The recent decline in oil prices, and the failure of Saudi Arabia to cut output has led to many to conclude that the Saudis are trying to drive down prices in order to drive out shale production. I am extremely skeptical, because this would be crazy. It would only make sense if the Saudis are trying to convince shale producers that they are in fact crazy.
The alleged Saudi strategy is a variety of predatory pricing, and such strategies have major problems. Most notably, in the case of shale, driving down prices today would not eliminate any oil that’s in the ground. It would not eliminate drillers’ knowledge about the oil and how to get it out. Perhaps low prices will induce shale producers to delay drilling, and idle some rigs. But as soon as the Saudis cut output in order to cause prices to rise, the shale producers can restart their drilling programs, and under the theory that shale production is keeping prices lower than the Saudis like, this restart will keep prices rising to the level that the Saudis are targeting.
If the Saudis keep prices low for a considerable period of time, some resources (notably labor) may exit the US shale sector, and it may take some time to ramp up production again. But even so, the period of time during which the Saudis can suppress US shale production is limited. The oil ain’t going anywhere, and US producers will bring it out of the ground when the price is right. The Saudis can’t do anything about the fact that the right price for US shale producers is lower than the price they would like.
In brief, predatory pricing requires the predator (KSA in this instance) to suffer losses during the period when it is waging a price war: price wars are costly. But since the price war does not destroy competitive capacity, but just idles it (if that), there is only a very limited period-and perhaps no period at all-during which the predator can sell at higher prices to recoup these costs. This is why predation is usually a losing strategy.
This isn’t a new story, either the predatory pricing argument or the economic retort. Standard Oil was widely believed (based on the tendentious writings of Ida Tarbell, in particular) to have engaged in predation. But John McGee showed more than 50 years ago that this was a fairy tale that did not correspond with the facts.
The analysis above is based on the assumption that everyone is rational and everyone knows everyone is rational. In the 80s, game theorists altered these assumptions and showed that when there is a positive probability that a large firm (e.g., KSA) is irrational and likes to engage in price wars for the fun of it, predation can become a rational strategy by a non-crazy firm. A rational firm can get a reputation for being crazy by preying on competitors. Not wanting to fight crazy, competitors exit or don’t enter.
This theory, like a lot of game theory is quite elegant. And like a lot of game theory, it doesn’t appear to describe anything in that actually happens in reality. Price predators have been very rarely observed in the wild, and arguably they are like the monsters at the edge of pre-Columbian maps.
I am therefore very skeptical that the Saudis are crazy, or acting crazy. This is particularly true given that there is a rational explanation. Given the Saudi market share, and the elasticity of demand for oil, the demand for Saudi oil is elastic. Given that marginal cost is likely very inelastic, it may not reduce output much at all even in the face of a demand decline. Indeed, US shale supply has likely increased the elasticity of the Saudi net demand curve.
I’d also note that there have been stories recently about how some countries, including India and Indonesia, are using the current low prices as an opportunity to cut subsidies. Subsidies have made demand more inelastic (because subsidized consumers get the price signal): reducing or eliminating these subsidies will make demand more elastic.
Greater net demand elasticity, due to greater elasticity of US supply, reduced subsidies, or both, reduces the Saudi incentive to cut output.
Recall that during the financial crisis, even though prices fell about 70 percent from peak to trough, world oil output fell only about 3 percent from its high in July, 2008 to its low in March, 2009. Saudi output fell somewhat more, about 12 percent, but given that the current demand decline is far smaller than observed at the depths of the crisis, and that (as just noted) fundamental conditions have changed so as to reduce Saudi incentive to cut output, the lack of output cuts in the current weak market doesn’t require an explanation based on predatory pricing strategies.
In sum, it is highly likely that the Saudis are not crazy, and aren’t acting crazy, but are instead responding rationally to existing market conditions. Predatory pricing stories should always be viewed with suspicion, because they are seldom ever true. That’s almost certainly the case here too.