Dropping Oil Prices Put These Countries at Risk

Executive Report with ISA Intel: This report is part of Oil & Energy Insider, the Oilprice.com premium publication. It gives subscribers an information advantage when investing, trading, or doing business in the energy sectors.

The oil markets woke up at the end of the summer of 2014 realizing that there was not as much demand out there as they thought. Suddenly, the world is flush with supplies, and there aren’t enough buyers out there to gobble it all up.

That has Brent prices at their lowest levels in over two years.

The International Energy Agency said that weakening demand for oil worldwide is “nothing short of remarkable.” What is even more remarkable is the blunt language used by the IEA, usually a buttoned-up and bureaucratic bunch.

But for the third month in a row the IEA was forced to slash its demand forecast for 2014. The agency now expects oil demand to grow by just 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) between 2013 and 2014, a downward revision of 65,000 bpd from a month earlier. It is also 300,000 bpd less than what the IEA expected for the year in its July report.

For 2015, growth in oil demand is expected to only reach 1.2 million bpd, or 165,000 bpd less than the agency thought one month ago. The agency pins the slowdown on weak growth in Europe and China.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi responded to reporters’ questions about what OPEC would do. Prices “always fluctuate and this is normal,” he said. He dismissed the notion that OPEC would resort to drastic measures to prop up prices.

“We are confident that the current price drop does not call for an emergency meeting…. The price drop was not big and was expected…. I expect it to rebound again,” Kuwait oil minister Ali Saleh Al-Omair said.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is plenty worried about a glut of supplies. It cut production by between 330,000 and 400,000 bpd in the month of August.

And OPEC and other major oil suppliers are probably more worried than they are letting on. And if they aren’t, they should be. That is because many of them need high oil prices to sustain fiscal expenditures.

Below are a few countries to keep an eye on during this period of soft oil prices. This is an issue that will simmer and only grow worse with time, but investors need to maintain their attention on this list of oil suppliers because while the problems could be acute, they are often slow to emerge.

•    Iran. The Iranian regime has seen its oil revenues plummet as result of western sanctions. In lost around $26 billion in 2012 due to low levels of exports. As a result, its “breakeven” price – the price at which it can sell oil and balance its budget – sits at around $126 per barrel for Brent crude, well above the $97 and $98 per barrel that oil is selling for as of September 11, 2014. Iran will be taking in a lot less revenue than it was earlier this year as crude prices drop. This should have some complicated ramifications for the ongoing negotiations with the P5+1 nations over its nuclear program. On the one hand, it could apply additional pressure to Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani to make a deal. That could lift the sanctions and allow Iran to significantly boost oil exports and bring in more revenues. On the other hand, if the two sides are unable to make a deal, Iran, with its back against the wall, could resort to more sabre rattling in order to increase tension and thereby boost oil prices. Time will tell, but the longer oil prices remain soft, the more interesting this situation will get.

•    Russia. Soft oil prices could not have come at a worse time for the Russian economy, already reeling from capital flight, sanctions, and the onset of a full blown recession. After several months of economic pain, Russia finally agreed to help implement a ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev. It seems that despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impressive resolve in the face of international opprobrium, even he began to see the rising toll of continuing the conflict. Russia is so overwhelmingly dependent on oil and natural gas to fuel its economy that an extended period of sub-$100 per barrel Brent prices spells trouble for the Russian economy. For every $1 decline in the price of a barrel of oil, Russia loses out on $1.4 billion in annual revenue. To be sure, Russia is in a bit better position than Iran, fiscally speaking, with a breakeven price for somewhere between $110 and $117 per barrel. But, in the short-term, a period of low oil prices will send the economy into recession and even endanger high cost projects, such as the Arctic. Over the long-term, the EU and the U.S. are considering sanctions hat could prevent Russia from growing its oil sector. You can bet that Putin is biting his nails as Brent prices continue to fall.

