Don't be so quick to dismiss 'meaningful' Saudi-Russia oil deal: RBC's Croft

Despite a rally in oil prices Monday as Russia and Saudi Arabia announced they would work together to "stabilize" markets, experts have been largely skeptical of the move.

However, several commodity analysts have said it is important not to dismiss the deal and that this "baby step" could actually be more important than it looks.

"We see Monday's announcement of a Russia-Saudi energy cooperation agreement as meaningful, despite the lack of a formal production freeze at the G-20 summit," Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said in a note Tuesday co-authored with commodity strategists Michael Tran and Christopher Louney.


"We believe that it is another indication of the duress that sovereign oil producers are enduring and raises the likelihood of collective action at the informal OPEC meeting later this month if prices trend lower and a recovery appears to grow increasingly elusive."

Oil prices rose by up to 5 percent ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia signing a joint statement committing to monitor the market and make recommendations on stabilizing prices. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak described the moment as "historic" but experts largely dismissed the statement, which did not mention any plans to freeze crude production, from the producers as "lip service."

Symbolic action

Oil prices have seen a steady decline since mid-2014 on the back of a glut in global supply and the failure of demand to keep pace. Major oil producer group OPEC refused in November 2014 to cut production in order to support prices, putting pressure not only on their own members but non-OPEC producers around the world, especially those in the U.S. with higher production costs.

There have been several "false dawns" for oil markets in which OPEC has signaled that it could be ready to freeze production levels (already at record highs) but those expectations have come to nothing at previous OPEC meetings – hence analyst skepticism over the latest announcement by Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Croft noted that RBC Capital Markets took the view "that potential joint action discussion is a symbolic attempt to shore up sentiment since there is little else to lose given that most countries are already producing flat out."

"Although cooperative action taken by the cartel and other key producers may prove to be more of an optics play than physically actionable, at a minimum, it alters sentiment, puts a floor into the market, and reminds the market of OPEC's capacity to cooperate. It would also prove that the prolific pronouncements of the cartel's demise are premature," Croft said.

Baby steps

OPEC is due to hold an informal meeting on September 26 in Algeria and production levels are bound to be a talking point. Several of its 14 members are struggling with the low oil price and there are tensions between rival producers such as Iran (which has so far ruled out any production freeze) and Saudi Arabia.

Croft and her colleagues remained optimistic that "sovereign producers may eventually come to conclude that they have little to lose by agreeing to cap output when they are close to maxing out on production in the near term."

"Moreover, while geopolitical tensions between key producers continue to run high because of ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, their leaders may yet opt for pragmatism and seek some financial relief that will allow them to keep their increasingly restive citizens content and off the streets."

Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC on Tuesday that a deal was far-off however, especially as OPEC has previously said that it was willing to watch markets rebalance as non-OPEC supply declined and global oil demand picked up.

"It is very hard to come up with a deal, there are so many issues, in particular Iran, which has to agree to do something but it's very hard for me to see how they'd agree to do anything," she told CNBC.

Still, she said the announcement from Russia and Saudi Arabia was "very important."

"This is a good step, I would call these baby steps, but it does look like Saudi Arabia and Russia haven't been this close in a very long time. They are talking to each other rather than at each other – that's very important" and the view is that if the two biggest oil exporters can come to a deal, the others might follow suit. I think the tricky bit will still be Iran," she said.