Saudi oil policy risks creating perfect storm for Aramco flotation

Good business strategies generally create good investments over the longer term. And so Aramco needs to ensure it has the best possible strategies, if it wants to maximise the outcome from its planned $2tn flotation. Unfortunately, the current oil price strategy seems more likely to damage its valuation, by being based on 3 questionable assumptions:

  • Oil demand will always grow at levels seen in the past – if transport demand slows, plastics will take over
  • Saudi will always be able to control the oil market – Russian/US production growth is irrelevant
  • The rise of sustainability concerns, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, can be ignored

These are dangerous assumptions to make today, with the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle fast receding into history.

After all, even in the SuperCycle, OPEC’s attempt in the early 1980s to hold the oil price at around today’s levels (in $2018) was a complete failure.  So the odds on the policy working today are not very high, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) himself acknowledged 2 years ago, when launching his ambitious ‘Vision 2030:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.  We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

As I noted here at the time, MbS’s bold plan for restructuring the economy included a welcome dose of reality:

“The government’s new Vision statement is based on the assumption of a $30/bbl oil price in 2030 – in line with the long-term historical average. And one key element of this policy is the flotation of 5% of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Estimates suggest it is worth at least $2tn, meaning that 5% will be worth $100bn. And as I suggested to the Wall Street Journal:

“The process of listing will completely change the character of the company and demand a new openness from its senior management“.

MbS is still making good progress with his domestic policy reforms.  Women, for example, are finally due to be allowed to drive in June and modern entertainment facilities such as cinemas are now being allowed again after a 35 year ban.  But unfortunately, over the past 2 years, Saudi oil policy has gone backwards.

SUSTAINABILITY/RENEWABLES ARE ALREADY REDUCING OIL MARKET DEMAND

Restructuring the Saudi economy away from oil-dependence was always going to be a tough challenge.  And the pace of the required change is increasing, as the world’s consumers focus on sustainability and pollution.

It is, of course, easy to miss this trend if your advisers only listen to bonus-hungry investment bankers, or OPEC leaders.  But when brand-owners such as Coca-Cola talk, you can’t afford to ignore what they are saying – and doing.

Coke uses 120bn bottles a year and as its CEO noted when introducing their new policy:

“If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways.  We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened . . . companies have to do their part by making sure their packaging is actually recyclable.”

Similarly, MbS’s advisers seem to be completely ignoring the likely implications of China’s ‘War on Pollution’ for oil demand – and China is its largest customer for oil/plastics exports.

Already the European Union has set out plans to ensureAll plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

And in China, the city of Shenzhen has converted all of its 16359 buses to run on electric power, and is now converting its 17000 taxis.

Whilst the city of Jinan is planning a network of “intelligent highways” as the video in this Bloomberg report shows, which will use solar panels to charge the batteries of autonomous vehicles as they drive along.

ALIENATING CONSUMERS IS THE WRONG POLICY TO PURSUE
As the chart at the top confirms, oil’s period of energy dominance was already coming to an end, even before the issues of sustainability and pollution really began to emerge as constraints on demand.

This is why MbS was right to aim to move the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil within 20 years.

By going back on this strategy, Saudi is storing up major problems for the planned Aramco flotation:

  • Of course it is easy to force through price rises in the short-term via production cuts
  • But in the medium term, they upset consumers and so hasten the decline in oil demand and Saudi’s market share
  • It is much easier to fund the development of new technologies such as solar and wind when oil prices are high
  • It is also much easier for rival oil producers, such as US frackers, to fund the growth of new low-cost production

Aramco is making major strides towards becoming a more open company.  But when it comes to the flotation, investors are going to look carefully at the real outlook for oil demand in the critical transport sector.  And they are rightly going to be nervous over the medium/longer-term prospects.

They are also going to be very sceptical about the idea that plastics can replace lost demand in the transport sector.  Already 11 major brands, including Coke, Unilever, Wal-Mart  and Pepsi – responsible for 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging – are committed to using “100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025“.

