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Little comfort here

Little comfort here
There is little to draw comfort for India, the world’s fourth-largest oil importer, from the continuing fall in oil prices. The world crude oil price has remained most volatile, though not entirely unpredictable. Such has been the tradition since September 1960, when the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the world’s largest commodity cartel, was formed. The price fell to $33 a barrel on December 21, 2015. No doubt, it’s a massive fall from its 2008 peak at $147.02 a barrel on July 11. For India and its economy, whose growth is substantially impacted by global oil price, the current oil price trend may appear to be a good news for the time being. But it must recognise the fact that the current global oil price is engineered and indirectly determined by the United States according to its perception of global politics. The government may find itself in an extremely sticky wicket if its 2016-17 budget, infrastructure spend and import policy are allowed to be influenced by the current trend in oil prices.

The near-sustained contraction in the global oil price has more to do with the international politics than the demand-supply position of crude oil. Washington’s recent decision to allow export of US crude oil after many years, despite the currently low international price, appears to be part of its plan to inflict economic damage on Russia, which until recently was the world’s largest oil exporter. Russia has been the worst hit by the global oil price fall. The US-led trade embargo on Russia against its Ukraine policy has done little to corner Moscow. Developments in West Asia involving the US and its most reliable strategic partner Saudi Arabia on one side and Russia, Iran and Syria on the other, seems to have forced Washington to go for the ultimate economic action against Russia. The aim is to put President Vladimir Putin in a very awkward political situation in his country where the people are already suffering from a shortage of essential items, including food, and falling income.

So far, the US has garnered the support of Saudi Arabia, its allies and the world’s six oil majors – ExxonMobil, Total, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips – to take the price and profit hits to teach the Russian president a lesson on economic diplomacy. If the selling price of oil remains so low or fall further, it may lead to political instability in Russia. Suffice to say, it would impact the Russian government’s tax revenue, forex reserves and its ability to provide programs needed to pacify the people in terms of food prices, energy subsidies and jobs programs, etc. Low oil prices make the plight of oil exporters with declining oil production worse such as Russia, Mexico and Venezuela. However, the US economic push against Russia is unlikely to last long. The oil majors are certainly not prepared to wait indefinitely to improve their balance sheets and stockholders’ confidence. Three of the six oil majors are from Western Europe – Total from France, Shell of England and the Netherlands and British Petroleum of the UK. A part of their production comes from West Asia.

Today, the oil production market is not entirely controlled by either by OPEC or producers from Russia, China and Venezuela. The last three countries are among the top 10 global oil producers along with Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, Iran and Canada. Yet, OPEC, the US and the oil majors from the US and EU play a big role in production and pricing of crude oil. By cutting down production, they can jack up the oil prices any time as almost 65 percent of global oil production comes from the top 10 oil producing countries and the global market is largely controlled by the six oil majors. They have done it in the past to the desired effect. And, there is no reason to believe that they won’t do it again to recover their current losses. The indirectly US-influenced 12-member OPEC, including Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela as members, still has a big say in the global oil supply and pricing. Iran and Venezuela have limited interest in the US policy.

Despite the global push for the non-conventional and non-fossil fuel energy, global oil demand is not expected to fall too soon with India and China emerging as the major long-term consumers. Oil is the world’s No.1 export commodity accounting for 7.8 percent of all exports. Last year, crude oil exports earned US$1.451 trillion. The export figure represents a 29.2 percent increase in value since 2010 but only a 7.9 percent decline from 2013. According to reports, West Asian producers accounted for the highest value of crude oil exports during 2014 with shipments amounting to $623.9 billion or 43 percent of global crude oil exports. Among them were: Saudi Arabia $268.2 billion (18.5 percent), United Arab Emirates $98 billion (6.8 percent), Iraq $84.4 billion (5.8 percent), Kuwait $69.3 billion (4.8 percent), Iran $41.3 billion (2.8 percent) and Oman  $34.8 billion (2.4 percent). Kuwait, Iraq and Oman are among the fastest growing crude oil exporters. Iran is the only one of them known to be close to the Shiite regime of Syria and, as such, Russia.

How far may the oil price be allowed to drop depends on the success of the US strategy and its impact on Russia in 2016. The current oil price is still well above the inflation-adjusted price of crude oil at below $25 a barrel between 1980 and 2003. With the US entering the oil export market, the price may still be brought down temporarily to the level of around $30 a barrel. It will all depend on the success of the US oil gamble to bring Russia on its knees within a period. India needs to play safe and follow a conservative economic policy towards non-oil imports and foreign commercial borrowing and not consider the current international oil price as a mid-term trend. India’s public sector oil companies should continue to invest in oil equity abroad as production partners. It may be time to protect and expand domestic production of all key items, improve infrastructure investments and push exports by linking all FDIs with a minimum export obligation.

(The author is a senior political commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)
Nantoo Banerjee

Nantoo Banerjee

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