Marketplace Middle East - Blog
A barrel of trouble
A year ago, the village of Davos was abuzz with oil at $100 a barrel. The heads of the sovereign wealth funds were sizing up new investment opportunities, and the power that comes with three-digit oil -- anything above the century mark.

Wow, have things changed. Prices have dropped that amount in the last six months and from what we heard at the panel I chaired here at the World Economic Forum, the worst has not come just yet.

OPEC’s Secretary General Abdalla Salem El Badri made it clear that the cartel is waiting to see by mid-February what impact their cuts will have on prices. “We have to review this number and see how the market is going to react to this,” he said, but added the punch line, “If we still have some downward problems, then of course OPEC would not hesitate to take some quantities out of the market.”

The Secretary General was responding to the latest figures from the International Monetary Fund showing that global growth will only be a half of one percent in 2009, the worst performance since World War II.

Before the close of 2008, the IMF was predicting growth of 2.2 percent. The latest review takes into account the erosion of the Chinese economy. Premier Wen Jiabao told leaders here in the Swiss Alps that, indeed, China is facing major dislocation.

The head of BP, Tony Hayward, came up with a more blunt assessment for the year ahead: “If you take the more pessimistic view of the world, which would say there would be effectively no growth in the world at all in 2009, then I think demand loss of perhaps up to one million barrels a day will be more likely. So, it depends entirely upon the success that the world has of getting the economies of the world moving again.”

China is pouring $600 billion into that effort. The U.S. Congress signed off another $825 billion on top of the nearly $1 trillion in financial bailout funds over the past year. There is a spending spree going on, but there is no real sign yet that it will deliver the desired results.

None of the three oil-producing players on the panel, which also included the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, would be drawn into the question of whether the bottom of the market has already been reached. They did agree, however, a price below $50 will erode investment into future production. No one was crying into their soups, but they warned if prices don’t bounce back, when demand recovers, shortages and high prices will return.

We then moved into the question about what is the magic number for future production to come on-line. The world’s largest producer Saudi Arabia declared recently that $75 would suit everyone just fine after the downturn. All three agreed a band of between $60-$80 is ideal and they had the support of the CEO of India’s largest industrial group, Mukesh Ambani and the chief executives of power producer EDF and biofuel supplier Bunge.

Even as the economy continues to sputter and more layoffs are announced, there is still a lack of consensus to build a new financial architecture. In the halls of the congress centre, I am hearing very little about G-20 cooperation and advancing this idea that oil producers and consumers should enhance their dialogue to gauge demand, spot production shortfalls and yes, plan better for the time that demand collapses.

The latter is what we are faced with today. From mid-September, when the real signs of economic calamity set in to this Davos meeting, prices have fallen $80 a barrel.

Forty dollars a barrel seems to be the new base on which to build on, but don’t bank on it. While in Davos, they could find agreement on where they would like to see prices going, no one could really answer when that will happen.

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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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