We can be sure that these numbers will grow dramatically over the next few years.  Recycled plastic, not virgin product, is set to be the growth product of the future.

ITS NOT TOO LATE FOR A RETURN TO MBS’s ORIGINAL POLICY
Saudi already has a major challenge ahead in transforming its economy away from oil.  In the short-term:

  • Higher oil prices may allow the Kingdom to continue with generous handouts to the population
  • But they will reduce Aramco’s value to investors over the medium and longer-term
  • The planned $100bn windfall from the proposed $2tn valuation will become more difficult to achieve

3 years ago, Saudi’s then Oil Minister was very clear about the need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.”

As philosopher George Santayana wisely noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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China’s role in market volatility – Beijing’s shifting priorities raise questions over assumptions of global growth

Commentators have confused cause with effect when analysing this month’s sudden downturn in financial markets, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog


Surprise and confusion seem to have been the main reactions to this month’s sudden downturn in western financial markets. Yet across the world in China, warning signs of a potential downturn have been building for some months, as discussed here in June.

As the chart below shows, President Xi Jinping’s decision to move away from stimulus policy will have a direct impact on the global economy, as this has been the main source of the liquidity that has boosted financial markets over the past decade.

China’s official and shadow bank lending totalled more than $20tn between 2009 and 2017. By comparison, the US Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and Bank of England added “only” $13tn between them.

The critical importance of China’s policy shift was highlighted in December by the state-owned Xinhua news service when it announced Mr Xi’s priorities for 2018 as being to fight “three tough battles” to secure China’s goal of “becoming a moderately prosperous society” by 2020.

“Financial deleveraging” was described as the first battle, and it seems the opening salvos have already been fired, given that China’s capital outflows collapsed from $640bn in 2016 to just $60bn in 2017.

The People’s Bank of China then reinforced this priority in January with a statement emphasising that “slower M2 growth than before will become the ‘new normal’, as the country’s deleveraging process deepens and the financial sector gets back to the function of serving the economy”.

Western financial markets, however, seemed to adopt the “Road Runner approach” to this major paradigm shift in economic policy. Like the cartoon character Wile E Coyote, the new year saw them continuing to hang in mid-air before finally realising they were about to plummet into the chasm.

Even more worrying, now calm has been temporarily restored, is their failure to learn from the experience. Instead, commentators have mostly gone back to their comfort zone and are again focusing on the minutiae of policy statements from the major western central banks.

This could prove a costly mistake for investors and companies. As the FT reported in December, Mr Xi has already “made controlling debt at state-owned enterprises a top policy priority”, and it seems likely he will follow the IMF’s advice by increasing budget constraints for China’s zombie companies and allowing more corporate defaults. January’s shadow bank lending was the lowest January level since 2009 at just $25bn, and it was 90 per cent lower than in January 2017.

The recent rush of asset sales by major Chinese corporates such as HNA and Dalian Wanda is another clear sign of the new discipline being imposed. Foreign investors must hope the companies realise a good return from these disposals, given that they provided $221bn in dollar-denominated loans to Chinese borrowers last year.

Deleveraging is only one of Mr Xi’s “three battles”, however. And while his second battle on poverty reduction is unlikely to impact the global economy, his third battle, the “War on Pollution”, has a number of potentially critical implications.

It has already led to thousands of company closures and forcible relocations, and has severely disrupted major parts of China’s economy — causing China’s producer price index to peak at 6.9 per cent in the fourth quarter. In turn (as we had forecast here in November), this surge has created today’s “inflation surprise” as its impact rippled round the world.

One key component of the “surprise” was the disruption caused by the unexpected loss of production in key commodity markets. Oil prices have surged, for example, as China’s move away from coal has powered a short-term increase in oil demand. And, as always, the surge has been boosted by the inventory build typically associated with such unexpected and sudden price hikes. This can be seen in the second chart, which focuses on volume changes in the chemicals market, normally an excellent leading indicator for the global economy.

