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Arthur Berman

Arthur Berman

Arthur E. Berman is a petroleum geologist with 36 years of oil and gas industry experience. He is an expert on U.S. shale plays and…

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Is Saudi Arabia To Blame For The Looming Economic Recession?

Saudi Arabia has repeated the blunder it made in November 2014 by increasing oil production during an oil-price collapse. In 2014, it led to a depression in the oil industry. This time, it may be the tipping point for a global economic depression.

On Saturday March 7, discussions between Saudi Arabia and Russia ended with no agreement to cut production. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced price cuts and its intention to boost production. The largest single-day fall in oil prices occurred the next day (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The largest single-day Brent price decrease on March 9, 2020 showing standard deviation (SD) limits above and below the norm. (Source: Quandl and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.)

Things were not looking good for oil prices before then. Prices had peaked in early January with the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani, the announcement of a U.S. – China trade agreement and an OPEC+ production cut. As I wrote in late December, the price rally was doomed because it was based on sentiment and not market fundamentals.

Then the Coronavirus outbreak became public. I wrote in early February that Coronavirus would crush oil prices. It did. The Saudi price cut in March compounded and accelerated the collapse of oil prices and of broader markets.

Why It Happened

Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia delivered an ultimatum to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, to cut oil production on his terms. Mr. Putin doesn’t accept ultimatums so he ignored it. MBS cut prices and announced a production increase.

The events of the past week were an axiomatic response by Saudi Arabia taken from earlier playbooks. Between 1981 and 1985, the Saudis cut their production by 6.8 mmb/d hoping to stop the decline of oil prices in the face of new supply from the North Sea, Siberia and Mexico (Figure 2). King Fahd got tired of cutting without much help from OPEC allies and with no resulting price relief. He fired oil minister Ahmed Yamani, cut prices and increased production. Related: Largest Oil Glut In History Could Force Crude Prices Even Lower

Figure 2. Saudi Arabia oil production fell by 6.5 mmb/d from 1981 to 1985. (Source: EIA, BP and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.)

In 2014, world oil prices were again collapsing. Saudi oil minister Ali al Naimi asked Russia to join OPEC in cutting production. Russia refused. Saudi Arabia cut prices and increased production. See the pattern?

The guiding principle of Saudi oil strategy over the last three decades has been to never again make the mistake it made by cutting production alone in the early 1980s. Analysts and journalists who say that there is a price war or a war on shale should study history instead of inventing mindless memes.

Global Depression

 “The coronavirus epidemic will lead to “a global recession of a magnitude that has not been experienced before.”
Li Edelkoort

The prolonged hiatus in economic activity particularly in the United States and China makes a global depression practically unavoidable.

Energy is the economy and most of the world’s energy comes from oil. The present devaluation of oil will spread to other commodities and currency. Although oil price devaluation was inevitable because of coronavirus, the recent Saudi price cut and production increase has accelerated and compounded its effect on the global economy. It may become a Lehman moment.

GDP will fall as less oil is consumed. That is empirical–GDP and oil consumption have an R2 correlation of 0.96 (Figure 3). What may not be well understood is how much the U.S. and China dominate this relationship. Related: Saudi Arabia’s Oil War Could Bankrupt The Kingdom

Figure 3 shows two charts using the same data. The graph on the left has logarithmic scales and the graph on the right has cartesian scales.

Figure 3. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is proportional to oil consumption.

The graph on the left has logarithmic scale and the graph on the right has cartesian scales.
Source: EIA, World Bank and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The left-hand graph shows the correlation. The right-hand graph shows the disproportionate weighting of China and the US on both GDP and oil use. Together, they account for 32% of world GDP and 34% of oil consumption.

China’s oil consumption is probably down 4 mmb/d for the first quarter of 2020. If it returns to normal by Q2 (unlikely), that implies ~1% drop in annual global GDP. Things won’t normalize in China and the U.S. contraction will compound lower consumption well beyond Q1 not to mention lower consumption in the rest of the world. There are lots of reasonable objections to using this correlation deterministically but it offers a high-level perspective about where the economy is probably going. That’s why it is difficult to imagine an outcome other than depression.

The last time that there was a global surplus of this magnitude was never

There will be a lag between falling prices and demand, and a corresponding decrease in production. Meanwhile, inventories will build and some expect that global storage capacity will be exhausted by summer. Is that reasonable?

Figure 4 shows the accumulation of comparative inventory accompanying the last oil price collapse in 2014. 5 months elapsed from the beginning of price decline until C.I. reached the 5-year average. It was another 18 months before peak storage and minimum price were reached. Despite analyst expectations, neither U.S. nor global storage capacity were filled.

Figure 4. Eighteen months from five-year average to comparative inventory peak, October 2014 to February 2016. (Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.)

Comparative inventory is just below the 5-year average currently. Assuming a similar rapid fill rate, maximum storage levels would not be reached until July 2021. Today’s WTI settle price of $28.70 is almost as low as the minimum level reached 4 years ago suggesting that price may have much farther to fall before finding a bottom.

