Trump’s Trade Wars Will Hurt Dollar’s Exorbitant Privilege

Dear Reader, we would suggest that before you start reading this column, you read the column published yesterday. In yesterday’s column we saw how the tariffs unleashed by the US President Donald Trump will hurt America, instead of making it great again. Reading this column, before you read today’s column, will give you a complete perspective on the issue. This is the second in a series of three columns on the issue. The third column will appear on Thursday.

The American dollar is at the heart of the global financial system as it has evolved. The reasons for this are historical.

By 1944, it was clear that the Allied forces are going to win the Second World War. In July 1944, they gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in the US, to design a new financial system for the world. Europe had been totally destroyed during the course of the war and even countries like Britain and France were in a bad shape despite being on the winning side. European countries were in no position to negotiate. And so, the American dollar was placed at the heart of the financial system that evolved at Bretton Woods.

The US was ready to convert dollars into gold at the rate of $35 for one ounce (31.1 grams) of gold. This came to be known as the Bretton Woods Agreement. It made the
American dollar the premier international currency of choice, as it was the only currency that could be converted into gold.

This ensured that over a period of time countries moved to carrying out their international trade primarily in American dollars. It also ensured that countries held their foreign exchange reserves in dollars because dollar was the only currency which could be converted into gold.

This structure that emerged gave the American dollar an exorbitant privilege. While the rest of the world had to earn these dollars by exporting stuff, the United States could simply print them and buy all the stuff that it needed. This has been one of the primary reasons why United States, over the decades, has turned into a big buyer of things. All the American buying drives global demand.

Given that the dollar became the international trading and reserve currency, the oil cartel OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), also sold the oil that it produced, in dollars. This was one more reason for the world to buy and sell stuff in dollars. Every country did not produce the total oil it consumed, and in order to import enough oil to fulfil its consumption needs, it needed dollars. The only way to earn these dollars was to price its exports in dollars.

In fact, the Saudi Arabia led OPEC continuing to price oil in dollars, is one of the major reasons why dollar continues to be the major reserve as well as trading currency of the world. Even the Americans recognise this fact.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his new book Skin in the Game—Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life: “It is clear since the attack on the World Trade Center (in which most of the attackers were Saudi citizens) that someone in that nonpartying kingdom had a hand—somehow—in the matter. But no bureaucrat, fearful of oil disruptions, made the right decision—instead, the absurd invasion of Iraq was endorsed because it appeared to be simpler.”

So, dollar due to various reasons is the international currency in which people and countries want to deal with. As George Gilder writes in The Scandal of Money—Why Wall Street Recovers But the Economy Never Does: Today it [i.e. the dollar] handles more than 60 percent of world trade, denominates more than half the market capitalization of world stocks, and partakes in 87 percent of global currency trades.”

Given this, over the years, countries have accumulated huge dollar reserves. A significant chunk of these reserves have been earned by exporting stuff to the United States.  The United States is the biggest economy in the world. It accounts for nearly one-fourth of the world’s GDP. By virtue of this, it is also the world’s biggest market, where China, Japan and countries from South- East Asia sell their goods and earn dollars in the process.

It is also the world’s biggest consumer of oil and consumes nearly a fourth of the global oil production. This meant that oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia could sell oil to it and thus earn dollars in the process.

The dollars earned by other countries haven’t stayed in the vaults of their central banks. They have been invested in American treasury securities and other debt securities. Treasury securities are basically financial securities issued by the American government to finance its fiscal deficit, which is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. Take a look at Figure 1. It basically plots the foreign investment in American treasuries over the last 40 years.

Figure 1:

Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US)


The foreigners currently own more than $6 trillion of American government treasury securities. This along with the easy money policy initiated by the Federal Reserve of the United States, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in September 2008, has ensured that the interest that the US government pays on these securities has been around 2% per year, over the last five years.

The interest paid on the US treasury securities sets the benchmark for other loans in the American financial system (or for that matter any other financial system) because lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. Over and above this, the foreigners have invested close to $3.3 trillion in other American debt securities.

This inflow of dollars into the United States has kept interest rates low. These low interest rates have kept the American consumption story going to some extent. As the American stand-up comedian George Calrin once said: “Consumption is the new national pastime. People spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need, money they don’t have so they can max out their credit cards… And they didn’t like it when they got it home anyway.”