It confirms that consumers put aside their initial scepticism over Opec’s ability to support the oil market, as China’s excess demand helped prices to rise 60 per cent from June’s $44 a barrel to January’s $71 peak. Purchasers scrambled to build stock ahead of likely price rises for their own raw materials.

This time round, it even led buyers to abandon their normal tactic of reducing stock at year-end to flatter working capital data. Instead, inventories rose quite sharply all down the value chains, creating the illusion that demand was suddenly increasing in a co-ordinated fashion around the world.

The world has seen many similar increases in such “apparent demand” over the years, and these can temporarily add up to an extra month’s demand to underlying levels. This increase is, of course, only a temporary effect, as it is quickly unwound again once prices start to stabilise. The chart also shows that this was already starting to happen in January, with the normal seasonal stock-build being replaced by destocking.

In turn, of course, these developments raise a major question mark over the current assumption that the world is now seeing a synchronised global recovery. We suspect that by the summer, policymakers may well find themselves repeating the famous lament of Stanley Fischer in August 2014, when the Fed’s vice-chairman sadly noted that “year after year we have had to explain from midyear on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back”.

Paul Hodges, Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga and Paul Satchell publish The pH Report.

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Economy faces slowdown as oil/commodity prices slide


Oil and commodity markets long ago lost contact with the real world of supply and demand. Instead, they have been dominated by financial speculation, fuelled by the vast amounts of liquidity pumped out by the central banks.  The chart above from John Kemp at Reuters gives the speculative positioning in the oil complex as published last Monday:

  • It shows hedge fund positioning in terms of the ratio of long to short positions across the complex
  • The ratio had been at a near-record low of 1.55x back in June last year, before the rally took off
  • On 30 January it had risen to a record 11.9x – far above even the 2014 and 2017 peaks

The size of the rally has also been extraordinary, as I noted 2 weeks ago.  At its peak, the funds owned 1.5bn barrels of oil and products – equivalent to an astonishing 16 days of global oil demand.  They had bought 1.2bn barrels since June, creating the illusion of very strong demand.  But, of course, hedge funds don’t actually use oil, they only trade it.

The funds also don’t normally hang around when the selling starts. And so last week, as the second chart shows, they began to sell their positions and take profits.  The rally peaked at $71/bbl at the end of January, and then topped out on 2 February at $70/bbl.  By last Friday, only a week later, Brent was at $63/bbl, having fallen 11% in just one week.

Of course, nothing had changed in the outlook for supply/demand, or for the global economy, during the week.  And this simple fact confirms how the speculative cash has come to dominate real-world markets.  The selling was due to nervous traders, who could see prices were challenging a critical “technical” point on the chart:

  • Most commodity trading is done in relation to charts, as it is momentum-based
  • The 200 day exponential moving average (EMA) is used to chart the trend’s strength
  • When the oil price reached the 200-day EMA (red line), many traders got nervous
  • And as they began to sell, so others began to follow them as momentum switched

The main sellers were the legal highwaymen, otherwise known as the high-frequency traders.  Their algorithm-based machines do more than half of all daily trading, and simply want a trend to follow, milli-second by milli-second.  As the Financial Times warned in June:

“The stock market has become a battlefield of algorithms, ranging from the simple – ETFs bought by retirees that may invest in the entire market, an industry, a specific factor or even themes like obesity – to the complex, commanded by multi-billion dollar “quantitative” hedge funds staffed by mathematicians, coders and data scientists.”

JP Morgan even estimates that only 10% of all trading is done by “real investors”:

“Passive and quantitative investors now account for about 60% of the US equity asset management industry, up from under 30% a decade ago, and reckons that only roughly 10% of trading is done by traditional, “discretionary” traders, as opposed to systematic rules-based ones.”

