One of the factors for rapidly rising inflation in the earlier part of the year was the rise in the price of oil. As a large component of fertilizers is oil, this also then fed through into increases in the price of food. It is amazing to recall how much circumstances have changed in the last six months. We were really worried about stagflation rather than deflation as we face now. Given the importance of the price of oil, where next?
Oil peaked at $147 a barrel in July. It is now around the $45 a barrel range, which is about the price of the best air purifier for allergies. This is a drop of two thirds. This will ensure substantially lower inflation over the next few months. There is no doubt that the ‘correction’ in the price of oil has been very sharp, if indeed you could describe it as a correction.
Many would argue, including Tim Guinness (an energy fund manager, who is a bit of an expert in these matters) that at $147 the price of oil had risen too far and too fast. He thought it would correct itself to trade at the $70 to $80 range and then move upwards gradually. In the long term, I remain convinced that the price of oil has to rise substantially. Oil is running out and demand is increasing.
In the short term though, I would expect the price of oil to remain below $50. Politics plays a big role in this. These thoughts are based on my own analysis – and no doubt experts who are more knowledgeable than me will have better informed views.
As one of the major oil producers, Saudi Arabia has a major influence on the volume of oil produced and hence the price. It is of course easy to assume that the Saudi interests are best served by having as high an oil price as possible. That I think misses the wider point. The marginal cost of a barrel of Saudi oil is around $17. For Canada at the other extreme, it is around $62 a barrel.
The Saudi budget balances when the price of oil is around the $30 range. Saudi Arabia is overwhelming Sunni and they have long been worried by the Iranian Shiite regime. The Iranian sphere of influence has gradually been spreading. The Saudis are worried about the influence Iran is having in Iraq and the success of their proxy Hezbollah in the Lebanon. The Iranian populist (bad use of the phrase – I would have preferred the word demonic) president is popular with the poorer classes in Iran.
The Iranian budget needs the price of oil to be around $70 for all of the planned social spending to be carried out. It is now more important to them to have a high oil price to combat the effects on sanctions brought on by their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The product reviews are coming up in Iran early next year and there is every chance that the reformers could win under the former President Khamenei who is being nudged out of retirement. A low oil price would hinder the chances of President Ahmadinejad of being re-elected. It is my view that the Saudis would be pleased to see a regime change in Iran. A low (ish) oil price may help them achieve that objective.
I would expect the price of oil to stay low until after the Iranian elections and then rise if Khamenei (he has not yet declared himself as a candidate) or another reformer was to win the Presidency.
I also fear that if Nethanyu wins the election in Israel and the current regime is re-elected in Iran, Israel will order pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear sites (as they did against Iraq in the 1980s).
As investors or entrepreneurs, you need to prepare for these scenarios and realize how these events may have an impact on your business.
Let us hope that the second scenario does not come to pass.