How falling oil prices are squeezing Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia

The biggest energy story in the world right now is the collapse of global oil prices. And for major producers like Russia or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, that’s unsettling news. So how bad is it? Let’s start with this helpful chart from The Economist looking at the "break-even" points for various nations. These are all countries that depend heavily on oil revenues for their national budgets — so when the price falls below the break-even point, the government starts running a deficit: (The Economist) At the start of 2014, oil prices were already below the break-even point for Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Iraq. But now, as prices sink below $90 per barrel, they’re falling below the break-even point for Libya, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Let’s look at a few key countries in turn: How falling oil prices could crush Russia’s economy Vladimir Putin has his work cut out for him. (Maxim Shipenkov/AFP/Getty Images) Russia’s oil situation is getting a lot of attention these days. The country was already suffering from weak economic growth — on pace to grow just 0.4 percent in 2014. That’s partly due to the Ukrainian crisis (Ukraine’s economy is tightly intertwined with Russia’s) and partly due to Western sanctions. Russia had been planning for $100-per-barrel oil in its budget But now the collapse in global oil prices put even further pressure on the nation’s economy. Oil revenues make up 45 percent of Russia’s budget, and the government’s 2015 budget had planned for prices in the $100-per-barrel range. If oil stays near $90 barrel or lower, the country will either have to deplete its $74 billion reserve fund or cut back on planned spending — something that Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested on Tuesday. There’s another twist here: As Brookings economist Clifford Gaddy explains, Russia’s oil and gas industry still informally props up a decent chunk of the nation’s ailing economy. So, for instance, oil companies face pressure to purchase machinery from Russian factories that support jobs in remote cities — even if those factories aren’t the most efficient around. It’s a system, Gaddy explains, that has been semi-directed by Putin’s government and has been crucial to maintaining stability. And that system will come under heavy pressure if prices keep falling. "It’s not hard to figure out how falling oil prices will affect Russia’s formal budget," Gaddy told me. "What’s much more difficult is to figure out how falling prices will affect that informal system." In a crunch like this, the Russian government may struggle to figure out how to make sure that oil and gas wealth still gets distributed around the country. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times took a deeper look recently at the possible foreign policy ramifications of plunging oil prices. The bottom line on Russia: "The economic pressure isn’t expected to change Putin’s aggressive efforts to retain strong influence over Ukraine, which he considers nonnegotiable." But, the Times notes, falling prices "are causing strains in [Putin's] relations with the Russian elite and business establishment, two pillars of his political support." Iran’s economy was rebounding — until the price plunge Iran’s economy had recently started to rebound after years of stagnation, with the International Monetary Fund projecting that the country was on track to grow 1.5 percent this year and 2.3 percent next year. But that was before falling oil prices hit. Iran was on pace to grow again this year — until the price collapse hit A big problem for Iran, economically, is that it also needs oil prices north of $100 per barrel to balance its budget. And if prices are falling, it may need to make up revenues elsewhere — say, by cutting fuel subsidies for middle-class residents (always an unpopular move, at least in the short term). The Times also noted that the price plunge could affect Iran’s foreign policy: "The new economic strain also undercuts Tehran’s strategy for dealing with world powers in talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s economic resurgence had enabled Iranian officials to claim they could get by even if the talks collapsed without providing further relief from tough international sanctions." Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is a little more optimistic Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi attends the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oil ministers meeting in Kuwait city on September 11, 2014. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images) Meanwhile, oil prices are falling near Saudi Arabia’s break-even point — somewhere around $90 per barrel. But, so far, the country’s leaders seem a little more confident that they can survive the hit. Right now, Saudi Arabia is suggesting that they’re fine letting oil prices slide In theory, Saudi Arabia could try to cut back on oil production in order to prop up global prices. But by all indications, the Saudis are willing to let prices fall a bit and adjust. Partly that’s because Saudi Arabia has learned its lesson from the mid-1980s — a time when global oil prices were falling and the kingdom tried to cut back on domestic production. Global oil prices kept falling anyway and Saudi Arabia saw massive deficits as a result. But there’s another angle here: Officials in Saudi Arabia have suggested that lower prices (say, around $80 per barrel) could make some shale-oil producers in the United States unprofitable and force the US to cut back on production. (Saudi Arabia’s oil tends to be much cheaper and easier to produce than the shale oil projects in the United States.) That, in turn, could stabilize prices. The big question is how far Saudi Arabia can let prices fall without taking a major hit to its budget. In September, the International Monetary Fund projected that Saudi Arabia would run a deficit of roughly 1.4 percent in 2015 — especially since the country has been ramping up big infrastructure projects and doling out foreign aid around the region in recent years. That would force the country to start drawing down its massive foreign-exchange reserves to make up the shortfall. If oil prices fall further, the pressure grows. Further reading Here’s an overview of why global oil prices are plummeting — a combination of weaker demand in places like China and a boom in production in the United States and Libya. Here’s a look at which US states get hurt by a fall in prices. Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota are the most reliant on drilling and top the list.


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