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Vincent Lauerman

Vincent Lauerman

Vincent is president of Geopolitics Central, a Calgary-based energy consultancy. He has spent the majority of his three-decade career working as a global energy analyst.

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Putin’s $40 Oil Lie

Much has been made of President Vladimir Putin’s recent claim that crude oil prices are acceptable at present levels, and the Russian economy could even weather $40 per barrel. Many oil market “tea leaf readers” have taken this to mean Putin has caved to the demands of his country’s oil oligarchs and Russia is unlikely to agree to an extension of last December’s OPEC+ deal at the scheduled mid-year meeting.

In reality, the crafty old Russian fox is probably just posturing to get a better deal for his country. The Kremlin needs higher crude prices than Putin claims for economic and geopolitical reasons. Why else would his government agree to two previous rounds of OPEC+ cuts when crude prices were relatively low? But Saudi Arabia has only itself to blame for Russia’s more assertive bargaining position this time around, having fallen back to its traditional swing producer role so far this year given the kingdom’s need for relatively high crude prices.

On June 6, speaking at a meeting with heads of international news agencies organized by TASS, Putin said Russia does not need or want very high crude prices. "The Russian processing industry itself is not interested in very high oil prices,” he said. “Well, the average price around $60-65 dollars per barrel is quite satisfactory, we don’t need to drive up [price] to the top, we already have a decent margin, in terms of budget.” Putin said Russia needs only $40 per barrel to balance its budget, and added the country can even add to its foreign exchange reserves at this price.

Russian oil companies have been far less supportive of the OPEC+ deal sealed in December 2018 than the one that took effect at the beginning of 2016 – after a period of extremely low crude prices – with oil-giant Rosneft leading the charge. In a letter to Putin in February, and since seen by Reuters, Rosneft head Igor Sechin warned the latest curbs posed a strategic threat to Russia as it simply opens the door for more U.S. oil. “Does it make sense (for Russia) to reduce (oil output) if the U.S immediately takes (our) market share?” Sechin was quoted as saying on June 4 by Interfax news agency in response to a possible extension of the latest OPEC+ deal. “We have to defend our market share.”

However, Russia is not as bulletproof to another oil price crash as Putin claims, especially given his geopolitical ambitions for the country. The Kremlin may be able to balance its government budget with $40 per barrel oil, but it’s highly unlikely it can do the same for its current account. The country’s foreign exchange reserves increased just $36 billion to $468 billion last year with Brent crude averaging $71 per barrel, and this is despite $8.8 billion of foreign direct investment on a net basis. As Cyril Widdershoven wrote in The Bearish Threat Within OPEC, “Putin’s dream of a Pax Russia cannot be built on $40 per barrel, not even on $60-65 per barrel.”

And the argument Putin is beholden to the country’s oil and gas oligarchs to keep him in power, and hence must kowtow to them rather than do what he considers best for Russia, is comical. The last oil oligarch to stand up to Putin and test his power was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former CEO of Yukos and once richest person in Russia. What happened to Khodorkhovsky and Yukos – jail and quasi-nationalization, respectively – since October 2003 is well documented. Anyways, Sechin, the most vocal critic of an extension to the OPEC+ deal, is one of Putin’s closest allies.

At the same time, if Russia is not planning to continue to cooperate with OPEC and the other nine non-OPEC members of OPEC+ to manipulate oil production and prices, why would it be finalizing a charter for a new organization? On May 27, TASS reported that the Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak expects to reach an agreement on an OPEC+ charter in time for the mid-year meeting. OPEC+ may not institutionalize to the extent previously planned, given concerns posed by potential U.S. anti-trust legislation — known as the NOPEC Act — but it should become a permanent new fixture of the world oil order in response to the U.S. Shale Oil Revolution. Related: Chinese Rare Earth Exports Tumble As Trade War Accelerates

Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of OPEC, and Russia, the leader of the non-OPEC members of OPEC+, also know the potential impact of no extension of the December 2018 OPEC+ deal. At a meeting in Moscow on June 10, Novak and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih agreed that oil prices could crash below $40 per barrel without a rollover, especially given a slowdown in oil consumption growth due to rising international trade tensions. Separately, but on the same day, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said oil prices could fall as low as $30 per barrel if OPEC+ production curbs are not extended.

But it appears Putin smells Saudi blood. It is widely known that Saudi Arabia needs significantly higher oil prices than Russia to balance its government budget – with $80-85 per barrel widely cited – and this has been contributing to far greater efforts by the kingdom to bolster prices so far this year than the Kremlin. For example, in April, before the chlorine contamination issue negatively impacted Russian production, the country had reduced crude output by 190,000 b/d, achieving only 80 percent of its agreed cuts based on International Energy Agency (IEA) data. In contrast, Saudi Arabia had slashed crude production by 820,000 b/d, representing 256 percent of agreed cuts.