Donald Trump’s tariff policy will attack at the heart of this model. Countries earn dollars by exporting stuff to the United States and other parts of the world. These dollars then find their way back to the United States where they are invested in treasury and other debt securities, and help maintain low interest rates.

If Trump and America shut out the American market to other countries, the countries exporting stuff to the US (Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and a whole host of other countries), will not earn as many dollars as they currently are. And if they don’t earn enough dollars, the likelihood of them continuing to invest in American debt securities, is very low. This will mean that the interest rates in the United States will start to rise. This is something that the country which is currently going through an early stage of economic recovery, cannot really afford.

Further, the other countries might also start to try and price their exports in currencies other than the dollar, as well. China has been working towards this for quite a while. Trump’s decision to introduce tariffs might just be the final push that the country needs.
If countries start pricing their exports in non-dollar currencies, Trump’s plan to impose tariff will hurt the exorbitant privilege that the dollar has enjoyed over the years.

In fact, in the third and final column in this series, which will appear on Thursday, we will see why Trump’s plan of trying to increase American exports while shrinking its imports, is essentially contradictory in nature.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on March 13, 2018.

Shale vs crude: Why oil prices are on a free fall even as Opec members suffer

The latest price of the Indian basket for crude oil was at $35.72 per barrel. It has fallen by 16% over the last one month and by 33% since end December 2014.
Yesterday, the Brent crude oil was selling at $37-38 per barrel. Lower quality oil is selling at even below $30 per barrel. As Amrbose Evans-Prtichard writes in The Telegraph: “Basra heavy crude from Iraq is quoted at $26 in Asia, and poor grades from Western Canada fetch as little as $22. Iran’s high-sulphur Foroozan is selling at $31.”

What has led such low levels of oil price? Over the last one year, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries(OPEC), an oil cartel of some of the biggest oil producing countries in the world, has been flooding the market with oil in order to make the shale oil being pumped in the United States, unviable. Pumping shale oil is an expensive process and is not viable at lower oil price levels.

In fact, the oil ministers of the OPEC countries met in early December and they pretty much decided to continue doing things the way they have been up until now, over the last one year. In the past, any likely slowdown in oil prices was met with oil production cuts within the OPEC. That hasn’t happened over the last one year and isn’t happening now either.

As the International Energy Agency(IEA) points out in its monthly oil report for December 2015: “OPEC’s decision to scrap its official production ceiling and keep the taps open is a de facto acknowledgment of current oil market reality. The exporter group has effectively been pumping at will since Saudi Arabia convinced fellow members a year ago to refrain from supply cuts and defend market share against a relentless rise in non-OPEC supply.”

The rise in the supply of non-OPEC oil has primarily happened on account shale oil being pumped in the United States and to some extent in Canada, over the last few years. In order to make companies pumping shale oil unviable, OPEC has been relentlessly pumping oil. As the IEA monthly report points out: “OPEC supply since June has been running at an average 31.7 million barrels per day, with Saudi Arabia and Iraq – the group’s largest producers – pumping at or near record rates. Riyadh has held supply above 10 million barrels per day since March to satisfy demand at home and abroad while Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is doing its level best to keep production above the 4 million barrels per day mark first breached in June.”

Also, as oil prices have fallen, OPEC and non-OPEC oil producing countries have had to pump more and more oil, in order to ensure that their governments have some money going around to spend. As the Russian finance Anton Siluanov told Ambrose. “There is no defined policy by the OPEC countries: it is everyone for himself, all trying to recapture markets, and it leads to the dumping that is going on.”

Further, sanctions against Iran are likely to be lifted early next year and more oil will then hit the international oil market. The Financial Times quotes an oil trader as saying: “It seems the Iranians are fulfilling the requirements for the lifting of sanctions faster than expected.” said one London-based oil trader.

The IEA monthly report expects the extra oil from Iran to add 300 million barrels to the already swelling oil inventories. In fact, the November 2015 oil report of the IEA had put the total global stockpiles of oil at 3 billion barrels.

So how long will this last? Given the number of factors that impact the price of oil, predicting which way it will head, has always been tricky business.  As Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner write in Superforecasting—The Art and Science of PredictionTake the price of oil, long a graveyard topic for forecasting reputations. The number of factors that can drive the price up or down is huge—from frackers in the United States to jihadists in Libya to battery designers in Silicon Valley—and the number of factors that can influence those factors is even bigger.”

