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The Toughest Part Of The OPEC Deal

OPEC+ agreed to deepen output…

Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian is an energy and utilities consultant who has worked with several major international energy companies. He has an LL.M. from VU Amsterdam University…

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Saudi Arabia And Russia Unlikely To Agree On New Oil Cuts

OPEC is dead, long live OPEC+. Arguably the collaboration between the world's two largest exporters of oil, Russia and Saudi Arabia, is a significant development caused by and comparable to the shale revolution in the U.S.

Desperate times require desperate measures. A decade ago, a partnership between Moscow and Riyadh would have seemed impossible due to contradicting interests. Recent developments have somewhat aligned the countries into what has been dubbed OPEC+.

However, this doesn't mean that Russian and Saudi exporters aren't competitors anymore. In fact, the oil behemoths are contending more than ever for market share in Asian markets such as China. Also, Moscow and Riyadh take into consideration the relative position of their competitor and partner during further talks on production cuts to bolster prices. One of the measures, which is indicative of the bargaining position of the participating country, is the size of the respective Central Bank’s wealth in terms of money, gold, and other securities.

Russia's relative wealth has been increasing in recent years, while Saudi Arabia's has been decreasing. This development says two things: first, the state of the economy, and second, the respective country's choice of strategy and consequential bargaining position.

(Click to enlarge)

State of the economy

The diverging wealth gap between Saudi Arabia and Russia is a consequence of internal and external developments leading to a build-up or spending of oil wealth. In Moscow's case, the Western sanctions of 2015 and the lower revenue from oil sales have caused severe economic damage. Russia was able to maintain relative economic stability due to its savings (see the above figure for the drop in relative wealth after 2015). Moscow has learned to appreciate its rainy-day fund, meaning that a new financial buffer is required in case of another crisis.

Second, the financial stockpiling, or spending in Riyadh's case, is indicative of the country's state of the economy. Although Russia is battered after several years of sanctions with a strong dependence on its energy sector, the Eurasian giant is still home to a sizeable diversified economy. Saudi Arabia's, in contrast, has a higher degree of dependence on oil production. Therefore, decreasing income from energy exports needs to be compensated by spending the country’s savings. Related: Why Gold Prices Are About To Skyrocket Even Higher

Also, Saudi Arabia is engaged in a costly quagmire in Yemen where its forces are not able to defeat the Houthi rebels, which are supported by arch-enemy Iran. Furthermore, Saudi Crown Prince MBS has set the country on a path of diversification, which is partly funded with national resources.

Negotiating new cuts

Rating agency Fitch has upgraded Russia’s debt rating recently, due to what it called “prudent economic policies”. The country's reserves will amount to nearly $600 billion as a consequence of trade and budget surpluses. Moscow's sound policies have reduced the fiscal breakeven from nearly $110 a barrel in 2013 to $40 currently, and in the meantime, the Kremlin is successfully boosting its market share in European and Chinese markets

An aggressive foreign policy and ambitious domestic goals require large sums of money in Saudi Arabia's case. Therefore, Riyadh would prefer to see the price of oil around at least $80 per barrel to break-even its budget.

Moscow is well aware of the situation of its competitor and partner. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Kremlin will agree on further reducing oil production to bolster prices. Saudi Arabia won’t accept that the price of oil drops below its current level and the country is considering all options, according to an official from the Kingdom. Already Riyadh's actions had a positive effect on prices, which rebounded slightly last week when the announcement was made of the Arab country's commitment to stabilize prices due to the trade war and the threat of a global recession.

(Click to enlarge)

Russia, most likely, has a fair estimation of its partner’s willingness and necessity to act without the participation of Moscow beyond the current OPEC+ agreement. Unless prices drop below $40 per barrel, Moscow will remain reluctant to agree on further cuts and instead free-ride its way into the future where prices hopefully are more favourable to producers.

By Vanand Meliksetian for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on August 15 2019 said:
    Let me first point out that OPEC is not dead. It will outlive the US shale oil industry and be with us well into the future. OPEC+ doesn’t replace OPEC but is currently a vehicle by which the world’s two largest oil producers and exporters, namely Russia and Saudi Arabia, channel their strategic and economic interests and cooperation.

    President Putin who is the world’s most astute strategist, sees strategic and economic benefits of building a strong cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Through this cooperation, he has acquired more influence on OPEC itself and also on the global oil market.

    Russia and Saudi Arabia will always be rivals in search of bigger market shares and their oil strategies will, therefore, differ from time to time.

    Because Russia is a highly diversified economy compared to Saudi Arabia’s almost totally oil-based economy, the Russian economy can live with an oil price of $40 a barrel or even less while Saudi Arabia needs a minimal oil price of $80-$85 to balance its budget. This means that Russia is not easily persuaded to cut production to bolster the oil price as Saudi Arabia.

    Even with relatively low oil prices, Russia has managed through drastic diversification since the oil price collapse in 2014 to accelerate the growth of its economy despite US sanctions and to enhance its non-oil and gas exports and to amass a healthy financial reserve as well as emerge as the world’s energy super power.

    Russia's relative wealth has been growing in recent years. Compare this with Saudi Arabia which has been depleting its financial reserves to support the budget against an onslaught of low oil prices.

    That is why Russia might not oblige this time if asked by Saudi Arabia to deepen the OPEC+ cuts to bolster oil prices unless oil prices dip below $40.

    Oil prices are now facing a growing glut which is being augmented by the trade war between the US and China. Russia realizes that deeper cuts by OPEC+ will hardly make a dent on the glut until the US and China make a deal to end the trade war. This doesn’t seem close.

    Despite the fact that China has already won the trade war, President Trump is finding it hugely difficult to admit defeat. He has backed himself into a corner, with only one option open to him now, namely to call off his trade war and negotiate an end to the war on China’s terms. This is too bitter a pill to swallow. That is why he is prevaricating about ending the trade war.

    Moreover, the Chinese leadership has already reached the conclusion that they are dealing with a president who comes under the influence of the last adviser he speaks to and one who might agree something today and renege on it the following day. Therefore, there is little incentive for China to offer concessions of any significance.

    Instead of cutting his losses, President Trump is now trying to muddy the water by linking the trade war with the political turmoil in Hong Kong as evidenced by his offer to have a personal meeting with President Xi Jinping to calm things down in Hong Kong. The Chinese president will certainly tell him to mind his own business. China has already exposed US involvement in the turmoil in Hong Kong when it published a photo of an American diplomat meeting members of the Hong Kong opposition.

    The hawks in Washington may try to persuade President Trump to abrogate the time-honoured agreement the Nixon administration reached with China on the status of Taiwan. I wouldn’t be surprised if a pro-independence campaign follows soon in Taiwan with US instigation and blessing. Were President Trump to embark on such a course of action, he would have crossed a RED LINE with an incalculable risk for the United States

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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