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.

Russia’s Trade War Shows Europe to be The Better Economy

Putin-SmirkSince I first wrote about the Ukraine much has happened. Russia has been unmasked as a bizarre cartoon villain seemingly hellbent on destabilizing the Ukrainian government, assisting “rebels” and being indirectly responsible for the murder of a plane full of people. All of which came to a head last week when it appeared that Russia might have just started a war with the Ukraine (still somewhat indeterminate).

Russia’s moves with the Ukraine may have more to do with challenging the West, and some of the other recent militaristic actions show that may be its real intent. Russia announced in July that it would be reopening both an arctic naval base and a listening post in Cuba built back in the 1960s. Combined with many heavy handed tactics at home including essentially banning homosexuality, Putin is making a brazen attempt to assert its regional dominance and stem the growth of Europe’s influence in the most aggressive way it can. To some extent this seems to be working with his own population, but it isn’t making him popular globally.

Europe’s response to Russia has been to hurt it with economic sanctions, which since the Ukrainian situation first began have been escalating in severity. Two weeks ago Russia responded in kind. How? By banning food imports from sanctioning nations.

If you don’t know much about the Russian or European economies this may seem like potent response from one of the BRIC countries and major global economies. But Europe is a big economy, and agricultural exports don’t make up a significant part of GDP, with the same being true for the United States. And while sanctions targeted at farms can be politically dangerous (farmers are typically a well organized and vocal lobby) the most interesting thing about these sanctions is what it tells us about the Russian and European economies respectively.

First, Russia imports a great deal of food, mostly from Denmark, Germany, the United States and Canada. So sanctions imposed by Russia are really going to hurt the Russians as food prices begin to rise and new food suppliers (expected to be from Latin America) have to ship food farther. But more interesting is the sanctions Russia chose not to impose. Europe is heavily dependant on oil & gas for its energy needs. So why not really make Europe feel the pinch and create an energy crisis? Because Russia needs oil revenue.

16% of Russia’s GDP is made up from the oil and gas sector. Beyond that oil and gas make up more than half of Russia’s tax revenues and 70% of it’s exports. In other words Russia can’t stop selling its oil without creating an economic crisis at home every bit as severe as in Europe. Banning imports of food and raising the cost of living may not be the ideal outcome from sanctions you impose, but it is mild in comparison to creating a full on catastrophe.

By comparison Europe starts to look very good, and it’s a reason that investors shouldn’t be quick to write off Europe and all its recent economic troubles. It’s a large and dynamic economy, filled with multi-national companies that do business the world over. It is backed by stable democracies and a relatively prosperous citizenry. By comparison Russia is a very narrow economy, dependent on one sector for its economic strength run by a (in all but name) dictator with an incredibly poor populace. A few years ago it was quite trendy in the business news to write off Europe as a top heavy financial mess, and while I wouldn’t want to dismiss Europe’s problems (some of which are quite serious) it’s important to have some perspective about how economies can rebound and which ones have the flexibility to recover.