Nevertheless, it seems that one year down the line the Saudi strategy of driving down the price of oil, in order to drive down non-OPEC oil production seems to be working. As the IEA oil report points out: “There is evidence the Saudi-led strategy is starting to work. Lower prices are clearly taking a toll on non-OPEC supply, with annual growth shrinking below 0.3 million barrels per day in November from 2.2 million barrels per day at the start of the year. A 0.6 million barrels per day decline is expected in 2016, as US light tight oil – the driver of non-OPEC growth – shifts into contraction.”

Also, it is worth pointing out here that oil exporting countries are having a tough time balancing their budgets. The fiscal deficit of Saudi Arabia has touched 20% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government spends and what it earns. As Evans-Pritchard puts it: “Opec revenues have collapsed from $1.2 trillion a year in 2012 to nearer $400 billion next year.”

Hence, it is safe to say that the OPEC strategy of driving down the price of oil is hurting the member countries. Given this, the price of oil cannot be at such low levels for much long. But at least in the short run, the oil price will continue to stay low.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on December 15, 2015

Why oil prices have fallen below $40 per barrel

light-diesel-oil-250x250A few months back I wrote a series of columns on oil. In these columns, I maintained that it is very difficult to predict the price of oil over the long term, given that there are way too many factors involved, other than just demand for and supply of the commodity. At the same time I said that in the short-term the price of oil will continue to go down. And that is precisely what has happened.

Data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) tells us that as on December 8, 2015, the price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $ 37.34 per barrel. In fact, during the course of this week, oil prices have touched a seven year low.

What is happening here? The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an oil cartel of some of the biggest oil producers in the world, met last Friday on December 4, 2015.

The statement released by OPEC after the meeting as usual was very general in nature. It said: “emphasizing its commitment to ensuring a long-term stable and balanced oil market for both producers and consumers, the Conference [i.e. OPEC] agreed that Member Countries should continue to closely monitor developments in the coming months.”

What does this “really” mean? In the past, the OPEC has adjusted its oil production depending on oil demand. If the demand was high, it increased production so as to ensure that oil prices did not go up too much. This was done in order to ensure that other forms of energy did not become viable. If the demand was low, it cut production in order to ensure that oil prices did not fall too much.

In the last one year, OPEC has abandoned this strategy primarily on account of all the oil that is being produced by the shale oil companies in the United States. As shale oil started to hit the market, the OPEC countries started to lose market share. Hence, they decided not to cut production any further, and try and maintain market share, even if that meant low oil prices.

The major producers within the OPEC (the likes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq) produce oil at anywhere between $9 to $20 a barrel. It costs anywhere between $29 to $90 per barrel to produce shale oil, as per the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Hence, the idea was to engineer low oil prices and in the process make shale oil unviable and help OPEC countries maintain their market share. Nevertheless, despite low oil prices, the US shale oil industry is not shutting down at the rate it was expected to, when the price of oil started to fall, around a year back.
And this explains why OPEC continues to produce oil full blast. It wants to kill the US shale oil industry. Further, what the OPEC’s statement released last Friday really means is that the cartel will maintain its production at over 31.5 million barrels per day. In fact, members of the OPEC have always known to cheat on the side and produce more than their allocated quotas. Hence, the daily production is likely to be more than 31.5 million barrels per day.

As the newsagency Bloomberg reported: “There’s as much as 2 million barrels of oversupply in the market, and OPEC’s meeting on Friday means “everyone does what they want,” Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said in Vienna on Dec. 4.”

Take a look at the following two charts from the International Energy Agency. One is a chart showing the World Oil Supply. And the other shows World Oil Demand.

world oil supply


world oil demand


As per the chart, the World Oil Supply during the period July to September 2015 was at 96.9 million barrels per day. The demand on the other hand was lower than the supply at 96.35 million barrels per day.

The OPEC oil supply during the period July to September 2015, went up in comparison to the period April to June 2015. The OPEC production between April to June 2015 was at 31.5 million barrels per day. Over the next three months it jumped to 31.74 million barrels per day. Hence, OPEC contributed significantly to the jump in global oil supply.
opec crude oil supply

In fact, the production of OPEC is likely to increase in the months to come as the sanctions on Iran are lifted and the country is allowed to export more oil.

