Saudi Arabia gave a Black Friday gift to the world oil market. The Saudis have persuaded their OPEC partners to sustain OPEC's current oil production rates (30 million barrels per day) rather than cutting production to pull oil prices out of their current slide. The Saudis' main objective is to crush North American producers with low prices and regain market share.
Remember that our country's booming oil production is based on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 80% of the fracking fields in the U.S. require oil prices of $80 per barrel or more to remain profitable. Canadian oil firms have been making their budget projections around assumptions of oil hanging around $80 per barrel. Immediately after OPEC's decision, the price for North American oil, West Texas Intermediate, dropped to $69.05.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez confirms the basic profit equation and declares himself a friend of U.S. environmentalists opposed to fracking:
"OPEC is always fighting with the United States because the United States has declared it is always against OPEC... Shale oil is a disaster as a method of production, the fracking. But also it is too expensive. And there we are going to see what will happen with production," he said [Alex Lawler, Amena Bakr and Dmitry Zhdannikov, "Inside OPEC Room, Naimi Declares Price War on U.S. Shale Oil," Reuters via KELO Radio, 2014.11.28].
If you're pumping gasoline into your car, you should be cheering this price war, right? Cheaper oil means cheaper gasoline, which means we can all drive around and buy more stuff, stimulating the economy.
The OPEC price war could save North Dakota from the ills of petro-state chaos and corruption. American drillers aren't going to keep pumping oil at a loss out of patriotism or a love of the view of Minot from the man camps. The Saudis drove Americans out of the oil business in 1986; they could do it again.
The OPEC price war could also make the Keystone XL pipeline disappear. Canadian tar sands oil requires a price of $85 per barrel to make scooping that goop profitable.
For bonus geopolitical excitement, the Russians need $100 per barrel to balance their budget. Vladimir Putin will have a hard time continuing his invasion of Ukraine if low oil prices threaten a repeat of the Soviet collapse. Then again, Putin is not Gorbachev. Faced with economic hard times, rather than retreating, restructuring, and releasing his grip on his neighbors, Putin might lash out, reaching for more land, resources, and power.
But then we get to a strangely familiar and ugly economic scenario. Big banks have made big loans to finance Big Oil in North America. The frackers carry a lot of junk-bond debt. If oil stays low, we could see defaults that could create another financial crisis:
Based on recent stress tests of subprime borrowers in the energy sector in the US produced by Deutsche Bank, should the price of US crude fall by a further 20pc to $60 per barrel, it could result in up to a 30pc default rate among B and CCC rated high-yield US borrowers in the industry....
“A shock of that magnitude could be sufficient to trigger a broader high-yield market default cycle, if materialised,” warn Deutsche strategists Oleg Melentyev and Daniel Sorid in their report [Andrew Critchlow, "Oil Price Slump to Trigger New US Debt Default Crisis as OPEC Waits," UK Telegraph, 2014.11.14].
Critchlow hears 2007 all over again. Just like bankers underwriting real estaters in a housing bubble pre-2007, bankers are underwriting oilers in an oil bubble based on possibly unsustainable prices. The Saudis are now popping the bubble.
But if the joys of cheap gasoline are crushed by the pain of junk-bond defaults, at least you'll be able to blame Obama right alongside the Saudis:
...This rush to pump more oil in the US has created a dangerous debt bubble in a notoriously volatile segment of corporate credit markets, which could pose a wider systemic risk in the world’s biggest economy. By encouraging ever more drilling in pursuit of lower oil prices, the US Department of Energy has unleashed a potential economic monster and pitched these heavily debt-laden shale oil drilling companies into an impossible battle for market share against some of the world’s most powerful low-cost producers in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries [Critchlow, 2014.11.14].
The Saudis are dropping our gasoline prices more surely than anything Mike Rounds or Kristi Noem has promised us. OPEC may shut down fracking and Keystone XL more effectively than any spirit camp. But the potential for a financial crisis that could swamp the benefits of cheap gasoline should make us beware Saudis bearing gifts.