Looking forward, we should expect an agreement to extend, and possibly deepen the OPEC+ cuts at the mid-year meeting. A deepening depends on downward adjustments to oil consumption growth projections between now and then balanced by expected production declines in Iran and Venezuela – and possibly elsewhere, such as Libya. Relatively speaking, Saudi Arabia will likely have to bear more of the burden of curbs than Russia – greater than the current 1.4 to 1 ratio – with the old fox Putin outwitting al-Falih and company. The price of spot Brent should average $75 per barrel in the second half of the year, roughly $10 more than the first half.

By Vincent Lauerman for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 14 2019 said:
    President Putin is not only the most astute statesman on the international stage currently but he also understands the economics and geopolitics of oil and energy probably better than the overwhelming majority of experts in the world. After all, his doctoral thesis was about how to use the energy resources of Russia to re-establish his country as a superpower bolstered by the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and underpinned by a close strategic alliance with China, the world’s largest economy.

    So when Putin says Russia needs only $40 per barrel to balance its budget and can even add to its foreign exchange reserves at this price, he should be believed.

    Putin’s drive for reforms and the diversification of the Russian economy since the oil price crash of 2014 are already bearing fruit. Russia is now saying that the Russian economy can actually live forever with an oil price of $40.

    While oil and gas exports are still important for the Russian economy, Russia has some of the world’s most sophisticated and advanced technical, industrial and scientific bases. As a result of the diversification strategy, Russia is now the world’s leader in nuclear reactor exports and also wheat exports. It is also competitive in defence products, space launches, nuclear power, mineral resources and information technology.

    OPEC + is set to extend the production cuts till the end of the year. Russia is going to agree to that extension despite some opposition from Russian oil companies because President Putin’s cooperation with OPEC goes beyond oil prices. It is about his strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and his attempts to wean it off the United States. It is also about gaining more influence over the global oil market through his cooperation with OPEC.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Dan Pearson on June 14 2019 said:
    OPEC+ is ready to meet to discuss extending their previous production cuts agreement put in place last year. These production cuts are fairly spread among the OPEC producing member countries, and the 9 Non-OPEC member countries to bring balance to the world oil markets which have been flooded by uneconomic low quality low API Shale Oil from the United States.

    While the U.S. has protested the flooding of the world steel markets by under-priced steel from China, the U.S. is flooding the world oil markets with uneconomic Shale Oil which could, in spirit, be considered a violation of US Anti-trust laws. The US Shale Oil Revolution was permitted initially by government ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) when quantitative easing (QE) allowed Shale Oil companies to get historically low interest rates when world crude oil was priced around $100 per barrel.

    After four years of $100 per barrel world crude oil prices in conjunction with US government backed ZIRP monetary policy, 23 of the top 25 US Shale Oil producers were uneconomic with zero to negative Free Cash Flows (FCF). This is according to the required quarterly financial reports filed by the top 25 US Shale Oil producers.

    World crude oil prices crashed in late 2014 due to expensive to produce uneconomic US Shale Oil flooding onto the world oil markets causing a surplus. After world crude prices crashed, the US Shale Oil industry made continued technology improvements, yet US Shale Oil remained uneconomic since most of the technology improvements for dealing with lower world crude prices came by way of lower prices from the drilling, completion, supplies, and various other service companies involved with US Shale Oil development.

    Now after many billions of dollars of equity money being lost due to the uneconomic US Shale Oil Revolution which flooded world markets resulting in a glut/surplus of crude oil, the US Shale Oil producers are still operating largely with high debt uneconomic environments. The US produced about 4mm bopd of conventional oil before expensive US Shale Oil came on the scene and pushed US oil production to 9.6mm bopd creating the surplus resulting in crude oil prices to crash. Today US Shale Oil production has risen to 12.6mm bopd breaking all previous production rate numbers for the US.

    Since the US Shale Oil Revolution came on the shoulders of US government monetary Policy (ZIRP), and has continued largely uneconomically due to investors (Wall Street) equity, it begs the question of how can the US continue to flood the world with surplus Shale Oil, which has driven world crude prices to levels which are not sustainable for the crude oil industry. The flood of uneconomic, low quality, high API Shale Oil is akin to how China flooded the world steel markets with under priced steel resulting in the closing of steel companies who could not compete with the low price steel China produced and exported.

    China’s world steel situation violated US Anti-trust laws either in spirit or in actuality which lead to the current Tariff Wars due to unfair commodities and/or trading issues. It makes one question if the US Shale Oil Revolution and associated flooding the world oil markets with inferior uneconomic Shale Oil causing world crude prices to remain artificially low is in violation of US Anti-trust laws in spirit since it prevents competition?

    As crude prices remain low due to ever increasing surplus US Shale Oil production, the world is not able to explore and find the required amounts of oil which is consumed each year (roughly 30 billion barrels/year). And the important oil service companies are in dire economic shape due to being unprofitable as a result of low crude prices. World crude oil consists of old vintage cheaper to produce conventional crude oil and ever increasing higher cost expensive to produce oil which is required to meet world demand. How the Exploration and Production, and more so, the all important Oil Service companies can continue with low world crude prices is a serious question. Regards.

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