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Safe Bets in an Unsafe World

The first six months of 2014 are nearly in the books and it has proven to be a rocky ride for the oil markets.

Back in January, analysts predicted that the world was heading into a period of oversupply and lower prices. Iraq’s oil production was surging, and was expected to quickly top 4 million barrels per day (bpd), after averaging just over 3 million bpd for 2013.

Libya had been experiencing political infighting, holding back its oil sector. But, 2014 was expected to bring brighter days and see a return of some of Libya’s 1.8 million bpd of production capacity. Iran too was demonstrating an ability to revive parts of its oil production, and a warming of sorts with the West held promise that Iranian oil could soon return to market.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. shale patch continued to post remarkable gains in oil output.

Six months later, there seem to be more geopolitical flashpoints than ever. Russia annexed Crimea, and cut off natural gas supplies this week, raising concerns about supply disruptions to Europe. Although the standoff had seemed to be pushed to the back burner in recent weeks, the sudden escalation could renew questions about the exposure of western oil companies in Russia. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) is betting big on the Russian Arctic. BP (NYSE: BP) signed an agreement with Rosneft to explore for shale oil in the Urals. Total (NYSE: TOT) signed a similar agreement with Lukoil.

If natural gas flows to Europe are disrupted because of Gazprom’s action against Ukraine, the West could turn its attention back to sanctions. For now, it still seems likely that the oil majors will escape unscathed, but there is some risk there.

In a more urgent (and bloody) disaster, we discussed last week about the brewing crisis in Iraq, and the threats to oil companies operating in affected areas. After the second week of the chaos, the state looks no closer to resolving the calamity. Indeed, the splintering of the country along sectarian lines seems to be hardening, with a full on civil war in the works.

Investors can never predict where fires will suddenly spring up, and operating in key regions of the world that have high growth rates but suffer from political risk have long been a part of doing business. But the events so far this year may have many investors suffering from whiplash as they have seemingly had to turn their attention to a new crisis each week.
In a world of geopolitical…




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