Category Archives: Energy markets

Blowback from Oil Price War: Sovereign Wealth Funds Selling Investments

While there has been ample discussion the impact of falling oil prices on the national budgets of major oil producing nations, there’s been less media focus on how some of the countries that face budget squeezes are likely to react.

Consider what a difference nine days makes. Moody’s gave six Middle Eastern countries a thumbs up on December 8, based on the assumption that oil prices will average $80 to $85 a barrel in 2015. With WTI now at $55.33, it appears reasonable to assume a price of $60 or below for the first half of 2015. The consensus is that production cuts will lead to much firmer prices in the final two quarters,* but $70 a barrel would now seem a more reasonable forecast for the year.

Here is the money part of the Moody’s assessment (emphasis ours):

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Oil, Ruble and Ideology

Yves here. Since the financial media is covering the continuing meltdown of the ruble intensely, we thought it would be helpful to add some information that seems to be missing from most reporting. This post by Jacques Sapir from the 14th (hat tip Michael Hudson) provides important detail on the importance of oil to the Russian economy (far less than typically depicted, although it is the biggest source of foreign exchange), the impact of the fall of the ruble and oil prices on the domestic budgets, and the odds of a Russian default. Note that Sapir is sanguine on the default front and does not see a rerun of 1998 in the offing, by virtue of of Russia having large foreign currency reserves. Note that Menzie Chinn of Econbrowser differs, and uses a chart from the Economist to make his point:

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What are the Odds of a Commodities-Led Global Financial Crisis?

Yves here. While the odds of commodities-triggered 2008 style meltdown is still not the most likely outcome, recall that that pessimists like yours truly assessed the likelihood of Seriously Bad Things Happening as of early 2008 at 20-30%, which I then saw as dangerously high. In other words, tail risks are bigger than they appear.

Some of the things that favor worse outcomes than one might otherwise anticipate is investor irrationality, or what one might politely call herd behavior. For instance, a major news story today was how investors are dumping emerging markets assets willy nilly, when many are not exposed to much if any blowback from lower commodity prices and quite a few are seen as net beneficiaries. The offset is that central banks have been conditioned to break glass and overreact when banks start looking wobbly. But the Fed may be slow to get the memo, since it sees recent data (the last jobs reports and retail sales data) as strong, and is also predisposed to see its medicine as working even though it is really working only for those at the top of the food chain.

Note that this report is from Monday in Australia, and look how much oil prices have dropped since then. WTI is now at $54.28 per Bloomberg.

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Did Wall Street Need to Win the Derivatives Budget Fight to Hedge Against Oil Plunge?

Conventional wisdom among banking experts is that Wall Street’s successful fight last week to get a pet provision into the must-pass budget bill (or in political junkies’ shorthand, Cromnibus) as more a demonstration of power and a test for gutting Dodd Frank than a fight that mattered to them. But the provision they got in, which was to undo a portion of Dodd Frank that barred them from having taxpayer-backstopped deposits fund derivative positions, may prove to be more important than it seemed as the collateral damage from the 40% fall in oil prices hits investors and intermediaries.

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Ilargi: Will the Oil Collapse Kill Energy Junk Bonds?

Yves here. Some ahead-of-the-curve analysts have warned of the magnitude of energy debt, mainly junk bonds issued to fund shale gas projects, that are now at risk thanks to plunging oil prices whacking the entire energy complex.

We’ve heard over the last few weeks sunny proclamations of how many shale players have lower cost structure than commonly thought and could ride out weak prices. The supposedly super bearish Bank of America report published earlier in the week called for oil prices to drop to a scary-sounding $50 a barrel. But the document sees that aa a short-term phenomenon. As supply and demand equilibrates (shorthand for “of course some people will drive more, and a lot of wells will get shut down”), it anticipates that oil prices will rebound to $80 to $90 a barrel in the second half of 2015.

The problem with conventional wisdom, even pessimistic-looking conventional wisdom, is that the noose of a lot of borrowings is likely to change the decision-making process of those producers.

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Michael Hudson: U.S. New Cold War Policy Has Backfired

Yves here. Michael Hudson looks at the way what he calls “the New Cold War” is creating alliances among countries that the US has as designated enemies, when the classic foreign policy playbook is to do everything you can to keep your opponents isolated.

