Will We All Be Victims of Cheap Oil?

OILEarlier this year we wrote that Russia’s economy was fundamentally weaker than Europe’s and that their decision to start a trade war in retaliation for economic sanctions over the Ukraine would hurt Russia far more than Europe. As it happened Russia has suffered that fate and had a helping more. The collapsing price of oil was a mortal wound to the soft underbelly of the Russian economy, leading to a spectacular collapse in the value of the Ruble and an estimated 4.5% contraction in their economy for 2015.

The Ruble’s earlier decline this year had already made the entire Russian stock market less valuable than Apple Computers, but as the price of Brent oil continued to slide below $60 (for the first time since 2008) investors began to loose confidence that Russia could do much to prop up the currency, prompting an even greater sell-off. That led to an unprecedented hike in the Russian key interest rate by its central bank, moving it from 10.5% to 17% yesterday. Moves like that are designed to reassure investors, but typically they only serve to ensure a full market panic. The Ruble, which had started the year at about 30 RUB per dollar briefly dropped to 80 before recovering at around 68 to the dollar by the end of trading yesterday.

The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.
The Russian Ruble over the last year. The spike at the end represents the last few weeks.

Cheap oil seems to be recasting the economic story for many countries and millions of people. The Financial Times observes that oil importing emerging markets stand to be big winners in this. Dropping the cost of manufacturing and putting more money in the pockets of the growing middle class should continue to help those markets. The same can be said of the American consumer, who will be benefiting from the sudden drop in gas and energy prices.

The Financial Times always has the best infographics.
The Financial Times always has the best infographics.

Losers on the other hand seem easy to spot and piling up everywhere. Venezuela is in serious trouble, so is Iran and the aforementioned Russia. Saudi Arabia should be okay for a while, as it has significant foreign currency reserves, but as the price drops other member states of OPEC will likely howl for a change in tactic. But along with the obvious oil producing nations, both the United States and Canada will likely also be victims, just not uniformly.

Carbon Tracker Initiative
Carbon Tracker Initiative

Manufacturers may be breathing a sigh of relief in Ontario, but Canadian oil producers are sweating it big. Tar sand oil requires lots of refining and considerable cost to extract. Alberta oil sands development constitute some of the most expensive projects around for energy development and a significant drop in the price of energy, especially if it is protracted, could stall or erase some future investments. This is especially true of the Keystone Pipeline which many now fear isn’t economically viable, in addition to being environmentally contentious.

This chart was produced by Scotiabank
This chart was produced by Scotiabank

Saudi Arabia has continued to allow the price of oil to fall with the intention of hurting the shale producers in the United States. This price war will certainly claim some producers in the US, but it will difficult to know at which point that market will be effectively throttled. Certainly new projects will likely slow down but the continued improving efficiency of the fracking technology may make those producers more resilient to cheap energy.

But there is one more potential victim of the falling price of oil. That could be all of us. I, like many in the financial field, believe that cheap energy will enormously benefit the economy. But our biggest mistakes come from the casual confidence of things we assume to be true but prove not to be. A drop in energy should help the economy, but it doesn’t have to. If people choose not to spend their new energy windfall and save it instead, deflationary pressure will continue to grow. As I’ve previously said, deflation is a real threat that is often overlooked. But even perceived positive forms of deflation, like a significant reduction in the price of oil, can have nasty side effects. The loss to the global economy in terms of the price of oil is only beneficial if that money is spent elsewhere and not saved! For now confidence is that markets will ultimately find the dropping price of oil helpful to global growth, regardless of the early losers in the global price war for oil.

Environmentalists Don’t Get Economics, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone

From the Toronto Star
From the Toronto Star

The Keystone Pipeline has enraged many people since it was first announced. Traditionally framed as a conflict between environmentalists and oil executives, the Keystone Pipeline is 1897 km of 36 inch pipe running from Hardisty, Alberta to Steel, Nebraska and for several years it has existed in limbo. Caught in the cross hairs of politicians, environmentalists, various national interests and corporations, it has been six years of waiting and becoming more unlikely that it may ever get built. A definitive win for the champions of the environment.

Or is it? In simple terms, NOT having a Keystone Pipeline does indeed impede the growth of Tar Sands industry, hampering the longer term ability to send extracted oil to be refined. But it doesn’t stop it. In fact, not building doesn’t stop the oil companies from shipping at all. The Keystone Pipeline has become a symbol of social angst about the environment, but in its place a number of much more terrible and dangerous options have been pursued. For instance, if you live int he city of Toronto you may have noticed that the CP Rail line that runs through the heart of many residential neighbourhoods is actually carrying hundreds of thousands of oil tankers destined for the same location as the proposed pipeline.

In response to constant deferral Canada’s rail lines have picked up the slack, moving as much oil around as the proposed pipe would have. This first came to my attention around a year ago at a lunch where a portfolio manager for an energy fund was explaining that even though Keystone had stalled, a new pipeline had indeed opened. The difference was that it was actually the railway system. Since then it has slowly been gaining wider acknowledgement that in place of a relatively safe oil pipeline we instead now have hundreds of trains travelling through neighbourhoods and schools and towns carrying vast amounts of highly toxic oil, among other dangerous things.

All this leads to the hard truth about difficult economic decisions. Sometimes the big bad business is still making the best decision. Opposing development, no matter how well intentioned, rarely changes the underlying needs that feed those projects. Worse still, not recognizing the economic drivers behind controversial projects like this only leads to the kind of unintended blowback that creates future messes. For environmentalists the likely outcome will have been to have slain a largely symbolic dragon, while in reality they have set the stage for future environmental disasters on a much greater scale than they had ever intended. They haven’t changed the direction of the energy market, or the need for oil. But they have undermined a good economic proposal in favour of a bad one.

Crude Oil YTD