Probably prices will now attempt to stabilise again before resuming their downward movement.  But clearly the upward trend, which took prices up by 60% since June, has been broken.  Similar collapses have occurred across the commodity complex, with the CRB Index showing a 6% price fall across major commodities:

  • Typically, inventory build ahead of price rises can add an extra month of “apparent demand” to real demand
  • This inventory will now have to be run down as buyers destock to more normal levels again
  • This means we can expect demand to slow along all the major value chains
  • Western companies will now see slow demand through Easter: Asia will see slow demand after Lunar New Year

This disappointment will end the myth that the world is in the middle of a synchronised global recovery. In turn, it will cause estimates of oil demand growth to be reduced, further weakening prices.  It will also cause markets to re-examine current myths about the costs of US shale oil production:

  • As the charts from Pioneer Natural Resources confirm, most shale oil breakeven costs are below $30/bbl
  • Pioneer’s own operating costs, typical of most of the major players, are below $10/bbl
  • So the belief that shale oil needs a price of $50/bbl to support future production is simply wrong

PREPARE FOR PROFIT WARNINGS AND POTENTIAL BANKRUPTCIES BY THE SUMMER
Over the summer, therefore, many industrial companies will likely need to start issuing profit warnings, as it becomes clear that demand has failed meet expectations.  This will put stock markets under major pressure, especially if interest rates keep rising as I discussed last month.

Smart CEOs will now start to prepare contingency plans, in case this should happen.  We can all hope the recent downturn in global financial markets is just a blip.  But hope is not a strategy.  And the risk of profit warnings turning into major bankruptcies is extremely high, given that global debt now totals $233tn, more than 3x global GDP.

 

FORECAST MONITORING
I strongly believe that forecasts should be monitored, which is why I always review the previous Annual Budget forecast before issuing the next Outlook, and always publish the complete list of Annual Budget Outlooks.

Since January, I have also been monitoring my blog forecasts, using the percentage mechanism highlighted in Philip Tetlock’s masterly “Superforecasting” book. Today’s forecast for oil prices to fall initially to $50/bbl is therefore now added to those on ethylene/polyethylene and the US 10-year interest rate. I am also increasing the confidence level for the interest rate forecast to 70%, and will continue to update these levels when circumstances change.

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The global economy and the US$ – an alternative view

Every New Year starts with optimism about the global economy.  But as Stanley Fischer, then vice chair of the US Federal Reserve, noted back in August 2014:

 “Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back.”

Will 2018 be any different?  Once again, the IMF and other forecasters have been lining up to tell us the long-awaited “synchronised global recovery” is now underway.  But at the same, they say they are puzzled that the US$ is so weak.  As the Financial Times headline asked:

“Has the US dollar stopped making sense?”

If the global economy was really getting stronger, then the US$ would normally be rising, not falling.  So could it be that the economy is not, actually, seeing the promised recovery?

OIL/COMMODITY PRICE INVENTORY BUILD HAS FOOLED THE EXPERTS, AGAIN
It isn’t hard to discover why the experts have been fooled.  Since June, we have been seeing the usual rise in “apparent demand” that always accompanies major commodity price rises.  Oil, after all, has already risen by 60%.

Contrary to economic theory, companies down the value chains always build inventory in advance of potential price rises.  Typically, this adds about 10% to real demand, equal to an extra month in the year.  Then, when the rally ends, companies destock again and “apparent demand” weakens again.

The two charts above confirm that the rally had nothing to do with a rise in “real demand”:

Their buying has powered the rise in oil prices, based on the free cash being handed out by the central banks, particularly in Europe and Japan, as part of their stimulus programmes.

They weren’t only buying oil, of course.  Most major commodities have also rallied.  Oil was particularly dramatic, however, as the funds had held record short positions till June.  Once they began to bet on a rally instead, prices had nowhere to go but up.  1.4bn barrels represents as astonishing 15 days of global oil demand, after all.

