Category Archives: Putin

Putin’s new OPEC role reflects the toll of low oil prices on Russia [IBD quotes me]

I was interviewed by Gillian Rich at Investors Business Daily (Washington, DC) on non-OPEC Russia’s role in the production cut.  The article of December 9, is below. A few points first:

1: President Putin and his minister of energy Alexander Novak‘s participation in the OPEC decision – actually making middle-of-the-night phone calls to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, plus publicly promising to cut Russian production – is totally unprecedented. Never did the Soviets, nor  post-Soviet Russia  ever do any such thing previously. Why now?

2: As Rich quotes me as saying, oil prices below $60/barrel impose severe constraints on the Russian state’s income. Indeed, the federal budget has actually been based on $50/barrel, and yet the difficulties are apparent. Although Russian oil production is now at a post-Soviet all-time high, low prices have caused the state’s oil and gas income to severely drop. Here is the EIA’s assessment as of October 2016, showing the correlation of Brent price fall (in both dollars and Rubles) on the left, and the decline in oil and gas federal budget revenue on the right:eia_russia_oil_20oct16

But, how much of Russian national export revenue is derived from oil and gas revenue? The EIA (in 2014) puts this at 68%. Here’s the breakdown:  eia_russian_oil_gas_exprot_revenue201300

Nota Bene: Crude oil and products represent 54%, while natural gas is 14% – that is, oil is almost four times as large. This left 32% of Russia’s gross export sales to “other energy and non-energy” items where the energy part includes significant coal, lignite, processed and unprocessed uranium and electricity sales.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of a rentier state, not a modern industrialized, service-sector oriented society, much less a high-tech one (with notable exceptions in weaponry, nuclear energy, and etc.)

3: So, bottom line, what does this mean for the State?  There are two emergency funds intended for use in such circumstances. One will likely be exhausted this year and a second fund, intended for pensions and such, not for replacing budget deficits, is being tapped to replenish foreign reserves. Looking at the state’s foreign reserves graphically, we have this:russia-foreign-exchange-reserves

I have made the time axis here identical to the first EIA graphs, to facilitate comparison. Note, the baseline is not zero, but $350 billion. Russia was known to have had big reserves, but given low oil prices and the US and EU oil-and-finance sanctions over Ukraine, roughly a couple-hundred-billion dollars of reserves were lost, with about $50-billion regained as oil prices rose a bit this past year.

4. The first EIA chart above also shows a big divergence between the dollar and ruble price of Brent crude, reflecting the big devaluation-to-date of the ruble. This indeed helps the economy and the state in various ways; for example, with anything it can pay for at home in rubles.  However, with Russia hot having a significant percentage of its income from manufactured goods or agricultural exports, this low-valued currency does not give the boost it would give to a diversified industrial economy such as Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada or the USA.

Lastly, if we listen NOT to predictably pessimistic western analysts, but to the Russian federal finance minister himself, Anton Siluanov (speaking to Bloomberg in January 2016), Siluanov makes clear that  cutting the budget 10% in 2016 would only account for about 1/3 of the needed cuts and that raising cash from privatizations would be necessary along with spending down the aforementioned reserve fund. Indeed, after much shady ado in the Kremlin, which included the arrest of the federal economics minister, Rosneft has indeed privatized part of its state shares, 19.6% of the company, reaping 10.3 billion euros for the state budget. In further years, areas now forbidden to be cut, military and social spending, would have to be considered. You can listen to Siluanov here.

