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Making Sense Of The Oil Price Fracture

Remember all those predictions at the beginning of 2014 about how the year would end with gasoline selling for $2.50 a gallon and oil trading at less than $70 a barrel?

Of course you don’t. Neither do I, because there were no such expectations. Yet here we are, just a few weeks from New Year’s Eve, with oil selling for around one-third less than it did when we last made our annual resolutions. Around half of the drop has been in the past month or so, including a fall of nearly 10 percent in one day last week after OPEC oil producers decided not to cut their output.

It is probably the biggest economic story of the year, though it is going to take some time to tell it. Just trying to understand why oil prices have moved the way they have this year is a major undertaking, and it is the question I want to explore in this column. Then there is the question of who is helped by lower prices (oil buyers, obviously), who is harmed (sellers) and how things might play out in economies like that of the United States, which today is one of the world’s biggest producers as well as its leading per capita consumer. Let’s save this topic for tomorrow.

The current media story is that oil prices have cracked because of rising U.S. production, slower global demand due to weakening economies in Europe and China, and OPEC’s refusal to cut production.

There is no doubt a grain of truth in this logic - all else being equal, weaker demand surely translates into lower prices - but it has so many holes in it that I strongly suspect it is more wrong than right.

For one thing, China’s economy has been slowing for the past two years, while Europe and Japan have muddled along with almost no growth - and the United States has seen a gradual but steady pickup in commerce and travel. Yet the last time we saw prices this low was in 2009, near the depths of the Great Recession, a point from which oil prices and other commodities soon rallied sharply. Most of the credit for that rally went to China, which embarked on a massive stimulus to stave off the downturn. But if China held prices up four or five years ago, why didn’t prices plunge sooner, when China’s stimulus stopped?

One possibility is that China’s economy is actually in much worse shape than the country has acknowledged. This could certainly be true; it is a mistake to put too much faith in any official information from Beijing, where energy statistics are often treated as state secrets.

U.S. production has indeed risen, but it also seems overrated as a factor in the price decline. This year’s price moves are as dramatic as any we saw in the recession - without the underlying collapse in demand. Something else, or several somethings, must be at work. Increased production here does not seem like a big enough factor to produce the moves we have seen, especially with a stronger U.S. economy available to take up some of the slack.

If we want to understand why the oil market is suddenly different than the one we knew last year, it makes sense to start by looking at what else is different in the relevant corners of the world. This immediately brings us to Russia, the Middle East and the boardrooms of the major central banks.

Russia displays the starkest difference. With its annexation of Crimea, its invasion of other parts of eastern Ukraine and its stooges’ downing of a Malaysian passenger jet, Vladimir Putin’s regime in 2014 has all but restarted the Cold War - with the difference that Moscow’s currency and economy are much more integrated into the world economy than during the Soviet era. Accordingly, the ruble’s value has collapsed by about 25 percent since the start of the year.

What does this mean for oil? In the long run, it undermines Russia’s production capability, since imported labor and technology cost more in ruble terms. But in the short run, it makes Russian production cheaper when measured in dollars or other Western currencies. A Russian rig worker is paid in less valuable rubles today than just a few months ago, and the electricity that runs the pumps at Russian oil wells also costs less. So a barrel of Russian oil has a lower production cost (measured in dollars) as the ruble falls. This cheaper Russian oil is flowing to major markets, both westward to Europe and eastward to China.

Now to the Middle East. When OPEC leaders gathered last week, the cartel’s price hawks looked to Saudi Arabia to cut its production to support everyone else’s prices. The Saudis refused, noting that an OPEC production cut would simply make room for more oil from non-OPEC nations on global markets. The Saudis appear determined to preserve their market share.

This is widely seen as a move to counter North American competition, but I doubt this. For one thing, although some remote parts of Canada require high oil prices to be competitive, a lot of the new production in the United States will be profitable even at prices as low as $50 a barrel, once drilling activity slows from its recent breakneck pace and production costs fall accordingly.

Moreover, the Saudis are engaged in a genuine war by proxy, but not with us. Their enemy is fellow OPEC member Iran, along with its allies in Baghdad and Damascus and clients that include Hamas in the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran is already reeling under Western sanctions and struggling to preserve its nuclear program, which the Saudis must feel they have to either halt or, eventually, match. The Riyadh regime has no incentive at all to support the Iranians (and their frequent allies, the Russians) with higher oil prices; it has many good reasons to do the opposite. And that appears to be exactly what the Saudis are doing. Saudi Arabia can get along much longer and much better with low oil prices than can Iran.

Finally there are the central banks. While the U.S. Federal Reserve has ended its quantitative easing program and is laying the groundwork for higher interest rates, Europe is creeping in the opposite direction. Japan’s bankers have already flooded the market with yen, driving their currency down by nearly half from its peak a few years ago. All this has made the dollar one of the world’s strongest currencies this year. Presto: As the dollar’s value rises, the price of oil as measured in dollars must decline. It has declined everywhere, but by somewhat less when measured in pounds or euros, and by much less when measured in yen.

None of this distresses me. Oil and other commodity prices are cyclical; each big move contains the seeds of its own reversal through eventual changes in production and consumption. And to the extent lower prices constrain the resources of dangerous and nasty regimes around the world, we ought to applaud what we are seeing on the world stage. Which will be a good place to pick up the discussion tomorrow.

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