Last week’s production cuts and further weakening of the dollar were not able to offset the expectations for slump in demand and crude oil fall to four year lows. OPEC claims that the severe decline is not based on fundamentals and it is pure overreaction. If they truly believe that the current price of crude is unfairly cheap, let step up and start buying oil futures as every self-respected company would buy its shares in a similar situation. Such behavior might seem extreme, but it will have better appreciation impact on oil futures than production cut.
During the last three weeks we experienced a small rally in many commodity related industries. All, except oil. The demand was highest for Gold. If smart money is truly expecting an economic recovery in 2009, it would be buying crude, not gold. Bidding up gold and treasuries is a sign of fear and uncertainty. It reflects a perception of higher risk. It is a desperate move aiming to save some of the purchasing power of the current wealth, which is devastated by FED’s favorite sport – dollars printing.
In the end of last year I wrote a post about crude oil, trying to explain that too high price of the black gold will be devastating for oil producing countries in long-term perspective. First, an extreme price of oil gives people an incentive to invest in alternative, more energy efficient technology. If a human being is motivated to achieve something, sooner or later, it succeeds. Second, high oil price changes people’s habits. They find a way to consume less and tend to stick to this newly found behavior even when the economy starts to recover. At the brink of extremes, people change.
It is fair to point out that OPEC didn’t and doesn’t have a major impact on crude futures. It is well known fact that they were bid up by financial institutions. Disregarding that, oil producers liked the thickness of their wallets and said that they can’t impact the price of oil. Why do they think that they will be able to do it today? They became complacent and didn’t think about the long-term ramifications of high oil price for their economies. Oil was found about 100 years ago and it was adopted as energy source, because it was cheap and efficient. Once those variables change the whole equation changes. People go and find a better alternative.
Earlier this year Bank of Kuwait came up with a report, revealing the break-even price of crude for the different oil producers. It claims it is $17 per barrel for Kuwait, $30 for Saudi Arabia, $33 for Canada and much higher (in the lower 40s) for many others. All small numbers that should suggest that at the current level of crude, many countries should stop producing. I don’t believe these numbers. Oil producing nations have sold profitably its products at even lower prices during the last several decades, even when inflation is taken into account. I would like to see a similar report for break-even prices from an unbiased entity.
What strikes me the most is not the break-even prices, but the claims that many oil producing nations have based their 2009 budgets on $70, $80 and even $95 per barrel. If for a moment we assume that this is true, countries like Venezuela, Iran and Russia are in big trouble. Not only many projects will be postponed (scratched), but their cash reserves will evaporate faster than a glass of water in a dessert. Extreme budget deficits will affect substantially the living standards of their citizens and it won’t be surprising to witness cases of massive civil disobedience. Ironically, political destabilization in any of the major oil producers will lead to far more efficient appreciating shock on oil futures than any coordinated cuts. An extremely low price of oil will lay a solid foundation down for its fast appreciation in a 3-5 years horizon, as an extremely high oil price caused what we are currently witnessing. Remember that for the next 20 years oil will most likely remain the cheapest and most efficient source of energy.
Assuming that the current short-term trend of weakness in crude oil continues, which industries would be the biggest benefactors? The fist groups that come to mind are Airplane carriers and trucking companies, which bottom line should get a boost from cheaper oil. So far there is no sign of that happening. Oil is only one variable in their EPS equation. The current decline in their input cost is more than offset by a decline in their output – people travel less often, companies sell less; less packages need to be transported.
The only industry that currently should thrive in an environment of low oil price is Gold mining. Not only crude accounts for substantial part of its expenses, but gold has been outperforming everything else this year. If this trend continues, and there are no signs that it will end any time soon, gold mining companies’ EPS should get a nice boost. Higher EPS growth often leads to higher stock prices. Certainly EPS is not the only factor that affects price. It is actually of secondary importance when put next to investors’ confidence. A simple way to measure confidence is through P/E ratio. It is self-evident that recession hits investors’ confidence big time. Often a rise in bottom lines of solid companies is offset by general lack of confidence.