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Saudis face waning power in North America

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While the green movement naively harbors hopes it will be able to shut down unconventional oil and gas development, in Saudi Arabia they are already contemplating a time when North American fossil fuel will replace their oil.

Looking past the din of protesters, state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco is resigned to the fact that its influence will wane because of the massive unconventional fossil-fuel development underway in North America. As such, Saudi Arabia has no plans to raise its production output to 15 million barrels per day from 12 million, said Khalid Al-Falih, the powerful chief executive of Aramco.

“There is a new emphasis in the industry on unconventional liquids, and shale gas technologies are also being applied to shale oil,” Al-Falih, president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, warned a domestic audience in a speech in Riyadh Monday.

“Some are even talking about an era of ‘energy independence’ for the Americas, based on the immense conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon resources located there. While that might be stretching the point, it is clear that the abundance of resources and the more ‘balanced’ geographical distribution of unconventional’s have reduced the much-hyped concerns over ‘energy security’, which once served as the undercurrent driving energy policies and dominated the global energy debate.”

Aramco is the powerful state entity that manages the Kingdom’s nine million barrel-plus oil output. Saudi Arabia has long dominated oil markets by leveraging its spare oil capacity and, as the OPEC kingpin, striking a delicate balance between the interests of oil consumers and the exporter group.

But the oil chief’s remarks reveal Saudi fears that the market dynamics are changing and its dominance over energy markets is under threat by new unconventional finds.

OPEC estimated in a recent report that global reserves of tight oil could be as high as 300 billion barrels, above Saudi Arabia’s conventional reserves of 260 billion barrels, which are currently seen as the second-largest in the world after Venezuela.

Global output of non-conventional oil is set to rise 3.4 million bpd by 2015, still dominated by oil sands, to 5.8 million bpd by 2025 and to 8.4 million bpd by 2035, when tight oil would be playing a much bigger role. By 2035, the United States and Canada will still be dominating unconventional oil production with 6.6 million bpd, the group forecasts.

Last year, even as the world consumed nearly 30 billion barrels of oil, not only was the industry able to replace this production but global petroleum reserves actually increased by nearly seven billion barrels, as companies increasingly turned toward higher risk areas, Al-Falih noted.

Clearly, the Kingdom is preparing for new market realities as the discussion on energy has changed from scarcity to abundance, particularly due to the new finds that can be produced feasibly and economically.

In the past, Saudi Arabia, along with its OPEC allies, could drive prices down by opening the taps to ensure unconventional fossil fuels remained firmly buried in the ground. But most analysts now expect oil prices to remain high, at least over the medium term, thanks to tight supplies and continued demand from emerging markets. That’s great news for Canadian oil sands developers, which need prices around US$60 to US$70 per barrel to make their business models economically feasible.

Saudi Arabia’s own break-even oil price has also risen sharply in the past few years, making it less likely to pursue a strategy of lower prices. The Institute of International Finance estimates that Saudi Arabia’s break-even price has shot up US$20 over the past year to US$88, in part due to a generous spending package of US$130-billion announced this year to keep domestic unrest at bay.

The Saudis now find themselves between a shale rock and a hard place: While high crude prices mean the Saudis can maintain their excessive domestic subsidies for citizens, in the long run that means the world is developing new sources, making it less dependent on Saudi oil.

Although the Saudis have vigorously fought the Ethical Oil ads, which paint them in a negative light, they already know their oil is less welcome in the Americas – Saudi oil made up a mere 9.3% of U.S. oil imports last year, down from 11.2% five years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But while Saudis would be cheering on the green groups with ‘No KXL’ signs, they don’t hold out much hope for renewable energies either. Calling them ‘green bubbles,’ Al-Falih says governments should stop focusing on unproven and expensive energy mix, as there is frankly no appetite for massive investments in expensive, ill thought-out energy policies and pet projects.

“The confluence of four new realities – increasing supplies of oil and gas, the failure of alternatives to gain traction, the inability of economies to foot the bill for expensive energy agendas, and shifting environmental priorities – have turned the terms of the global energy dialogue upside down. Therefore, we must recast our discussion in light of actual conditions rather than wishful thinking,” the pragmatic chief said.