Putin knows very deeply how badly things can go if energy prices, and especially oil prices, remain low (as they likely will). He came to power at a time following the period of dire economic hardship following the crash of 1998 Continue reading

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My CNNMoney quote & 3 points: OPEC v shale, Russia’s new role & Trump-buddy Hamm is pro Saudi price band

 

160928163540-opec-algeria-384x216I was interviewed by Matt Egan of CNNMoney. Three points, if I may:

  1. This story echoes my message in Berlin Policy Journal earlier this week and my RTRadio interview: OPEC now has to live with a new oil-market paradigm where shale  won’t disappear (for now its in the US, but soon elsewhere too).  It is a technology more akin to manufacturing than traditional oil extraction and so more amenable to technological and operating innovation in a low-price regime (or in a price war such as the Saudis et al have just given up on waging against it). And, being much smaller-in-scale means it can ramp up at much lower initial costs and more rapidly than traditional oil fields. The CNNMoney story is below here, or here’s the CNN ink .
  2. Another totally new phenomena seen in this OPEC deal was that a Russian leader was deeply involved in the tense OPEC negotiations, specifically between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia has never done this before. Historically, it has also never carried through on previous promises to support an OPEC cut, instead free-riding on higher prices effected by OPEC/Saudi cuts.  In this case, Putin was instrumental in getting the Saudi’s to agree, as they always have before, to swallow most of the cuts. But, Putin has agreed to cut too (in ambiguous language, but repeatedly). We shall now see if he and Igor Sechin (CEO of Rosneft, that produces 40% of Russian oil, and who is, by the way, a great friend of Venezuela’s miserably failing chavista leadership, where his company is now the biggest foreign oil producer) … do as they have promised OPEC and the Saudis. If they do not, the fallout with Saudis and their allies will be significant.
  3. Now, also, we shall see how US shale responds. Of course, IEA head, Fatih Birol, has understandably predicted that US shale and other producers, will likely hike production if oil reaches $60/barrel and simply eat up the present OPEC cuts in about nine months or so. (Aside: of course, the present output cuts, even if they ‘fail’ in the long run to sustain higher prices, would still have had been a significant cash-boosting relief to all OPEC states and to Russia while they lasted.)  However, take a look at the Bloomberg video link at the end of my Berlin Policy Journal piece – an interview with Howard Hamm, Trump’s billionaire fracking close-ally (who has just turned down an offer to run the Department of Energy). He had told Bloomberg he expects OPEC to make a deal because “it makes sense” and, further, that he expects/hopes his US fracking colleagues will show ‘discipline’ after the price rise, i.e., not expanding too fast so as to keep prices up.  An interesting, de facto recognition that price wars, in the end (in the long run), do not benefit either side, and goes on to approvingly say that the Saudi’s want to once again maintain prices “in a band” as they used to do. It is clear from Hamm that this would all be very welcomed from the US side. (Note, Hamm’s Continental Energy company made $3 billion in just three hours after the OPEC deal boosted prices! ) Indeed, in light of such everlasting market realities, it is difficult to imagine Trump’s attitude to the Saudi’s will be much different than other US president’s over the years. Which has geopolitical implications for Iran, of course, as the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical competition for regional influence and their parallel oil-market competition both continue to heat up.

Here’s the CNNMoney piece by M. Egan of 1 December 2016 (with my quote highlighted): Continue reading

Saudi & Russia seek oil deal as OPEC fight v US shale fails [My RTRadio Interview]

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RT Radio-Edinburgh’s Jack Foster interviewed me on the upcoming 30 November OPEC summit where the Saudis hope to set a cap on OPEC and Russian production. Here’s the interview:   Listen from time-stamp 9:00-to-17:30 (Streaming MP3) 

This would  mark the first-ever Russian cooperation with OPEC. However, market realities look bleak for OPEC and Russia whether they reach an agreement or not. The reason is the unprecedented continuing challenge from US shale, which has dramatically cut its costs via tech and operational innovations to stay profitable at low prices. Continue reading

My AQ piece: “Russia Is Beating China to Venezuela’s Oil Fields”

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Russian Production & Stakes in Venezuelan Oil Projects (40% stake is limit)

Last October & November I succeeded in interviewing several people in the Venezuelan private sector directly knowledgeable of Russian oil projects with PDVSA. Many Venezuelans wonder what all the Russians-known for their secrecy-are up to there.  Some of my key findings are in Americas Quarterly‘s Winter 2016 edition. Read on … 

Russia Is Beating China to Venezuela’s Oil Fields – By THOMAS W. O’DONNELL

The profits, politics and luck behind Russia’s growing footprint.

