Pro Perspectives 3/31/20

March 31, 2020

Over the past couple of weeks, the Fed has addressed broken financial markets, and ensured stability of the financial system. Congress and the White House have backstopped the American consumer and American businesses.  And there is a discernible game plan launched to fight the healthcare crisis. 

What hasn't been addressed?  The oil industry. 

While the haymakers were flying at Washington early this month, Russia took the opportunity to land a sucker punch, by refusing work with OPEC to stabilize global oil prices.  OPEC retaliated by opening the spigot on oil production.  Oil prices plunged, as deep and at a faster rate than we saw in the Global Financial Crisis.  

This is a familiar strategy.  OPEC tried this back in 2014, in an attempt to kill off the emerging threat of U.S. energy independence (i.e. to bankrupt the U.S. shale industry by forcing prices well below where they could produce profitably).  To an extent it worked. More than 100 small oil-related companies in the U.S. filed for bankruptcy from 2014-2016.

This time around, Russia is the main culprit.  They know, even with nearly $6 trillion of stimulus ready to deploy, mass bankruptcies would damage the economy and financial system – and at the worst time.  And equally as important, in a time when global relations aren't so good, it creates U.S. weakness/competitive disadvantage in a wartime scenario.   That said, Trump needs to keep these companies up and running.  And bailouts aren't palatable.  

With that, it is reported that Putin has agreed to talks on stabilizing the energy markets. 

This is a game of chicken.  Russia and the Saudis, both highly dependent on oil revenues, have a big price to pay, if it plays out too long.  Back in 2016, the oil producing countries nearly killed their own economies in the process of trying to kill the U.S. shale industry. 

So, in effort to drive oil prices higher, to salvage oil revenues, they had to flip the switch in late 2016, cutting production for the first time since 2008.  And they did so, in a market that was already undersupplied.  And in a world where demand has been underestimated, and growing.  With that, oil bounced aggressively — from $26 in early 2016, to as high as $77 by late 2018. 

This time around, it may be in the global oil market, where we discover where the international players truly stand on this pandemic: together or opportunistically apart.