What has this to do with the US$, you might ask?  The answer is simply that hedge funds, as the name implies, like to go long in one market whilst going short on another.  And one of their favourite trades is going long (or short) on oil and commodities, whilst doing the opposite on the US$:

  • Since June, they have been happily going long on commodities
  • And as Reuters reports, they have also been opening major short positions on the dollar

The chart highlights the result, showing how the US$’s fall began just as oil/commodity prices began to rise.

COMPANIES HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO BUILD INVENTORY WHEN COMMODITY PRICES RISE
This pattern has been going on for a long time.  But I have met very few economists or central bankers who recognise it.  They instead argue that markets are always efficient, as one professor told me recently:

“Economists would tend to be skeptical about concepts such as “apparent demand”. Unless this a secret concept (and it doesn’t seem like it is), other investors should also use it, and then the oil price should already reflect it. Thus, there wouldn’t be gains to be made (unless you’re quicker than everyone else or have inside information)…”

But if you were a purchasing manager in the real world, you wouldn’t be sceptical at all.  You would see prices rising for your key raw materials, and you would ask your CFO for some extra cash to build more inventory.  You would know that a rising oil, or iron, or other commodity price will soon push up the prices for your products.

And your CFO would agree, as would the CFOs of all the companies that you supply down the value chain.

So for the last 6 months, everyone who buys oil or other commodity-related products has been busy building as much inventory as they could afford.  In turn, of course, this has made it appear that demand has suddenly begun to recover.  At last, it seems, the “synchronised global recovery” has arrived.

Except, of course, that it hasn’t.  The hedge funds didn’t buy 15 days-worth of oil to use it.  They bought it to speculate, with the OPEC-Russia deal providing the essential “story” to support their buying binge.

THE RISE IN COMMODITY PRICES, AND “APPARENT DEMAND”, IS LIKELY COMING TO AN END
What happens next is, of course, the critical issue.  As we suggested in this month’s pH Report:

“This phenomenon of customers buying forward in advance of oil-price rises goes back to the first Arab Oil Crisis in 1973 – 1974. And yet every time it happens, the industry persuades itself “this time is different”, and that consumers are indeed simply buying to fill real demand. With Brent prices having nearly reached our $75/bbl target, we fear reality will dawn once again when prices stop rising.”

Forecasting, as the humorist Mark Twain noted, “is difficult, particularly about the future”.  But hedge funds aren’t known for being long-term players.  And with refinery maintenance season coming up in March, when oil demand takes a seasonal dip, it would be no surprise if they start to sell off some of their 1.4bn barrels.

No doubt many will also go short again, whilst going long the US$, as they did up to June.

In turn, “apparent demand” will then go into a decline as companies destock all down the value chain, and the US$ will rally again.  By Q3, current optimism over the “synchronised global recovery” will have disappeared.  And Stanley Fischer’s insight will have been proved right, once again.

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The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018

We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.

It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.

Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:

  • On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
  • On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl

Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.

An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.

His roadmap is the landmark ‘China 2030’ joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition:   “From policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008 in the west.

Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.

At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018.  Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.

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Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ is looking a lot less clear

Saudi Arabia’s U-turn to revive oil output quotas is not working and fails to address the changing future of oil demand, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Saudi Arabia’s move into recession comes at an unfortunate time for its new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known to all as MbS).

Unemployment is continuing to rise, threatening the social contract. In foreign affairs, the war in Yemen and the dispute with Qatar appear to be in stalemate. And then there is the vexed issue of King Salman’s ill health, and the question of who succeeds him.

This was probably not the situation that the then Deputy Crown Prince envisaged 18 months ago when he launched his ambitious “Vision 2030” programme and set out his hopes for a Saudi Arabia that was no longer dependent on oil revenues. “Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil . . . We don’t care about oil prices — $30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

The problems began a few months later after he abruptly reversed course and overturned former oil minister Ali al-Naimi’s market share policy by signing up to repeat the failed Opec quota policy of the early 1980s.

