidity and implement tax rebates.

Saudi Arabia has tripled VAT from 5 to 15%. It has also issued 7 billion US dollars of public debt securities that will fall due in 5, 10 and 40 years respectively, with a 5% planned restriction of public spending, and as many as 13.3 billion US dollars in support of small and medium-sized enterprises, with the nationalisation of 14,000 jobs in the most technologically advanced sectors.

Just to give an example of the most capitalized oil exporting country.

It is not even said that soon the Saudi and Emirates’ sovereign funds do not want to acquire - at selling-off prices - even the U.S. and Canadian shale oil industries undergoing an evident crisis.

Both in countries in crisis and in those with greater financial resources investment will be well diversified in the health or in the large infrastructure sectors. Investment will be made also in research and in the expansion of the oil sector, which will certainly start working again - as and probably more than before - at the end of the pandemic.

There will probably be an economic and financial rebalancing between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which have similar interests, both in the purchase of shale oil companies in crisis, obviously, but also in a closer direct financial relationship, considering that Saudi Arabia still holds 177 billion US dollars of North American public debt securities.

A record amount which could increase rapidly.

Obviously, in the darkest phase of the crisis, the objective of the financially sound OPEC countries will be diversification from oil to more technologically advanced and expanding sectors, such as health and pharmacology, particularly abroad, but again without neglecting the oil sector.

While maintaining the same - or almost the same - current investment in the oil sector, which cannot but take off again in the short to long term.

For the other less financially sound countries, it will be about implementing great political reforms, which may at least stabilize the countries floundering in severe economic crisis, or having their oil assets quickly sold by the richest Arab countries, which will thus have a much greater power of pressure vis-à-vis consumer countries when the oil recovery starts.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group