Crude Realities

Non-OPEC producers might not be scared enough to cut oil output

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak (C) speaks next to Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada (R), President of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during a press conference at the 23rd World Energy Congress on October 12, 2016 in Istanbul.
Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries played hardball with oil producers over the last two years, and now the cartel wants nonmembers to take one more hit.

OPEC's free-market policy — which allowed crude prices to crater for two years — has created or worsened a host of problems in oil producing nations: budget deficits, recession, inflation and terms of trade shocks.

More than a dozen countries will meet this weekend to discuss cutting their output to amplify OPEC's commitment last week to slash its total production by 1.2 million barrels a day. Analysts warn that few of them will deliver.

Some of the countries attending the meeting are those most reliant on oil revenue — including Russia, Kazakhstan and Oman. Notable nowshows include Brazil and Norway.

OPEC is seeking to secure 600,000 barrels per day of cuts from non-OPEC producers, and Russia has committed to temporarily cut production by about 300,000 barrels per day.

Prior to the announcement, the International Energy Agency said it expects Brazil, Canada and Kazakhstan to pump more in 2017, pushing total non-OPEC output growth to 500,000 barrels a day next year, compared with a projected decline of 900,000 barrels a day this year.

Non-OPEC members have many reasons to keep oil flowing.

Kazakhstan just started up its Kashagan field after a decade of delays, and stakeholders must start producing to recoup $55 billion in investment. Even conservative estimates see the project increasing its output to between 150,000 to 200,000 barrels a day next year.

"That's 200,000 barrels that will be coming to market that someone else will have to cut to balance the market," said Matt Smith, head of commodities research at ClipperData.

My sense is the fear factor is not strong enough to get countries to do anything but promise cuts that they never intend to make.
Robert McNally
Rapidan Group founder and president

Other producers like Mexico have already entered a period of structural decline and further cuts would be untenable.

But there is another reason for inaction: Market conditions simply aren't scary enough anymore.

JPMorgan analysts said in a research note, "The cycle lows have most likely [passed], and OPEC must now rely on the threat of a return to these conditions as leverage in their discussions with non-OPEC exporters."

Indeed, the idea to freeze production first surfaced when Brent crude hit a 12-year low of $27 a barrel this winter. But with oil trading between $50 and $55, non-OPEC producers may be too complacent to cut, said Robert McNally, president of The Rapidan Group.

"The only time you get real collective cuts, including by non-OPEC, is when prevailing prices are at rock bottom lows," he told CNBC. "My sense is the fear factor is not strong enough to get countries to do anything but promise cuts that they never intend to make."

To be sure, OPEC and world oil producers have been here before. In the midst of an economic slump in 2001, non-OPEC producers including Russia, Norway and Mexico agreed to cut 500,000 barrels a day to boost the impact of OPEC's 1.5-million-barrel pullback.

Russia was widely seen ignoring its pledge to cut 150,000 barrels a day, and Norway eventually abandoned its quotas.

Now, Russia is ostensibly back on board. But many analysts are focusing on the phrasing of Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak's pledge, which McNally called a "litany of hedges, caveats and conditions."

After the agreement was announced, Novak said, "Russia will gradually cut output in the first half of 2017 by up to 300,000 barrels per day, on a tight schedule as technical capabilities allow."

Analysts say that statement gives Russia plenty of wiggle room in terms of when its producers begin cutting, how much they cut and their capability to cut.

The country has recently bought itself breathing room as well. On Wednesday, the Kremlin announced it had agreed to sell a 19.5-percent stake in Russia's top oil producer, Rosneft, for $11 billion.

Moscow has already taken other measures to weather the downturn, including devaluing its currency. Regional neighbors Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan followed suit, stoking inflation in the short term, but protecting their exports.

Those adjustments were painful at first but have made the oil price downturn more bearable, said Chris Weafer, co-founder of consulting agency Macro Advisory Partners. Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Gulf oil producers have kept their currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, forcing them to draw down reserves.

Now, non-OPEC producers may be attending this weekend's meeting simply because the appearance of a deal can provide additional relief.

"They understand it's good politically to give support to this deal because it provides support for the oil price through the winter, but in reality I don't think anyone expects this to be carried through in any credible way," he said.