Marketplace Middle East - Blog
That Slippery Feeling

A fifty percent correction in four months! At first glance you probably think I am referring to regional equity markets. Think again.

Before one can say West Texas Intermediate, crude prices have gone from a hefty record of $147 a barrel way down to the $70 range. It may have taken too long for the G7 countries and their new partners to come together with a defined rescue package. That is on the books. The world has now decided to focus on a new chapter titled "Recession 101".

The gathering of 185 countries at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington provided the outline for this new chapter. Take note of the tone by Olivier Blanchard, Director of Research for the IMF.

"Growth in advanced countries will be very close to zero or even negative until at least the middle of 2009," says Blanchard, "We predict that even the fast developing countries will grow at a substantially lower rate than they have in the recent past, 7 percent in 2008, and 6 percent in 2009."

Slower growth is not the surprise; the speed of the fall and depth of the drop are. Blanchard’s ultimate boss at the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Khan, says the institution was quick to dispel the concept of de-coupling, that no part of the world was immune to the downturn. I think most would admit today in fairness, that no one really thought that this banking crisis would be so horrific.

It has Middle Eastern central bankers cutting interest rates. Saudi Arabia lowered its benchmark rate by a half percentage point after the likes of the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait pulled the trigger the week before. Enemy number one was inflation at the peak of summer, which was replaced by slower growth. Both surely have been substituted by lower oil revenues.

Let’s take the largest producer; Saudi Arabia. At $147 a barrel, the Kingdom brought in oil revenues of more than $1.3 billion. At $70, that quickly becomes $637 million. That is a lot of money; more than a population of 28 million can spend of course, but a great deal less than a quarter ago.

According to Saeb Eigner, founder of investment group Lonworld and author of "Sand to Silicon", most Middle Eastern oil producers have been prudent with their revenue targets. In five short years they wiped out budget deficits accumulated, in part, by financing the first Gulf War. In most cases, $40-$50 has been the yardstick. It would be more interesting to discover what targets they penciled in on the margins after seeing prices trade well over $100 for a half year.

Viennese Waltz

Oil ministers representing13 members of the OPEC cartel will hold what they call an extraordinary meeting in Vienna this Friday. They already agreed in September to trim production by a half million barrels a day. Not long before that, swing producer Saudi Arabia agreed to boost production in June to cap prices that were on their way to $147 in July. Back then, oil minister Ali al-Naimi said there was not an oil shortage, but the market was not factoring in a slowdown in demand. Not surprisingly, he was correct.

This leads us to the old debate within OPEC between the price hawks and doves. Saudi Arabia has always tried to counter balance members Iran and Venezuela, who have sought maximum revenues per barrel. The Kingdom has taken the view there is a breaking point where price undercuts demand. After we have witnessed the first hint of recession, one sees what the slippery slope looks like. OPEC has already cut its 2009 forecast for daily demand by a half million barrels a day.

This crisis did start in America. It has crossed the Atlantic hitting Britain and the European Union with full force. Export driven markets from China to Southeast Asia are feeling the pinch, with growth off one to two percentage points depending on the economy.

The real fear it seems is not $70, but what many privately say could be just around the corner. If one can see prices tumble by 50 percent, then another 20 percent is not outside the realm of possibility with investors still climbing a wall of worry.

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John Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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