With the most highly-anticipated OPEC meeting since November 2014 taking place Friday in Vienna, Macrovoices host Erik Townsend made this week's podcast all about oil. He started his three-part interview series with Dr. Ellen Wald, the author of "Saudi Inc.", a book about Aramco. During their discussion, Wald shares what she learned about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and - most importantly - how the royals view both Aramco and the oil market. This perspective is important, she explains, in interpreting why former Saudi energy minister Ali Al Naimi made the infamous decision back in November 2014 to keep OPEC oil production targets unchanged. That decision precipitated another leg lower in oil prices, eventually sending them to $30 a barrel. Many observers criticized the Saudis for shooting themselves in the foot by standing against production cuts. But the one thing that these critics didn't understand, Wald said, is that the Kingdom has always treated Aramco like a family business.
They have two twin objectives: long-term profit and power. And when they look at Aramco, they’re not concerned about meeting, say, what their quarterly reports are going to show or their stock price. They’re looking at this in the long term, in a generational perspective.
And so in 2014 when it seemed as though oil production was increasing around the world – there was lots of other sources – not just shale oil production in the United States but we had really increasing from all over – they went into that OPEC meeting and everyone thought oh, they have to cut production. If they don’t they won’t maintain the price they need for the budget and this is what has to be.
Instead, they surprised everyone by basically walking out and saying to heck with it, we’re going to produce as much as we possibly can. And the reason, it seemed to me, was very clear: They knew that no matter how low the oil price went it was going to be that much worse for everybody else and not as bad for Saudi Arabia.
When Townsend asks about the decision to float 5% of Aramco in a foreign stock market (a plan that is reportedly on hold, for now at least), Wald explains that the Saudis respect their company's "American heritage" (the Saudis slowly nationalized Aramco in stages during the 1970s and 1980s, buying it in stages) and they view the company as an international oil company like Exxon.
But in another sense, I see this as a natural progression for a company that was an NOC but has always seen itself as really a major international oil company. And it’s expanding its research, it’s expanding its downstream operations, in order to have a profile similar to that of an IOC. They are very, very proud of the patents that they’ve acquired and they compare it to the number of patents that, say, Exxon gets. It’s really very evident throughout this.
Next, Townsend turned to energy analysts Anas Alhajji and Joe McMonigle for a three-way discussion about what to expect From Friday's meeting. Earlier this month, we heard from fellow "geological expert" Art Berman, who speculated that the current glut of oil created by the shale boom in the US is a temporary anomaly
But the bigger factor here is Venezuela and how quickly Venezuelan crude has come off the market. Venezuela was producing about 1.4 million barrels a day. It’s probably 1.3 now, in June. Under the OPEC agreement, they could be producing close to 2 million barrels a day. Berman speculated that the global demand curve is growing at a pace much more quickly than most market experts anticipate, and that - regardless of whether OPEC decides to raise or maintain production - the world will inevitably find itself mired in a supply crunch. But McMonigle asserted that the collapse of crude production in Venezuela has left a massive production hole that should be filled by OPEC members. Because of this, Saudi Arabia doesn't have a problem with higher prices, and even OPEC itself is anticipating that demand will remain strong in the second half of the year.
So that’s 600-700 thousand barrels extra that has really accelerated crude stock drawdowns and I think has really supported higher prices quicker than most people thought. I was in the camp, and I think others were, that in the second half of this year we would be around between $70 and $75.
Obviously, we got there pretty quickly at $80. And most of that had to do with Venezuela. And then, of course, you had the Iran sanctions – which we’ve been talking about for a long time – that we expected to come. But there are a lot of people on the market that just didn’t think Trump would pull the trigger on it. Well, he did. And so that really pushed things up to over $80. There isn’t any crude yet coming off the market, but we certainly expect that there will be.
First of all, I have to say I don’t think OPEC is going to give up that easily on higher prices. I think the Saudis are quite comfortable with prices around $80. They don’t really see a production problem. The physical oil markets are pretty well-supplied, as I think Anas will talk about. But they really have a political problem instead of a production problem.
And the political problem is this: You know, higher prices, you’ve got some calls for action. Trump, of course, with his tweet a couple of weeks ago while the compliance committee was meeting in Riyadh I think really took them by surprise. I think there is kind of an implicit agreement to help because of the Iran sanctions. And that’s something that Saudi Arabia and UAE and all the other Gulf countries support.
However, the one thing that could change their minds, is a political issue concerning their relationship with the US. Following Trump's aggressive Iran policy, there could be a consensus forming among the Gulf countries to support higher production levels that would held rein in prices. But this might not be in the long-term best interest of the Saudis.
Oil prices are too high, OPEC is at it again. Not good!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
Listen to the full interview below: