Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why is Oil Crashing? - What can history tell us?


James Fairgrieve was a British geographer and geopolititian in the early 1900’s. One of his theories was that imperialists throughout history had been primarily driven by the search for energy. Over the centuries the political center of the world usually shifts toward which source of energy is relevant at that time.

The 1970’s showed the world just how important hydrocarbons had become to the global economy. The Middle East became the political center of the world. OPEC would reduce oil output and embargo the West for supporting Israel. On top of that, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran would all but hault oil production for Tehran.

1970’s Oil Crisis

The result - oil prices went through the roof. Heavily industrialized countries that depended on oil saw stagnant economic growth. The world found themselves grouped as such:

  1. Heavily dependant on foreign oil supplies. Recession imminent. (Western Europe)
  2. Partly reliant on foreign oil mixed with a steady domestic supply. (United States)
  3. Domestic oil production is the primary source of GDP. (OPEC countries and USSR)

Oil became an extremely powerful tool the world’s geopolitical players would use to impose their foreign policy and ensure their interests.
History would later see Kissinger persuade the Israelis to leave the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The oil embargo would soon be lifted. Oil production would normalize and with that the Brent crude price per barrel would go down.

1980’s Oil Glut

Ronald Reagan would use the 1970’s energy crisis as a playbook for economic warfare. It’s rumored that President Reagan sent CIA director William Casey to Saudi Arabia in 1981 to initiate a lethal strike aimed at the Soviet Union’s pocket book.

The deal - Saudi Arabia was weak in military hardware. They were threatened on every border by Iraq, Iran, and the USSR. The Soviets had coveted the Middle East since before WW2.
Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov traveled to Berlin in 1940 for a meeting with Hitler. The reason? Hitler wanted to lure Stalin into an alliance. He knew that the best way to win a war in Western Europe was to ensure he didn’t have to fight the Soviets on his Eastern flank. Hitler and Mussolini both figured that Stalin wouldn’t intervene. Stalin wouldn’t risk spilling Russian blood for the sake of the English and French.
Hitler decided to dangle the idea of inviting Russia into the trio of Germany/Italy/Japan. A “Four-Power Pact” rather than the “Three-Power Pact”. Hitler’s meeting with Molotov was to discuss these terms and to divvy up the spheres of influence they would each inherit after the war.

What was Stalin’s primary condition for joining with Hitler? Straight from Molotov’s mouth:
“The first protocol, dealing with the spheres of influence, must recognise that the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognised as the centre of gravity of the aspirations of the Soviet Union.”

The Russians were basically quoting James Fairgrieve. They recognized that the Middle East was now the “political center of the world”. It was the Russian “center of gravity”. The German’s, however, invented geopolitics and would never agree to this. Hitler never replied to Stalin’s conditions and the Soviets would never join the Three-Power Pact.

CIA Director Casey and President Ronald Reagan believed the Soviet’s still saw the Middle East as their “center of gravity”. The Saudis believed this as well. The deal was simple. The United States promised military backing and equipment so that Saudi Arabia could solidify their borders. In return the Saudis promised to defy OPEC and over flood the market with oil. The United States would also ramp up production. The result - The 1980’s Oil Glut. Oil prices dropped so low that the USSR lost billions per day. They would never recover and the Soviet Union inevitably would collapse.

There’s the history. What does that show us today?

Has anyone noticed their gas prices lately? Why on earth are oil and gas prices going down in a world that is ripped by instability? Here is a graph that shows oil prices over the past 6 months:

6 month brent crude.jpg

As you can see there’s been a dramatic drop in the price per barrel since mid June. What’s the catalyst making this happen?
  1. Dramatic increase in production from the U.S.
  2. Dramatic increase from Libya (despite internal turmoil).
  3. Saudi Arabia increases production despite OPEC objections (sound familiar?).

First of all, who benefits from this? Who gets hurt?

Russia

It’s hard for me not to quote Sean Connery from The Hunt for Red October, “Once more, we play our dangerous game, a game of chess against our old adversary.”

We’re pulling the same levers we’ve pulled in the past. It’s amazing that the Russians haven’t diversified their economy away from hydrocarbon sales. Reagan furiously opposed the Urengoi pipeline that began Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. He warned the Europeans that Russia would gain a significant strategic advantage over them, but the pipeline was built regardless.

We’re seeing the result of that today in the proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. It’s not a coincidence that as the Russians began to support the separatists in Eastern Ukraine the price of oil began to drop out of the cellar. The Ukraine crisis and this modern day “oil crash” happened one after the other. The United States has played this move before and the Russians know they have little to counter it with. Washington D.C. sent a clear message to Russia. That they’re not only willing but completely able to crash Moscow’s economy if provoked to do so.

Putin now has to try and increase demand so that the PPB (price per barrel) goes back up. Look for them to increase cooperation with China. China has the demand to effect the PPB. My guess is that we’ll see news come from that in the near future.

Iran

Tehran is in an interesting predicament here. Their heavily sanctioned economy is also primarily driven by hydrocarbon sales. At the same time they’re locked in intense negotiations regarding their nuclear program. This gives the U.S. and Saudi Arabia a lot of leverage. It may force Iran to make considerable concessions.

It’s important to note that, just like in the 80’s, we must have promised the Saudis….something. The Saudis main struggle right now is Iran. Proxy battles between the Iranians and Saudis are being fought all over the Middle East. In Yemen, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, etc. Even the Iranian/U.S. rapprochement itseIf is a major setback for the Saudis. If a deal was indeed made look for progress on one of these fronts. Would the U.S. consider backing out of the Iranian nuclear talks all together to appease the Saudis? I guess we’ll find out soon.

Libya

The situation in Libya is interesting. Quite frankly I’m shocked that Libya has been able to produce as much oil lately as they’ve been. The central government has had to relocate as militias have gained more and more power daily. Somehow, Libya was able to flood the global oil market with a billion barrels per day.

Where is the Libyan oil coming from? Primarily from the Waha oil field. The Waha oil field is operated by 3 companies: ConocoPhillips, Hess Corp, and Marathon Oil. All U.S. based companies. Draw your own conclusions there…

Conclusion

James Fairgrieve made an observation in the 1900’s that very well could have influenced Russian geopolitical thinkers for the entire century. What was theory in Fairgrieve’s time became very much the reality in the 1970’s and 80’s. The players back then are the same today. The conflicts are a bit different but the circumstances are remarkably the same. The biggest difference from the old Cold War to our new one today is in the timeline. Economic warfare such as this was Reagan’s knock out final blow. The United States this time has used it as their opening salvo.