Russian companies produce more oil in joint projects with PDVSA than their Chinese counterparts This article is adapted from our 1st print issue of 2016. 

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, had long envisioned China becoming Venezuela’s biggest oil-sector production partner. So when Rafael Ramírez, then president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), announced in January 2013 that Russia would produce enough oil with PDVSA by 2021 to become “the biggest petroleum partner of our country,” very few people believed him. It sounded like empty hype.

Yet it turns out that Ramírez was serious. Three years later, Russian companies are already producing more oil in joint projects with PDVSA than their Chinese counterparts. Official figures are either unreliable or unavailable, but according to field data provided by Global Business Consultants (GBC), a Caracas-based energy consulting firm, Russia-Venezuela production as of late 2015 was 209,000 barrels per day (bpd), compared to China-Venezuela’s at a bit over 171,000 bpd.

Continue reading

Bypass Operation: Nord Stream 2, Russia-to-Germany pipeline deal, raises questions

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Here’s my latest at Berlin Policy Journal (DGAP):  With Nord Stream 2, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is nearing his goal of cutting Ukraine out of the gas supply picture.  October 20, 2015

On 18 June, during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an agreement was signed to build a controversial new “Nord Stream 2” pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would go directly from Russia to northern Germany, with a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm). The project, which consists of two segments that would run along the same route as the existing two segments of the 55 bcm Nord Stream line, completed in 2011, has met with strong opposition from energy officials in Brussels, as well as leaders in Ukraine and some other EU states.

Indeed, the agreement between Russia’s Gazprom and a consortium of German, Austrian, French,, and Anglo-Dutch companies came as a surprise. After all, in January 2015 Gazprom announced it had abandoned the project, blaming both the falling price of gas over the previous year and anti-monopoly restrictions in the EU’s Third Energy Package, which prohibit suppliers of gas from also owning pipelines delivering it. This provision has prevented Gazprom from ever filling the original North Stream more than half way.[1] In retrospect, the sudden signing of a Nord Stream 2 agreement only six months after the project was supposedly abandoned, plus the fact that the consortium foresees a quick start reveals the prior cancellation to have been a political ruse. Continue reading

A Strange “No!” Alignment: Greeks, IMF and Washington v. Berlin and Brussels

What a strange rebellion against the international financial order.  On Sunday 5 July, Greece voted “No!” by a resounding 61% to the bailout conditions insisted upon by Berlin, Brussels and “the creditors.”  But, what is truly unique here is the alignment of international forces for renegotiation of Greek debt.

Throughout the post-War era, whenever it came down to imposing “discipline” on other small, debt-defaulting states, the most intrepid champions of the norms of the international financial order have consistently been Washington and the IMF (just ask Argentina’s Mrs. Kirchner, she’ll tell you).

Yet, look who agrees with the Greeks that their debts–in their present magnitude and structure–are impossible and potentially disastrous for the country: Continue reading

MY REPORT | Washington Viewpoints: Assessing Berlin’s Leadership on EU Energy Security

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Merkel and Obama answer questions. 6 June 2014 [Denver Post]

During April and May, I interviewed over a dozen Washington-based experts in European energy and geopolitics.  My report on these interviews–along with some policy proposals in light of Brussels’ “institutional incapacities” and the “fundamental contradictions” of German leadership–is here: [PDF with a Table of Contents for navigation] or at the AICGS website [HTML].

This work was conducted as a resident fellow of the AICGS (American Institute of Contemporary German Studies) in Washington, DC and supported by a generous grant from the German Academic Exchange Office (DAAD) with additional support from the Foreign Office.  My thanks to the AICGS for their collegial support and warm hospitality.

Next, the plan is to interview in Berlin and perhaps Brussels energy experts and officials for their viewpoints on European energy vulnerabilities and on their work with the U.S. side.