One thing that is striking about the US decision to escalate against Russia is that it’s not at all clear what the trigger was. And that raises the possibility that these hostilities were instigated out peeve, or what one might more politely call imperial reflex, reflecting the belief that Russia needed to be punished for its various sins, such as supporting Iran, outmaneuvering the US in Syria, and harboring Snowden. And the assumption appears to have been that Russia could be taken down a notch or two on the geopolitical stage at no cost to the US. Hudson explains that the reverse is proving to be the case.

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Oil Price Drop Not Affecting US Drilling Much

Yves here. There have been two view of how the sudden plunge in oil prices would affect US oil production. The first was the classic supply and demand view, that at a lower price, fewer players will want to provide energy. The second was that of John Dizard of the Financial Times, which we picked up here, that US producers, particularly of shale gas, would not cut back until their money sources forced them to. This OilPrice article suggests that Dizard’s counterintuitive reading was not all wet.

Yet it is instructive to see how different reporters are reading the same data sources.

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Wolf Richter: Treasury Warns of Leveraged Loan Risk

Yves here. Wolf provides a detailed and informative account of a new report by the Office of Financial Research on the risk of leveraged loans. The big finding is they don’t like what they are seeing. And on top of that, part of their nervousness results from the fact that the ultimate holders of leveraged loans are typically part of the shadow banking system, such as ETFs, and thus beyond the reach of bank regulators.

Because these loans were issued at remarkably low interest rates, they aren’t a source of stress. But as their credit quality decays (recall quite a few were made in the energy sector) and/or interest rates rise (the Fed is making noises again), investors in mutual funds and ETFs will show mark to market losses that could well be hefty.  Any bank with large amounts of unsold inventory would also be exposed; query whether regulators will let them fudge by moving them to “hold to maturity” portfolios.

Oh, and what is the biggest source of leveraged loans? Private equity funds when they acquire or add more gearing to portfolio companies.

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Ilargi: Oil Shock – More Than A Quantum Of Fragility

Yves here. We’ve written that the sudden decline in the price of oil has the potential to deliver some nasty financial shocks, given that shale companies and even the majors have been financing exploration and development with debt.

But while concerns about fragility are well warranted, we wanted to make sure a mention made in this article is not treated with undue alarm. It points out that the BIS is concerned that an unprecedented portion of CDOs are now made of leveraged loans.

The problem is that the term “CDO” has been used inconsistently in the financial media. The CDO that you learned to hate in the wake of the crisis and blew up AIG, monoline insurers, and did a lot of damage to big banks were more formally called “asset backed securities CDOs” or “ABS CDOs” But that was too much of a mouthful, so they were referred to as “CDOs” in the press. There were two periods when that type of CDO existed, the late 1990s, and from the mid 2000 to mid-2007. Ina both cases, that market was a Ponzi, used to make the unwanted parts of subprime securitizatons saleable by making them into financial sausage, with some better assets thrown in, and then re-tranched again. The Ponzi part came about from the fact that these CDOs also had unsaleable parts, which were either put into first generation CDO sausage (CDOs allowed a certain portion of CDOs to be included) or sold into CDO squareds (which were hard to sell).

But the more mainstream type of CDO was one made of credit defaults swaps on corporate credits. That was the original CDO done in the famed JP Morgan Bisto deal in the mid-1990s. Indeed, when I first started researching subprime (ABS) CDOs, and just called them “CDOs” some experts assumed I meant the corporate loan type, since that was prevalent. During the crisis, possibly to make sure no one confused these CDOs with the ones that were blowing up, they were increasingly called CLOs, or “collatearlized loan obligations.” They were also legitimately less risky than the subprime CDOs, since their value didn’t suddenly collapse when a certain level of loan losses was breached.

The cause for pause is that CLOs, which are indeed a type of CDOs have traditionally been made mainly or entirely of investment grade credits. It now appears that junk credits predominate. While their structures and diversification will keep ABS CDO-type total wipeouts from happening, they could still deliver some nasty surprises.

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New Study Says US Fracking Boom Will Fade Quickly After 2020

A new study by a team at the University of Texas, published in Nature News, throws cold water on bullish US natural gas production forecasts by the US agency, the Energy Information Administration. Its analysis suggests that the fracking boom will be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, which raises doubts about the attractiveness of investing in shale plays and in liquified natural gas transport facilities, particularly for export.