Over and above this, the global oil inventory is at a record high. As a recent IEA report points out: “Stockpiles of oil at a record 3 billion barrels are providing world markets with a degree of comfort. This massive cushion has inflated even as the global oil market adjusts to $50/bbl oil. Demand growth has risen to a five-year high…with India galloping to its fastest pace in more than a decade. But gains in demand have been outpaced by vigorous production from OPEC and resilient non-OPEC supply – with Russian output at a post-Soviet record and likely to remain robust in 2016 as well. The net result is brimming crude oil stocks that offer an unprecedented buffer against geopolitical shocks or unexpected supply disruption.”

As the report further points out: “The stock overhang that first developed in the US on the back of soaring North American crude production, has now spread across the OECD. Since the second quarter, inventories in Asia Oceania have swollen by more than 20 million barrels. In Europe, record high Russian output and rising deliveries from major Middle East exporters are filling the tanks.”

What this clearly means is that oil prices are likely to stay low over the next few months. Further, the forecast is for a fairly mild winter in Europe as well as North America. This means that the demand for diesel, which is the fuel of choice for heating in Europe as well as North East America, is unlikely to go up at a rapid rate. The stockpiles of diesel are at a five-year high.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 10, 2015

Short-term crude forecasts are, well, crude forecasts

oilVivek Kaul

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

In response to yesterday’s column a journalist friend asked “where do you see the price of crude oil heading in the days to come?”. A perfectly innocent question which does not have an easy answer.
First and foremost it is important to understand why the price of crude oil has fallen in the recent past. One explanation lies in the fact that the demand for oil has not risen at the same pace as it had in the past.
As Satyajit Das author of
Extreme Money writes in a recent research note titled Reverse Oil Shock: Weak demand contributes perhaps 30-40 percent of the fall. In 2014, oil demand grew by around 500,000 barrels per day, below the 1.3 million barrels growth projected earlier, reflecting weak economic activity in Europe, Japan and emerging markets, especially China.”
At the same time this slow increase in demand has been met with an increase in the supply of oil. With high oil prices, other sources of oil like shale oil in the United States and oil from tar sands of Canada, have also become viable. As Das points out: “
Increased supply contributes 60-70 percent of the decline. In a pattern reminiscent of earlier price cycles, several years of high prices and strong demand has encouraged new sources of oil supply to be brought on stream, causing the price to adjust.”
The production of US shale oil has gone up by 4 million barrels per day since 2008. This has led to a situation where the United States produces 9 million barrels per day of crude oil, only around a million barrels lower than Saudi Arabia.
Also, oil from other traditional oil producing countries like Libya has also hit the market in the recent past. Libyan oil production increased by around 800,000 barrels per day after the “reopening export terminals following a truce agreed between tribal militias in the civil war”.
To add to all this has been the decision of the Saudi Arabia led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) not to cut production with the fall in oil prices, as it has done in the past. It needs to be pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been a swing oil producer in the past, where it has either increased or decreased its production to ensure that global supply of crude oil equals its demand.
But that hasn’t happened this time around as Saudi Arabia hasn’t cut production. Why is that the case? On the previous occasions Saudi Arabia cut production it ensured that crude oil prices continued to remain high and in turn, benefited other countries.
As Das writes: “In the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia cut its output by close to 75 percent to support weak prices. The Saudis suffered a loss of revenues and also market share. Other OPEC members and non-OPEC producers benefited from higher prices. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has regained market share, benefiting from the disruption to suppliers such as Iran, Iraq and Libya.” And given this, the Saudis are not in the mood to hand over their market share to other countries.
Hence, they would rather hold on to their market share than cut production and sustain a higher crude oil price. Also, shale oil is expensive to produce and by driving down the oil price Saudi Arabia is trying to make the entire shale oil business unviable.
