In U-Turn, Saudis Choose Higher Prices Over Free Oil Markets

In U-Turn, Saudis Choose Higher Prices Over Free Oil Markets
It took the kingdom's new oil minister, Khalid Al-Falih, just six months to blink, ending the country's two-year policy of pump-at-will.

(Bloomberg) -- It took the kingdom's new oil minister, Khalid Al-Falih, just six months to blink, ending the country's two-year policy of pump-at-will. 

The decision at this week's meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Algiers to cut production was necessitated by Saudi Arabia's tattered finances. The kingdom has the highest budget deficit among the world's 20 biggest economies, it's enduring a delay in its first international bond issue and now faces fresh legal uncertainty as the U.S. Congress voted Wednesday to allow Americans to sue the country for its involvement in 9/11.

"Saudi Arabia wants higher prices," said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultancy firm Energy Aspects Ltd. in London.

The consequences could be vast. Giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp. may soon be flush enough to revive abandoned projects. Finances of cash-strapped OPEC countries like Venezuela will get a boost. Russia and other independent oil-rich countries will have to decide whether to follow Saudi Arabia's lead. U.S. shale producers, which OPEC hoped it could push into bankruptcy, will use higher prices to drill new wells, and American consumers, who've enjoyed the lowest gasoline prices in more than a decade, will pay more at the pump.

Didn't Matter

Just months ago, Al-Falih's predecessor, Ali Al-Naimi, proclaimed it didn't matter whether oil prices went "down to $20, $40, $50, $60 a barrel -- it is irrelevant." Al-Falih now says prices, hovering under $50 a barrel, need to rise to encourage long-term investment.

In 2014, when Saudi Arabia led OPEC’s pump-at-will policy, Riyadh calculated that if it reduced output, prices wouldn't rise enough to compensate. This time is different.

"Saudi Arabia is betting that a small cut will pay for itself through higher oil prices and hence higher revenues," said  Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York.

Not As Planned

It's not as if the pump-at-will policy hasn't had its moments. Saudi Arabia has achieved some of its objectives. Low prices tossed water on the U.S. oil boom, and energy companies have cut as much as $1 trillion in new projects, creating a possible supply hole in the next decade. The kingdom has also scared investors who are now more likely to think twice before plunging money into risky oil ventures. And from the U.S. to China, sales of gas-guzzling cars have soared, bolstering demand.

For all the justifications, the last two years haven't panned out as Riyadh thought they would. At home, the kingdom has burned through more than $150 billion of foreign-exchange reserves, government contractors have gone unpaid, and this week the king announced unprecedented pay cuts for civil servants.

Saudi Arabia will suffer a fiscal deficit equal to 13.5 percent of gross domestic product this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates. When it comes to economic growth, Saudi Arabia is slowing sharply to about 1 percent this year while Iran, its nearby rival, is accelerating toward 4 percent.

The pump-at-will policy brought chaos to the oil industry as prices plunged from $100 a barrel to a 12-year low of less than $30 a barrel. Companies tightened their belts, canceled projects and sold assets. But they kept pumping.

That may continue even as the Saudis advocate a reversal. Producers who fell in love with drilling projects approved during the boom years of plus-$100 a barrel have kept production humming from the Gulf of Mexico to Brazil.

Iran will be exempt from capping production, a major concession by Saudi Arabia. Many of the details remain to be worked out and the group won't decide on targets for each country until its next meeting at the end of November.

Kashaghan in Kazakhstan

Just as Saudi Arabia agreed to pare output, the world's most expensive oil field -- the $50 billion Kashaghan in Kazakhstan -- is about to go online. The project, nearly a decade in the making, will add thousands of barrels of additional production in 2017 to an already oversupplied market.


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Leslie  |  September 30, 2016
Oil is a resource, just like coal, timber and copper. Resources go up, and they go down, influenced by the geopolitical climate at the time. Both $27/bbl and $120/bbl were extremes, but anyone who thinks those extremes wont come again is ignoring history.
okay2  |  September 29, 2016
if Chinas porperty boom slows, chinese oil imports will decrease and that will seriously affect demand, i reckon... China is the ultimate wild card, in my view.
john weaver  |  September 29, 2016
If the USA doesn't replace reserves, we will be dying on the vine.
Tom  |  September 29, 2016
This commodity market is forever changed. The rise of Asia (China & India) coupled with a strong North American economy during the late 90s into the 2000s caused a huge supply deficit. The resulting boom in the Oil & Gas industry awoke a sleeping giant. This boom was so vast and so strong that traditionally automotive and even aerospace manufacturing suppliers directed their resources to support O&G manufacturing needs. Major machine tool manufacturers began changing their machine designs specific to oil & gas component needs. Worldwide new technologies, new finds and newly advanced drilling and pumping methods were all created and improved. As a result of this world-wide effort soon came production developments in every continent of the world (onshore & offshore). Moreover, the advent of LEDs, electric or alternative fuel cars, new generations turbine engines (30% more efficient), all have added to oversupplies of Oil and Gas. Short of a large scale war the average price of Oil over the next 35-50 years will be in the mid $30s with lows reaching into the mid-teens at times. This is a testament to man's innovation, development, progress and a world market. Nevertheless, the days of $70+ or $100+ are forever gone. BANK ON IT!