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Don Quijones: Mexico on the Verge of a New Tequila Crisis?

As the old adage goes, things have an annoying habit of occurring in threes. It’s particularly true in the case of crises, which tend to fuel each other in a potentially lethal feedback loop. And Mexico is already experiencing blowback from two separate but strongly interlinked crises.

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The New Oil Price War: Market and Macro Impacts

Opec’s decision to leave its output ceiling of 30m barrels a day unchanged on Thursday has sent crude prices into a tailspin. Under normal conditions, falling oil prices would be a favorable macroeconomic development, but under current circumstances this is making the job harder for central bankers who struggle to deliver on their inflation targets.

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OPEC Fires First Shot In Global Oil Price War

Yves here. Some readers took issue with our view that the Saudis, and now OPEC, decision against curbing production to support oil prices, was a classic example of predatory pricing, in which a player produces at an uneconomical cost in order to inflict damage on competitors, force them to curtail operations on a permanent basis, and then harvest higher returns later via having thinned out suppliers. As the post below indicates, it’s now increasingly recognized that the Saudis want oil prices lower, and a big reason is to weaken US shale operators (we also suggested that the Saudis also have geopolitical aims for this move, since the countries that get whacked have either been unfriended by Riyadh or are official enemies).

Analysts have taken almost entirely to discussing the Saudi “fiscal breakeven” which is the oil price it needs to raise enough revenues to funds its government, at $90 a barrel, to contend that the Saudi’s can’t afford to allow prices to remain low for all that long. But the desert kingdom has a lot of unused borrowing capacity and clearly does not see its near-term budget issues as a driving consideration. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, based on a Citigroup analysis that has been making the rounds, argues that the Saudis have misread US shale economics and also contends that many producers have hedged their output, insulating them from the downdraft. Despite its detail, the Citigroup analysis diverges in so many respects from other accounts that I’d like to see more corroboration (recall Goldman’s similarly celebrated forecast that oil was going to over $200 a barrel).

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Oil Tanks After OPEC Fails to Cut Production; US Shale Gas Targeted?

After a testy meeting, OPEC agreed to maintain current production targets. The failure to support oil prices via reducing production led to a sharp fall in prices on Thursday, with West Texas Intermediate crude dropping by over 6% and Brent plunging over 8% before rebounding to finish the day 6.7% lower, at $72.55 a barrel. Many analysts believe that oil could continue its slide to $60 a barrel.

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“I Hate That Oil’s Dropping”: Why Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant Wants High Oil Prices for Fracking

Yves here. We posted yesterday on how, despite falling oil prices having a ricochet effect across the entire energy complex, so far shale oil well shutdowns didn’t appear to be proceeding at the expected pace. John Dizard of the Financial Times attributed continuing cash-flow-negative exploration and development to continued access to super-cheap funding. He also noted that even when fracking operators were cut off from their money pipeline, a new wave of speculators was likely to sweep in and try bottom-fishing among distressed companies. That meant that normal market discipline would be circumvented, meaning production levels could remain at uneconomically high levels, keeping prices low.

A second danger for the aspiring fracking-industrial complex is that prevailing production forecasts show the US having production well in excess of its domestic consumption levels in a few years. Production of needed export infrastructure would need to ramp up rapidly for so much shale output to be moved overseas. But not only are there “will the transport systems be in place” doubts, there’s also a reason to question whether this investment will pay off. On current trajectories, fracking output peaks in 2020 and falls gradually over the next decade, and declines more rapidly after that. 12 to 15 years of decent utilization is very short for specialized facilities.

Third, some readers, presented with the scenario above, said, basically, “No problem, production will focus on the lowest-cost areas like Marcellus.” As the article below points out, there are parts of the country that have gotten a nice boost from the energy boomlet and will suffer if they aren’t in the most competitive areas cost-wise. And their lenders are also at risk.

Finally, current cost forecasts don’t allow for the possibility of production delays or additions expenditures due to local protests and/or higher environmental standards put in place. Before you pooh-pooh the idea that anything might stand in the way of energy barons, consider the industry they are damaging: real estate, which is another powerful and politically connected industry. If fracking water contamination or fracking-induced earthquakes start affecting higher population density areas (suburbs, cities), we may have a Godzilla versus Mothra battle between competing elites in our future.

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