It seems unlikely that the virus will be contained before the second half of 2020 at the earliest. That is why I expect an economic depression and oil-prices of $20 or lower before long.

Tipping Point

When the normal spread of a disease transforms into an epidemic, it is called a tipping point. It is that moment when a small change tips the balance of a system and brings about a large change.

We are there. I’m not talking about coronavirus. I’m talking about the tipping point of our civilization.

Humans have not evolved emotionally since hunter-gatherer times on the African savanna. We believe that the planet’s space and resources are ours to use however we want regardless of implications for the earth and its other species.

We have developed an economic system that values economic growth above all else. Oil, more than any other factor, has super-charged our economic growth over the last century. When growth began to slow as oil became more expensive, we turned to debt, a call on some future energy surplus. The Financial Collapse of 2008 was a signal that we needed to de-leverage our debt. Instead, we devised clever ways of papering over the debt problem with more debt.

Now, the coronavirus has abruptly stopped the machinery of growth. Contagion – man’s primordial  fear – is spreading. Markets are collapsing and there are no solutions in sight. The most social of species is facing isolation.

We have crossed a threshold. It cannot be successfully crossed in fear. The virus will pass and this is not the end of times. Still, things will not return to the way they were before the tipping point was reached. We must finally seek balance with each other and with the planet, and, hopefully learn to live with less.

By Art Berman

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Leave a comment
  • Norman Clark on March 17 2020 said:
    Life is simple.....avoid driving. In montréal it’s easy....
  • Wayne Briggs on March 17 2020 said:
    It is obvious by this article that the author is consumed with his own fears!

    Will I succeed? I have to be consumed with this worry all the time. If I relax, then I immediately get off the track leading to my own goals.

    Sad that Oil Price allows trash from an author like this.
  • Suqi Madiqi on March 18 2020 said:
    Way too glum. Technology makes things more abundant because it requires less effort to produce. This means more things for cheaper prices. We are at peak child, probably peak farmland, ( 30 to 160 bushels of corn per acre since 1940 to today), and innovation is about to take off with 5G. This is a storm. It will pass.
  • Laurent on March 18 2020 said:
    Makes sense for most of what you say... but why is this showing we must learn to live with less ?
  • Mamdouh Salameh on March 18 2020 said:
    It is the coronavirus outbreak that is currently responsible for the collapsing global economy. The outbreak could go into history as the largest destructive event that has hit the global economy since the Six-Day War in 1973. Indeed its impact could prove far bigger than both the financial crisis of 2008 and the 2014 oil price crash.

    Still Saudi Arabia will be blamed for exacerbating an extremely damaging economic disaster into a depressed global economy. Saudi Arabia’s rash decision to start a price war against Russia could bankrupt its economy and precipitate a widespread destabilization in the country.

    The biggest loser in the oil price war is the global economy particularly the oil-producing nations of the world and within the global economy the two biggest losers are Saudi Arabia and the US shale oil industry.

    Despite the bravado, Saudi Arabia can neither win a price war with Russia nor is able to flood the global oil market with oil as it did in 2014. Russia’s economy can live with an oil price of $25 a barrel for years compared with a price of $85 or even higher for Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has never ever had a production capacity of 12.5 million barrels a day (mbd) as it claims and will never ever achieve one.

    Without the influx of billions of dollars of oil money, the economy could crash on the back of an oil price war with a mushrooming budget deficit estimated at $100 bn. To this should be added the loss of $200 bn being a 10% devaluation of Saudi Aramco’s shares bringing the total to $300 bn. This figure is four times more than projected Saudi oil revenues in 2020 based on an oil price of $30.

    The stability of Saudi Arabia depends on the Aramco IPO, Public Investment Fund projects and diversification. All can be linked directly and indirectly to OPEC+ and oil prices.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Tom l on March 18 2020 said:
    We are all stuck in the middle of a battle between 2 ego maniac psychopaths, Putin and the "king" of Saudi Arabia. They've both murdered critics of their policies so we should hardly be surprised they would ruin their own countries just to prove who's more macho.
  • Robert Berke on March 18 2020 said:
    As a confirmed Berman fan, I need to take exception to this article, a good example of the mistaking correlation for causation. No, I don’t think that energy is the economy, Yes, it id a major factor in the economy, but so are a lot of other factors, with the most important being access to credit. It’s true that at market peaks, energy prices are high, but the cause is the economies effect on oil price, not the other way around. A growing economy raises prices across not only commodities markets but all markets.

    If the world learned anything from the OPEC oil embargoes of the ’80’s, it is that high coil prices undermines growth through rapid inflation, causing low growth and high prices, The term most often used then to describe the economy stagflation.

    At the same time, low energy prices caused by the Saidis overproduction at a time of low demand will not cause recession, but it could be a catalyst, along with low interest rates, for starting a new upswing. For proof, you only have to look at China, whose economy is recovering on the back of cheap energy.

    In fact, the Saudi move may not be all that stupid. All the big energy importers, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, and India, may have found a new friend in the Saudis, Who else is going to give them $20 oil?

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