•    Saudi Arabia. This one is intriguing. Although Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi downplayed the recent decline in oil prices, Saudi Arabia is in a conundrum. As one of the world’s largest oil producers and the only one with significant spare capacity, Saudi Arabia takes its role seriously as a sort of central bank of oil supplies – it’s the only country that proactively increases and decreases production to balance supply and demand. It prefers high prices, but above all, it likes stability. It has a breakeven price of around $92 to $97 per barrel, meaning oil prices are about at the lower end of what it can handle for a long period of time. In fact, its breakeven price has risen in recent years as a result of higher spending in order to calm unrest resulting from the Arab Spring. So, the oil kingdom could cut back production to lift prices, but then it would be taking in less revenue because it would be selling fewer barrels. Meanwhile, U.S. oil production is adding global supplies and cutting into Saudi Arabia’s market share. Also, other OPEC members are ramping up production forcing Saudi Arabia to pullback. This is a trickier equation for Saudi Arabia than many energy analysts appreciate. Saudi Arabia’s ability to control oil markets is waning, and if prices do not bounce back, as Naimi predicts, Saudi Arabia will face some serious economic and budgetary challenges.

•    Iraq. Where to start? The country has been torn apart. It has not resulted in the wholesale destruction of Iraq’s oil sector, but future investment is highly questionable. The fractured country is about to experience an American air strike campaign that could last for several years. After Iraq was showcased by the IEA as one of the key countries that would meet rising oil demand over the next 25 years, Iraq’s ability to boost production is dubious, to say the least. But given the existential problems facing the country, increasing production is not of immediate concern. Low oil prices are probably the least of Iraq’s problems, but the country still has a breakeven price of around $106 to $116 per barrel. Even still, for a country that is already at war, and seemingly has been for ages, things probably can’t get any worse.

•    Venezuela. Perhaps the oil producer in most trouble, and oddly enough, one of the least in the news, is Venezuela. Venezuela’s bond prices hit a six-month low on September 8, as investors feared the South American OPEC member was teetering on the brink of default. Venezuela has $4.5 billion in bond maturities later this year, but it is quickly running out of cash. Its bond yields, more than 13 percentage points higher than U.S. bonds, is even higher than Ukraine and Argentina, which went into selective default at the end of July. The violent protests that rocked the country in February have subsided, but they could roar back in the coming months if the problems do not recede. The Venezuelan government tried to reassure the markets, but its problems could be about to get worse, not better, now that oil prices are dropping. The country has a breakeven price between $117 and $121 per barrel. If the government defaults, oil exports could be targeted by creditors, according to the Wall Street Journal. To top it off, the turmoil with bond markets could further slash Venezuela’s oil production, which has already been in decline for a number of years. There is a decent chance that this whole thing blows up in the coming months.

It is not all doom and gloom for major oil producers, as crude has the habit of fluctuating wildly. Just as prices dropped because of weak demand and larger supplies, the markets could quickly tighten once again. In fact, over the long-term, demand will only continue to rise. Oil producers just need to find a way to ride out the near-term. But, that is easier said than done, and if oil prices remain persistently low, some of these countries may not be able to weather the storm. Executive Report with ISA Intel. This report is part of Oil & Energy Insider.

In the US, drilling oil is back. Big time. Along with a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric. Read…. Obama’s Oil Boom – Global Warming Be Damned

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.

  13 comments for “Dropping Oil Prices Put These Countries at Risk

  1. hoop says:


    they can cut the budget and spend less like is done in many countries in the world already. Ergo they must adopt themselves to lower oil prices or run a budget deficit like many already doing. till something blows up :-)

  2. Petunia says:

    Consumers are very cost conscious and are watching every penny. I now calculate the cost of gas when I go on a shopping trip to the mall. I make sure I am not wasting a trip. I never had to do that before the recession. My son and his peers are also not driving because they don’t have jobs and cannot afford their gadgets and a car. The kids keep contact mostly on the internet. The new normal sucks.

  3. VegasBob says:

    Looking at the turmoil in the world and watching oil prices fall anyway leads me to wonder whether the world economy might be slowing down a lot more than anyone wants to admit…

    • David R.(Canada) says:

      And you can add to that what looks like the beginnings of deflation.
      Things are starting to get real interesting in Europe.