His hope was that by including Russia, the new deal would “rebalance” oil markets and establish a $50 a barrel floor under prices. In turn, this would boost the prospects for his proposed flotation of a 5 per cent stake in Saudi Aramco, with its world record target valuation of $2tn.


But, as the chart above shows, the volte face also handed a second life to US shale producers, particularly in the Permian basin, which has the potential to become the world’s largest oilfield. Its development had been effectively curtailed by Mr Naimi’s policy.

The number of high-performing horizontal drilling rigs had peaked at 353 in December 2014. By May 2016, the figure had collapsed to just 116. But since then, the rig count has trebled and is close to a new peak, at 336, according to the Baker Hughes Rig Count.

Even worse from the Saudi perspective is that oil production per Permian rig has continued to rise from December 2014’s level of 219 barrels a day. Volume has nearly trebled to 572 b/d, while the number of DUC (drilled but uncompleted) wells has almost doubled from 1,204 to 2,330.


Equally disturbing, as the second chart from Anjli Raval’s recent FT analysis confirms, is that Saudi Arabia has been forced to take the main burden of the promised cutbacks. Its 519,000 b/d cut almost exactly matches Opec’s total 517,000 b/d cutback.

Of course, other Opec members will continue to cheer on Saudi Arabia because they gain the benefit of higher prices from its output curbs.

But we would question whether the quota strategy is really the right policy for the Kingdom itself. A year ago, after all, Opec had forecast that its new quotas would “rebalance the oil market” in the first half of this year. When this proved over-optimistic, it expected rebalancing to have been achieved by March 2018. Now, it is suggesting that rebalancing may take until the end of 2018, and could even require further output cuts.

Producers used to shrug off this development, arguing that demand growth in China, India and other emerging markets would secure oil’s future. But they can no longer ignore rising concerns over pollution from gasoline and diesel-powered cars.

India has already announced that all new cars will be powered by electricity by 2030, while China is studying a similar move. China has a dual incentive for such a policy because it would not only support President Xi Jinping’s anti-pollution strategy, but also create an opportunity for its automakers to take a global lead in electric vehicle production.

It therefore seems timely for Prince Mohammed to revert to his earlier approach to the oil price. The rebalancing strategy has clearly not produced the expected results and, even worse, US shale producers are now enthusiastically ramping up production at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

The kingdom’s exports of crude oil to the US fell to just 795,000 b/d in July, while US oil and product exports last week hit a new record level of more than 7.6m b/d, further reducing Saudi Arabia’s market share in key global markets.

The growing likelihood that oil demand will peak within the next decade highlights how Saudi Arabia is effectively now in a battle to monetise its reserves before demand starts to slip away.

Geopolitics also suggests that a pivot away from Russia to China might be opportune. The Opec deal clearly made sense for Russia in the short term, given its continuing dependence on oil revenues. But Russia is never likely to become a true strategic partner for the kingdom, given its competitive position as a major oil and gas producer, and its longstanding regional alliances with Iran and Syria. China, however, offers the potential for a much more strategic relationship, which would allow Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer to boost its sales to the world’s second-largest oil market.

China also offers a potential solution to the vexed question of the Saudi Aramco flotation, following the recent offer by an unnamed (but no doubt state-linked) Chinese buyer to purchase the whole 5 per cent stake. This would allow Prince Mohammed to avoid embarrassment by claiming victory in the sale while avoiding the difficulties of a public float.

The Chinese option would also help the kingdom access the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) market for its future non-oil production. This option could be very valuable, given that OBOR may well become the largest free-trade area in the world, as we discussed here in June.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly from Prince Mohammed’s viewpoint, the China pivot might well tip the balance within Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council, and smooth his path to the throne as King Salman’s successor.

Paul Hodges and David Hughes publish The pH Report.

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