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Practically speaking, the 25% oil price fall in less than three months is exceptional. In a politically driven market, many people believe a political decision by someone, somewhere, must have forced prices down.
The most popular conspiracy theory is that the United States and Saudi Arabia have combined to take money away from their major adversaries – Russia and Iran – and to bring them to the negotiating table in order to sort out a deal on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, respectively.
Though some don’t believe it, this notion has some plausibility. The reality is more prosaic. Excess supply continues to chase static demand. The result is falling prices. And this may well continue.
The interesting question is what happens next. According to market analysts, that’s up to the Saudis. The risk for the whole industry, and for many countries dependent on oil revenues, is that Saudi Arabia may have lost control of the market.
Prices could go a good deal lower with wide and mostly negative consequences, starting with more regional instability and a cutback in investment which can only feed the next cycle.
People tend to have a mental image of Saudi Arabia from the 1970s and 1980s: a fabulously wealthy country with a tiny population sitting on a sea of oil, staffed by brilliant technocrats who can set the world price by adjusting output and exports at will. This power supposedly gives Saudi Arabia not just enormous revenues but also U.S. protection in a dangerous world.
If it ever reflected the truth, this image is now wrong in almost every respect. Saudi rulers face dissent across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s population is now almost 30 million, up from 5.7 million in 1970.
The technocrats have thus far failed to develop an industrial economy or to find gas to provide local power. Domestic oil demand keeps on rising. Thirty million Saudis now use as much oil as 3 million barrels per day as 203 million Brazilians.
The Saudis may no longer be in a position to reverse the price fall. The danger of the trend since last June is that, with each step downwards, other producers tend to increase short-term production to maximize much-needed revenue.
Any field that can produce a bit more is pushed a little harder. Normal maintenance schedules are postponed and so on. The price drop over the last three months has not generated any fall in production. On the basis of standard economic theory, a fall in prices should stimulate demand.
But the oil market is a special place, where production costs are much disguised by consumer taxes or subsidies. It is not likely to see a dramatic effect on demand as a result of what has happened, not least because in the United States, Europe and Japan, oil demand is in structural decline.
Market analysts noted that the only action that would break this trend is a sharp and sustained cut in Saudi output. Saudi Arabia has acted in this way in the past but never alone. Its cuts have always been part of a strategy agreed, even in only a modest way, with the rest of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
But the world has changed. It’s hard to think of any OPEC state, except perhaps Kuwait, in a position to accept a sustained cut in production and revenue.
The Saudis are on their own. Restoring order would require a serious cut in output of perhaps 2 million barrels per day for a sustained period to rebalance a market in surplus, even in the absence of significant supplies from Libya and Iran.
In the short term, such action would require a rewritten budget,reduced domestic welfare and defense spending and a cut in subsidies to regional allies struggling in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
In this fevered setting, the scope for miscalculation is enormous. Oil prices have been set by politics, but fundamentals have a habit of reasserting themselves. Once started, a price fall will be very hard to reverse.
Much of the Saudis’ oil market power is psychological. People believe that, because they have controlled prices in the past, they will do so forever. Many investments across the world are grounded on that belief. If it turns out not to be true, investors face an uncomfortable awakening.