  4. VegasBob says:

    Looking at the turmoil in the world and watching oil prices fall anyway leads me to wonder whether the world economy might be slowing down a lot more than anyone wants to admit…

    • Wolf Richter says:

      That would be the toxic mix: rapidly slowing global economy and rapidly growing oil production in the US. Plenty of people say that’s the case.

      • Goodtimes Jerry says:

        Falling oil prices will also make Williston, ND a ghost town. Oil below $80 will put the breaks on shale production in the US and Wall Street lenders hit the panic button as their shale financing schemes default.

        Worry about that more than what Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest will do if oil continues to fall.

  5. Michael says:

    Are prices falling because of waning demand for oil or from even more manipulation in the “paper” futures markets by western banks in an attempt to hurt Russia? Wouldn’t a declining oil/gas price also prove extremely damaging to the heavily indebted US companies?


  6. WhirledPeas says:

    Don’t forget the advances made by battery and hybrid autos. These advances are for real and are here to stay. They most assuredly will altar the supply/demand equation in the years to come. Governments are quick to respond and many are talking about taxing autos by the mile rather than by the gallon.

  7. Orlando says:

    The current predicament is caused by a fall in the amount of money available for leveraging. Most of the demand in the past three years has been ‘pulled’ forward by excessive QE / ZIRP leveraged speculation. As the FED tightens money, the price will fall, due to the fall in leveraged high power money available for speculation. Worse, the government has reduced the budget deficit from 9% in 2010 to 3.6% presently, which means the money supply can grow by around 3-5% this year. With the FED printing less, through asset purchases and Treasury printing less due to the fall in the deficit, the primary source of price inflation, unlimited money growth is quickly falling by the wayside. Expect all commodities to correct unless the FED reverses course. With the over extended energy consumer cutting back, you could see a new reverse price wave as shorts take over the market and cause a major correction in price, down to the $30 range. You think this is crazy, just think, a similar tight money / balanced budget scenario occurred in 1995 – 2000 which bought the price of oil down to $16 a barrel. IF the Republicans take over the senate, look out below. Of course tight money will force a worldwide revolt and an attack on America (like 2001) forcing an opening of the flood gates. But don’t worry, we have at least five years to prepare and they will likely reverse course long before then! The FED has only itself to blame, we’re just the victims.

  8. prepalaw says:

    Simply stated, the lowering of oil prices is another form of financial warfare against Russia and the other oil producers.

    The Russians most likely anticipated this and hedged their production out for many years – using intermediaries.

    The people, who will be killed, are those drilling and producing oil and gas shale and tar sands hydrocarbons. Their cost of production did not go down. Many of these folks will go bankrupt.

    The price decline did not happen, as the result of supply and demand. This is a manufactured phenomena. All planned out – those not in the know are getting killed.

    Good luck to All.

  9. Ken says:

    What about Canada? The tar sands is causing “Dutch Disease” in Canada and the cost of tar sands oil is fairly high per barrel.

  10. Iran, with its back against the wall, could resort to more sabre rattling in order to increase tension and thereby boost oil prices.

    Silly wabbits, there are two major wars (Russia-Ukraine and Syria-Iraq) plus heated sub-war conflicts in Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria and elsewhere in the ‘oil belt’ and prices are slumping.

    Why the slump? Easy: customers — the folks who are expected to borrow in order to pay for expensive crude products — are broke, everywhere. There is not enough credit-worthiness within the interconnected economic system to support the drillers. The same drillers are actually competing against their own customers — as well as the lenders — for funds!

    This is energy deflation, similar to Irving Fisher’s ‘debt deflation’. It works the same way: a scarcity premium becomes a component of real fuel price. Even as nominal fuel price declines, the premium expands faster. Nominal prices cannot decline fast enough for fuel to be affordable, as fast as prices declines, the faster the fuel customers go broke due to the high real price.

    This is your world, there is no way out of it: ‘Conservation by Other Means’ ™

Comments are closed.