Niels C. Jensen writes in The Absolute Return Letter for January 2015 titled Pie in the Sky: “In effect, OPEC is trying to destroy the economics of this industry, which admittedly requires quite high oil prices to remain profitable. Only 4% of total U.S. shale production breaks even at $80 or higher. A high percentage of the industry breaks even with an oil price in the $55-65 range.”
Brent crude oil is currently quoting at around $50 per barrel. If crude oil continues to sell at $50 per barrel or lower, it is for sure that US shale oil producers will go bankrupt in the days to come. As Jensen puts it: “OPEC (with Saudi Arabia in the driving seat) may exhaust itself and decide that enough is enough, or it may go for broke – in this case it would want U.S. shale producers to go bankrupt and exit the industry forever which, we note, is quite likely to happen, should the oil price stay at current levels or lower for any extended period of time.”
The trouble here is that this assumes that the United States will sit back and do nothing. But as history has shown the politics of oil is never so straightforward. As I had pointed out in yesterday’s column the shale oil companies have been major job creators in the United States.
As analyst Jawad Mian points out in the Stray Reflections newsletter for January 2015: “It is undeniable that the oil and gas sector has become a key driver of US economic activity…It has been responsible for about 30% of the 10 million national increase in jobs since the global financial crisis.” Oil companies have been major job creators in the states of Alaska, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Colorado, West Virginia, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Montana.
Given this, chances are that the US political establishment will not sit back and watch if shale oil firms start shutting down. “
It is now a highly political chess game and, as I have learned over the years, when politics enter the frame, logic goes out the window,” writes Jensen.
At the same time the shale oil firms are politically very well connected in the United States. This can be made out from the way the shale oil firms are allowed to operate. As Jeremy Grantham writes
in the GMO Quarterly Newletter for the third quarter of 2014: “There are few if any constraints, for example, on what chemicals and in what amounts, can be pumped into a fracking well. Nor is the leakage of methane (natural gas) from the drilling and pipeline operations seriously monitored despite the fact that methane is over 86 times as potent a greenhouse gas, at a 20-year horizon, as CO2 is.”
This demonstrates the “the remarkable influence of the energy industry over the U.S. governmental process, if “process” is not too dignified a word,” writes Grantham. Grantham is one of the most well respected fund managers in the United States. And given what he says, the shale oil companies must already be working the United States government to do something about Saudi Arabia driving down the price of crude oil.
At the same time the US benefits from low oil price as well. “A number of U.S.-antagonistic countries around the world (think countries like Russia, Iran and Venezuela) will be seriously weakened as a result of lower oil prices, which will strengthen the position of the U.S. in global politics,” writes Jensen.
Low oil price also benefits the US consumers given that they have more money in their pocket to spend on other things. As Das explains: “
Lower oil prices increase disposable income. The average US motorist spends around US$3,000 per annum on gasoline. US households may save around US$500 to US$600 a year. If this money is spent then it will boost growth. There are also indirect channels such as transport costs. It also affects agriculture, which is four to five times as energy intensive as manufacturing.”
Given this, it will be interesting to see how the US political establishment reacts to a fall in crude oil prices and that will to some extent determine where oil prices head in 2015, even though it seems that they will continue to remain low in the short term.
Further it is worth remembering that the price elasticity of crude oil is low especially in the short run. This means even a small disruption in supply can lead to oil price shooting up rapidly. As Das puts it: “The structure of the oil market entails fine margins between demand and supply. The current oversupply is around 2 million barrels a day, less than 2 percent of global consumption…Key uncertainties include weather conditions, unanticipated supply disruptions and geo-political factors.”

The column originally appeared on as a part of The Daily Reckoning on Jan 13, 2015

Oil at $65: Where oil prices go will depend on who blinks first, shale oil producers or OPEC


