Saudi Arabia's Oil Equation

SAUDI ARABIA (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL via Dow Jones Newswires), December 8, 2008

OPEC has a math problem.

When demand for oil is rising, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries take extra portions from the expanding output quota pie. But when it falls, as now, they are supposed to share the pain of lower production even as oil prices are declining, a double blow to cash flows.

As the organization's biggest member, much of the burden of managing all this rests on Saudi Arabia.

Yet it also must consider its customers and long-term demand.

This largely explains OPEC's recent decision to put off further output cuts, even as crude prices continued sliding. It also is why oil bulls can expect little relief from Riyadh next year.

Saudi Arabia's current output quota is 8.5 million barrels a day. After domestic use, that leaves seven million barrels for daily export. Ahmad Abdallah, commodity analyst at financial-services firm GaveKal, points out that Saudi Arabia's 2008 budget was set at $109 billion. With oil exports accounting for just under 90% of public revenues, that equates to an oil price of $38 a barrel to balance the budget. The OPEC basket price has averaged $98.50 a barrel this year.

Nymex crude-oil futures, having dropped 17% in the past week alone, now command just $42. The OPEC basket price typically trades at a discount of $5 to $10. Were Nymex crude to average $40 next year, and OPEC crude $35, Saudi Arabia's 2009 oil-export earnings could drop to $89 billion.

The problem is, that price forecast may require OPEC to cut perhaps another 2 million barrels a day. If Saudi Arabia contributed half of this, its implied export earnings drop to $77 billion, opening up a big deficit.

Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, it has stashed a cushion of petrodollars to manage this. It also has other factors to consider.

Beijing's decision announced Friday to link domestic fuel prices more closely to international markets is particularly alarming. Subsidies have boosted Chinese demand. Reforming them suggests China, the fastest-growing oil consumer, is getting serious on energy efficiency just as America, the biggest oil consumer, has elected a president pushing the same agenda.

Saudi Arabia needs to keep the world addicted to oil as long as possible, so giving it a breather with lower oil prices isn't a bad thing. As a bonus, this also will challenge Iran and Russia, both of which need much higher oil prices to balance swollen budgets.

So Saudi Arabia has a near term chance to squeeze its biggest regional rival and its main non-OPEC competitor.

Other OPEC members won't take this lying down. Many will likely prefer to bust quotas, pressuring prices further.

For oil bulls, 2009 promises to be as easy as Chinese algebra.  

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