Somebody should explain this wishful thinking to the green movement.

yhussain@nationalpost.com

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You Have Just Witnessed The Death Of Developed Market CDS

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Macro Man

Like many derivatives products dreamed up by Wall Street’s financial innovators, the Developed Market (DM) Sovereign Credit Default Swap (CDS) market was borne out of the desire to transfer risk off the books of banks to investors suited to managing those risks. Following the successful establishment and effectiveness of risk transfer in the corporate CDS market, the onset of the Asian Financial Crisis spurred growth in trading in Credit Default Swaps on Emerging Market countries’ debt. However, legal documentation issues relating to the 1998 Russian bond default hinted at the structural problems embedded in the contracts, subsequently confirmed when the economically coercive 2001 Argentinean so-called “Mega-Swap” did not trigger CDS. Indeed, even though Argentina eventually repudiated its debt unilaterally, many protection buyers’ swaps had already expired by then, and trading volumes in EM CDS fell substantially, only really recovering post the 2003 overhaul of ISDA’s rulebook.

It is then, perhaps, surprising that despite proven complications related to the terms under which EM Sovereign CDS would pay out that market participants extended the concept to cover Developed Market Sovereigns in 2006. Arguably, along with its siblings ABS CDS, made famous by Hedge Fund manager John Paulson’s multi-billion dollar bet against the US Subprime market, trading in DM CDS took off as a way to hedge the risk of countries who had been forced to assume the liabilities of their banking systems coming under pressure themselves. But as with earlier EM-specific non-triggers, the Icelandic government’s decision to put its banks into administration in November 2008 rather than default on its own debt, resulted in its CDS falling from as wide as 1400bps to current levels closer to 320bps. The LSE’s Professor Willem Buiter, a former Bank of England MPC member, in early-2009 asked the question “Is the London Reykjavik on Thames?”, leading to CDS on the UK to spike to as high as 166bps, but this sparked many to point out that the UK’s debt was denominated in Sterling, which the Bank of England could print an unlimited amount of. A month later, in March 2009 the Bank of England’s decision to purchase £75bn in its Asset Purchase Programme seemed to support this view, despite a second widening of UK CDS in the run up to the 2010 General Election as investors worried about the UK government’s commitment to its medium term solvency.

Nevertheless, the incoming PASOK-led Greek government revealed in November 2009 that the country had under-reported its deficits, triggering the onset of the Eurozone crisis, and Greek CDS began to widen, culminating in the April 2010 EU/IMF bailout of Greece, and a month later, in the face of contagion to other European government bond markets, the establishment of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). An explosion in trading of DM CDS on Eurozone peripheral countries’ debt ensued as hedge funds sought to speculate upon the likelihood of an eventual Greek default and banks sought to hedge their exposures to those countries built up over the preceding decade.

Inevitably, faced with the political cost of bailing out foreign countries, European politicians lashed out at the CDS market, blaming it for breeding panic and allowing speculators to “bet” against bond markets and the Euro. As seen in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, banks under pressure, along with politicians, blamed short sellers and speculators for spreading rumours and exacerbating the situation, while speculators argued that the market was merely “the messenger”, pointing to fundamental problems with balance sheets. As financial market pressures became ever more severe, European policymakers resorted to short selling bans and attempted to implement a ban on CDS trading. The debate continues to rage over whether the CDS market caused or exacerbated the Eurozone crisis, or whether the crisis was inevitable.

But what eventually killed the Developed Market Credit Default Swap market in the end, was the agreement with the Institute of International Finance (IIF), representing banks owning Greek bonds, to accept a 50% haircut on their holdings. The possibility that despite such a large haircut on Greece’s debt, that CDS contracts would not trigger, led many investors and bank hedging desks to question the value of their CDS contracts. The repercussions soon spread, as those institutions that believed they had hedged their bond holdings, or bet upon a Greek default, rushed to sell their contracts before the price collapsed. Volumes soon collapsed as it became evident that developed market governments had the ability to force their banks into taking haircuts without rewarding what they view as speculators.

Developed Market CDS soon faded into history alongside Perpetual Floating Rate Notes, Libor-cubed Notes, Asset Backed Collateralised Debt Obligations, War Loans, Endowment Mortgages and other financial products that were found wanting.

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