State-owned oil companies that don’t slash expenses to align with revenues and boost critical investment in the infrastructure needed to maintain production will suffer financial extinction.
Domestic and international energy companies are responding to the 50% decline in the price of oil by doing what’s necessary to remain in business: they’re slashing payroll, postponing capital investments, delaying new projects and soliciting price cuts from suppliers and subcontractors.
This is the discipline of profit-driven capitalism: if expenses exceed revenues, profits vanish, losses pile up, capital contracts and eventually the company runs out of cash (and access to credit) and closes down.
Unfortunately for state-owned oil companies, the feedback of expenses, losses and access to credit are superceded by the need to feed hordes of parasites: the state-owned company exists not to generate profits but to fund large payrolls and support state officials and cronies.
The U.S. Deep State is in favor of Saudi Arabia’s strategy of forcing production cuts on its rivals and marginal producers for two profound reasons.
It is widely presumed that if the U.S. government isn’t actively concerned about the financial carnage being visited upon the domestic oil/gas sector, it should be actively concerned for self-evident reasons. These self-evident reasons include lay-offs, cratering profits and a mountain of shale-oil based debt that is in danger of default as revenues fall off a cliff.
The political class that must be re-elected to retain power is obligated to publicly express concern about the negative impact on employment, profits and domestic production.Whether the political class can do anything about the lay-offs and decline in oil/gas revenues is another thing.
But we should also keep our eye on the political system which retains power regardless of which party or politico is in office: the Deep State.
Let’s consider some examples of potential asymmetric-warfare tactics as they relate to the price of oil.
The world has habituated to the never-ending undeclared war over ownership and access to hydrocarbons. Now we are entering a new phase of asymmetric war being waged not over oil but the price of oil. Many observers see a parallel in Saudi Arabia’s stated intent to force other exporters to cut their production (if they want to maintain the price of their oil) to the mid-1980s, when a similar oil-pricing war drove prices to lows that helped bankrupt the Soviet Union.
While there are certainly parallels to that period of superpower confrontation and the Saudis’ use of the oil weapon, it seems to me that the current era is less a replay of the 1980s than a new chapter in asymmetric warfare that may see a variety of oil-related weapons being deployed.
So, the oil is falling to hurt Iran and Russia? But what are the facts? The fact is that Iran is at all-time low dependency on oil.
The IMF has stated always that Iran needs oil at $130 per barrel to balance its budget. Today the price dropped below $50 per barrel and Iran is at a all-time low dependency on oil. So IMF got it wrong again, again and again. Oepsss.
Read more about Iran at all-time low dependency on oil
In a larger sense, the Fed is already intervening in the oil sector via its zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and its unlimited liquidity for financial speculation.
The problem with financializing a critical sector of the economy is the financialization process transforms it into a systemic risk. The trajectory of every financialized sector is the same: debt and leverage are piled ever higher on a base of collateral that eventually collapses as heightened risk becomes the Monster Id of a crowded trade.
A retrace that fills open gaps and kisses the 50-day moving average surprises everyone who was confident oil was heading straight down to $40/barrel.
When the conventional media ordains oil inevitably dropping to $40/barrel, I start looking for something else to happen–like oil going to $70/barrel. There are number of reasons this isn’t as farfetched as it might seem at the moment.
Based on historical gold-oil ratios, oil appears extraordinarily cheap right now.
One way to establish if a commodity or asset is relatively expensive or inexpensive is to price it in something other than a fiat currency–for example, gold. Gold goes up and down in value relative to other commodities and fiat currencies, so it is itself a volatile yardstick. Nonetheless, it provides a useful measure of the relative value of gold and whatever is being measured in gold–in this case, oil.
It is these unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences that are poised to wreak havoc on the global financial system.
Here’s the thing about risk: it bursts out of whatever is deemed “safe.” It wasn’t accidental that the Global Financial Meltdown originated in home mortgages; it was the perceived safety of the mortgage market that attracted all the speculative debt and leverage.
All the analysts chortling over the “equivalent of a tax break” for consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses as the chickens of financializing oil come home to roost.
The pundits crowing about the stimulus effect of lower oil prices on consumers are missing the real story, which is the financialization of oil. Financialization is another word that is often bandied about without the benefit of a definition.
Here is my definition:
Given the presumed 17% expansion of the global economy since 2009, the tiny increases in production could not possibly flood the world in oil unless demand has cratered.
The term Black Swan shows up in all sorts of discussions, but what does it actually mean? Though the term has roots stretching back to the 16th century, today it refers to author Nassim Taleb’s meaning as defined in his books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: