Markets

Oil nose-dives as Saudi Arabia and Russia set off 'scorched earth' price war

Key Points
  • Oil prices are down nearly 50% for the year after OPEC+ talks collapsed and Saudi Arabia announced slashed prices in an apparent price war with Russia.
  • With previously agreed OPEC+ production cuts expiring at the end of March, Saudi Arabia and Russia can theoretically pump as much crude as they want.
  • An oil price war will have massive geopolitical consequences, pummeling markets already shaken by the new coronavirus, COVID-19.
An worker on offshore oil rig 'Marjan 2' in March 2003, located in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia.
Reza | Getty Images

Oil prices fell through the floor in early trading Monday, tanking as much as 30% after Saudi Arabia slashed its crude prices for buyers. The kingdom is reportedly preparing to open the taps in an apparent retaliation for Russia's unwillingness to cut its own output.

"This has turned into a scorched Earth approach by Saudi Arabia, in particular, to deal with the problem of chronic overproduction," John Kilduff, founding partner of Again Capital, told CNBC. International benchmark Brent crude was trading at $33.79 a barrel — down almost 50% year to date — at 10:45 a.m. Singapore time, with West Texas Intermediate at $30.72.

The U.S. benchmark commodity is on pace for its worst day since January 17, 1991, when it lost 33%, and its second-worst day ever. That was during the Persian Gulf War.

Experts are now calling dramatically lower crude prices as major OPEC and non-OPEC producers ready for an all-out price war after failing to reach an output cut agreement Friday, in a sudden U-turn from previous attempts to support the oil market as the new coronavirus hammers global demand.  

"$20 oil in 2020 is coming," Ali Khedery, formerly Exxon's senior Middle East advisor and now CEO of U.S.-based strategy firm Dragoman Ventures, wrote Sunday on Twitter. "Huge geopolitical implications. Timely stimulus for net consumers. Catastrophic for failed/failing petro-kleptocracies Iraq, Iran, etc - may prove existential 1-2 punch when paired with COVID19."

The comment came as oil prices are down 48% for the year and two days after Saudi Arabia announced massive discounts to its official selling prices for April, between $6 to $8 lower per barrel across all regions. Plunging price forecasts are also coming amid reports of a possible increase in production by the OPEC kingpin from its current 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) to as many as two million bpd more.

Tweet1

With previously agreed OPEC+ production cuts expiring at the end of March, Saudi Arabia can theoretically pump as much as it wants — up to its capacity of 12.5 million bpd. And Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Friday that essentially the wheels come off next month: "As from 1 April we are starting to work without minding the quotas or reductions which were in place earlier," he told reporters at the OPEC+ meeting in Vienna, adding, "but this does not mean that each country would not monitor and analyze market developments." 

VIDEO2:5102:51
OPEC+ consultations are continuing, Secretary General Barkindo says

"Members look now to be preparing for a price war by announcing plans to actually increase output," wrote Edward Bell, commodities analyst at Emirates NBD, in an analyst note Sunday. "The outcome is an astonishing reversal of what appeared to be a pending production cut to compensate for the decline in demand caused by the Covid19 (coronavirus) outbreak."

International and U.S. oil benchmarks had already plummeted to multiyear lows on Friday after OPEC+ talks collapsed, with Brent crude closing at $45.27, down more than 9%, while WTI sank more than 10% lower to $41.28, its lowest level since 2016.

Oil producers shifting to a market share race?

Saudi Arabia's and Russia's strategies reveal a shift to prioritizing market share rather than market stabilization and price support. Current production levels in the Middle East and North Africa are about 2 million bpd less than their peak levels since 2018 — which means there's plenty of room to run if producers decide to open up the taps.

"Should OPEC+ members choose to raise output from Q2 onward, a wave of oil will be unleashed onto markets," Bell wrote. "We expect to see Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other large producers in OPEC increase production over the rest of 2020 as they return to a market-share strategy rather than price targeting."

Russia, meanwhile, is pumping some 130,000 bpd below peak levels "and the country appears to be explicitly implementing a market-share strategy," Bell added.

Inventories will consequentially surge, and as OPEC+ pursues this market share fight, commodities analysts like Bell expect market balances to stay stuck in surplus for at least the first three quarters of 2020.

A supply flood and inventory surge 

The impending flood of supply, overwhelmed inventories and coronavirus-led demand shock to a commodity that was already seen as relatively depressed in terms of pricing will inevitably slam those prices further — the question only remains as to how much.

Not everyone shares Khedery's $20 per barrel oil forecast. Goldman Sachs predicted a bottom-out price of $35 per barrel in the event of a price war, or a fall to $40 before a second-quarter average of $42 if nothing changes.

Emirates NBD forecasts Brent prices to average $45 per barrel and WTI at $40 "with troughs in Q2 before a tentative recovery over the rest of the year."

Correction: Ali Khedery is CEO of U.S.-based strategy firm Dragoman Ventures. An earlier version misstated the country.