In the last quarter of 2014, in the face of possible oversupply, Saudi Arabia abandoned its traditional role as the global oil market's swing producer and therefore it role as unofficial guarantor of existing ($100+ per barrel) prices.
In October, Saudi sources first prepared the market with statements that the country would be comfortable with oil prices as low as $80 per barrel for "a year or two." At the November OPEC meeting, the Saudi oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, publicly announced Saudi Arabia would allow market forces to set prices. He argued that rapidly growing production outside OPEC made the existing status quo unviable, and that lower prices in the short term would increase prices in the longer term through reduced investment and ultimately benefit all OPEC members.
Parallel with this shift, Saudi officials expressed confidence in their country's financial wherewithal to withstand the repercussions of lower oil prices.
The Saudis Expected a Hole, Not a Bottomless Pit
The Saudis obviously miscalculated the degree to which their shift would negatively impact oil prices. The average price of Brent, the global benchmark, fell below the Saudis' $80 floor in November, fell to $62.34 in December, then fell below $50 in February. Prices rebounded to $60 for a few months, before falling once again below $50.
Plunging oil prices have substantially reduced Saudi revenues. With Brent prices averaging roughly $100 per barrel in 2014, Saudi oil exports of 6.31 million barrels per day would have generated roughly $631 million in revenues daily. In the first quarter, with Brent prices averaging $53.92, the same output would have generated roughly $340 million daily, $291 million less per day than oil at $100 per barrel.
The Saudis have attempted to mitigate the revenue shortfall through increased production, ramping up output from 9.6 million barrels per day in the fourth quarter of 2014 to an eye-popping 10.5 million barrels per day in June.
The revenue from increased production, however, is overwhelmed by the collapse of prices, which has ripped a substantial hole in the Saudi budget. In December 2014, the Saudi government approved spending $229 billion in 2015, resulting in an estimated deficit of $39 billion, or some 5 percent of GDP.
As mid-year 2015 approached, the IMF estimated the budget deficit would equal approximately 20 percent of Saudi GDP. The Financial Times quoted analysts as estimating the Saudi budget deficit in 2015 at $130 billion. Even with massive deficit spending, the IMF estimated GDP growth would slow from 3.6 percent in 2014 to 3.3 percent in 2015, and then just 2.7 percent in 2016.
Racing to Barrel Oil
The Saudi miscalculation has several sources. One is the negative feedback loop between oil production, GDP, and national budgets that plagues many non-Western oil producers. Their GDP and national budgets depend significantly on the revenues from their oil exports. As a result, the revenue shortfalls incentivize them to produce as much oil as possible to mitigate the shortfall.
According to the IEA, daily output in June 2015 increased 3.1 million barrels over 2014, with 60 percent (1.8 million barrels) coming from OPEC. At 31.7 million barrels per day, OPEC output reached a three-year high.
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