Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Have oil prices bottomed out?

Signs that rebalancing in the oil market is underway.

Oil prices had fallen from the $100-plus level sustained over 2011-13. The reasons for the decline are also well-known: large new supply from US shale producers; OPEC’s refusal to lower production; and weak global demand in 2014. These have made the oil market over-supplied and led to a large build-up of inventories. But oil markets, like any other market, have a tendency to rebalance themselves. Incoming data confirm that the adjustment is indeed underway and could be behind the recent mini-recovery in oil prices to around $40 per barrel.

When markets are over-supplied, they tend to adjust in two ways. First, low prices push some producers out of the market as they become unable to cover their costs. This leads to a decline in supply, which should help the rebalancing. We are seeing evidence of this among the high-cost producers in the oil market, namely shale producers in the US. Production in the US has been in decline since it peaked in April 2015. And The Economist reports that further declines by more than 1 million barrels per day are expected in 2016-17.

The second adjustment mechanism is through higher demand. Low oil prices encourage people to increase their energy consumption by, for example, driving more and buying bigger cars. They also make the switch to oil from other energy sources more attractive. Again, the data support that demand is picking up. Last year saw the largest increase in global oil demand since 2010, which is impressive given that the world witnessed its slowest economic expansion over the same period. The boost to demand was purely due to lower prices.

So there are signs in the market that oil prices might have bottomed out. But two caveats apply. First, the adjustment is likely to progress only slowly given the large build-up of stocks that need to be cleared. Second, while some US shale oil producers are being pushed out, they have changed the landscape of the oil market. Unlike conventional producers, the response of shale companies to price swings is rather quick. If oil prices recover to around $50-60, shale could become profitable again, and production could soon increase as a result. This means that a world with $100 oil price might well be a thing of the past, and that oil producers should expect prices in the range of $50-60, at the very best.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Is devaluation in Egypt inevitable?

By defending an overvalued currency, the Central Bank of Egypt is merely delaying the inevitable.

Egypt’s currency crisis is intensifying. The price of the US dollar reached 9.8 Egyptian pounds last week, 27% higher than the official rate. Despite this, the central bank is still resistant to any devaluation of the currency. Its resistance could prove ultimately successful only if it is supported by economic fundamentals. But these point to an official exchange rate which is well above its fair value.

The starting point for estimating the fair value of any currency is the theory that prices of identical goods must be the same everywhere. Suppose that the price of a can of Pepsi is $1 in the US and 2 pounds in Egypt. Then the theory stipulates that the exchange rate must be 2 pounds for each dollar to ensure that the price of Pepsi is the same in the two countries. If the exchange rate was instead 1 pound for each dollar, investors would find it profitable to buy the whole supply of Pepsi in the US (where it is cheaper) and sell it in Egypt (where it is more expensive), which is obviously not a sustainable situation. This theory is called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

But PPP needs to be modified before it can be used for obtaining a fair value of a currency. Lower labour, rent and transportation costs typically result in cheaper Pepsi in Egypt compared to the US, after taking the exchange rate into account. Consequently, the Egyptian pound has traded below the PPP-prescribed value. But deviations from PPP have been stable over time. Since 1988, the pound has tended to fluctuate around 21% of its PPP value.  We can use this historical average (21% of PPP) as a measure for the fair value of the pound.

What is the current fair value of the pound according to this method? Using the International Monetary Fund’s estimates for PPP, the method suggests that the fair value of the exchange rate is 11.9 pounds for each US dollar. This is 35% above the official exchange rate of 7.73 pounds for the dollar. The prevailing overvaluation is the largest since 1988 (see chart). No wonder there is intense market pressure to devalue the currency.

How can this situation be resolved? A gradual devaluation of the currency (say 10% each year) could allow a convergence to its fair value within a few years without causing an abrupt disruption. But irrespective of its speed, an adjustment is likely to start at some point in the near future. Resistance to devaluation runs against economic fundamentals. By defending an overvalued currency, the Central Bank of Egypt is merely delaying the inevitable.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Rating downgrades propagate the oil price shock

By reducing the funding available to oil-dependent governments, the recent rating downgrades could lead to slower growth than previously expected.

A number of oil-producing countries in the region were subjected to rating downgrades, a re-assessment of their ability to pay back loans or make timely interest payments. Saudi Arabia’s credit rating was cut by Standard and Poor’s (S&P), one of the three major rating agencies, on 17 February. Despite the downgrade, Saudi Arabia still maintains medium/high credit worthiness. The same cannot be said about Bahrain, which was assigned a junk status by both S&P and Moody’s, another major rating agency. This means that Bahrain has a high risk of failing to service its debt. The credit worthiness of Oman, another of the countries downgraded, is somewhere in between its two Gulf neighbours.

Low oil prices are the main reason behind the downgrades. They are leading to budget deficits among the region’s oil producers, increasing the risk attached to each of them.

But not all oil-producers were subjected to rating downgrades. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates maintained their high credit worthiness by S&P. They are assessed to have accumulated significant savings during the last oil boom, especially in relation to the size of their economies. However, they were still put on negative watch by Moody’s with a possible downgrade further down the line. Outside the Gulf, Iraq’s credit rating was also maintained by Fitch, the third major rating agency, although two caveats are in order. First, Iraq was also put on negative watch with a possible downgrade in the future. Second, it had already been assigned a junk status associated with a high risk of default.

Almost all of the region's oil-exporters intend to borrow from investors to finance their deficits, and the downgrades make this task more difficult. Saudi Arabia has plans to borrow $30bn; Oman and Qatar up to $10bn each; and Iraq $2bn. The downgrades would reduce investors’ appetite to lend to these countries. Even if they were willing to lend, investors would charge higher interest rates to compensate for the additional risk.

The recent experience of Bahrain highlights this issue. The downgrade of Bahrain by S&P happened while the country was finalising a deal to borrow $750m from international investors. The downgrade led to a change in the terms of the deal. The amount Bahrain borrowed was lowered to $600m and the interest rates increased by 0.25%. The change in rates was small suggesting that markets were partially expecting the downgrade. But further deterioration in the ratings could worsen the terms of borrowing further.

In summary, the rating downgrades are propagating the oil price shock experienced by oil-producers. Low prices are leading to budget deficits and the downgrades make these deficits harder to finance. If rating downgrades result in reduced resources for the governments to spend, then the impact on growth could be even worse than previously anticipated.