Vivek Kaul

The West Texas Intermediary (WTI) crude oil price has touched a five year low of $65 per barrel. As I write this, the WTI price stands at $64.5 per barrel. WTI is one of the grades of crude oil and is used as a benchmark to set oil prices.
This fall in oil prices has come about after the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries(OPEC) in a meeting on November 27, 2014, decided not to cut their production. In the past whenever oil prices fell, OPEC used to cut production in order to ensure that prices did not continue to fall. This has not happened this time around.
The primary reason for the same has been the rise of the shale oil producers in the United States. The United States was producing around 4 million barrels of oil per day in mid 2008. Since then the production has jumped to 8.97 million barrels per day (as of end of October 31, 2014). The entire incremental production has come from shale oil.
This has meant that the United States which is the biggest consumer of oil in the world is importing far lesser oil than it was in the past. Amrborse-Evans Pritchard
writing in The Telegraph points out that “America has cut its net oil imports by 8.7m barrels per day since 2006, equal to the combined oil exports of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.” This is a reason to worry for OPEC and it has decided to not cut production significantly, and in the process it hopes to make shale oil producers unviable.
Prtichard also quotes C
hris Skrebowski, former editor of Petroleum Review, as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to cut down the annual increase in the production of US shale oil from the current one million barrels per day to 500,000 barrels per day. Saudi Arabia is the leader of the OPEC cartel and OPEC largely does what Saudi Arabia wants it to.
Given this it is not surprising that OPEC has continued to maintain a production of over 30 million barrels per day, despite falling oil prices.
As Javed Mian writes in an investment letter titled Stray Reflections and dated November 2014: “It is not surprising to see OPEC production – relative to its 30 million barrels a day quota – rising from virtual compliance to one where the cartel is producing above its agreed production allocation. Output rose to 30.974 million barrels per day in October, a 14-month high led by gains in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya.”
The production of OPEC in the month of November 2014 stood at 30.56 million barrels per day. This was lower than the production in October, but still higher than the target of 30 million barrels per day.
OPEC is working with the assumption that shale oil is expensive to produce
Nevertheless as I pointed out in an earlier piece on shale oil there are as many estimates on the production cost of shale oil going around, as there are analysts.
In a September 2014 report Bank of America-Merrill Lynch had put the production costs of shale oil from $50-75 per barrel. Mian whose newsletter I have quoted earlier put the break-even price at $57 per barrel.
Analysts at Citibank recently said that the price of oil would have to fall below $50 a barrel for completely halting shale oil production in the United States.
Evans-Pritchard goes even lower. As he writes: “The International Energy Agency said most of North Dakota’s vast Bakken field “remains profitable at or below $42 per barrel. The break-even price in McKenzie County, the most productive county in the state, is only $28 per barrel.” He quotes Edward Morse, Citigroup’s commodities chief as saying that the  “full cycle” cost for shale production is $70 to $80, but this includes the original land grab and infrastructure. Nevertheless, the remaining capital expenditure “to bring on an additional well, could be as low as the high-$30s range.”
A Bloomberg report points out “Only about 4% of US shale output needs $80 a barrel or more to be profitable, according to the International Energy Agency. Most production in the Bakken formation, one of the main drivers of shale oil output, remains commercially viable at or below $42, the Paris-based agency estimates.”
What these data points tell us is that the Saudi led OPEC will have to drive down oil prices further, in order to ensure that production of shale oil becomes unviable. At least that is the observation one can make from all the data that is available.
The question is till when OPEC keep driving down prices. Mian estimates that “the current oil decline has potentially cost OPEC $250 billion of its recent earnings of $1 trillion”. Further, “lower the price of oil falls, the greater the need to compensate for lower revenues with higher production, which paradoxically pushes oil prices even lower,” Mian writes.
Most OPEC countries have built their budgets around high oil prices. “Once all the costs of subsidies and social programs are factored-in, most OPEC countries require oil above $100 to balance their budgets. This raises longer-run issues on the sustainability of the fiscal stance in a low-oil price environment,” writes Mian.
Hence, the oil price at which the budgets of OPEC countries and other oil exporting countries breaks even, is very high. “The fiscal break-even cost is $161 for Venezuela, $160 for Yemen, $132 for Algeria, $131 for Iran, $126 for Nigeria, and $125 for Bahrain, $111 for Iraq, and $105 for Russia, and even $98 for Saudi Arabia itself, according to Citigroup,”writes Evans-Pritchard.
Given this, while the OPEC is trying to make shale oil unviable it is bleeding as well.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia seems to have decided that it wants to drive down the price of oil and that is what is important. The Kingdom has the ability to withstand lower oil prices for a few years, feels Mian. As he writes “Saudi Arabia appears to be comfortable with much lower oil prices for an extended period of time. The House of Saud is equipped with sufficient government assets to easily withstand three years at the current oil price by dipping into their $750 billion of net foreign assets.”
The question is who will blink first, the Saudi Arabia led OPEC or the shale oil companies. And that will decide how far the oil price will fall.

The article originally appeared on on Dec 2, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)