I am following around Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif, arriving this morning in Geneva, and then going to Brussels next week. Don’t worry, I won’t go biking. Certainly not in the absurd getup that Zarif’s interlocutor-or should I say Sancho Panza-John Kerry did here on the shores of Lac Leman. The man is obviously immune to mockery.
I am resigned that Sancho-I mean John-and Javad (remember, they are on a first name basis!) will reach some sort of deal that will clear Iran’s path to becoming a nuclear power in the near-to-medium term, with all of the malign consequences that entails. Which leads me to contemplate some of those consequences.
One of which relates to the price of oil (and natural gas), the malignity of which depends on whether you are long or short oil (and gas). Of course, one of the countries that is very long oil (and gas) is Russia, and from its perspective the consequences of a deal will be very malign. Which makes one wonder if Putin (or whoever is really in charge these days!) will attempt to do something to derail it. (Or are they too distracted by the folly in Ukraine? Or by dog fights under the carpet?)
The crucial issue is how rapidly, and by how much, Iranian output will ramp up if a deal is reached. There is both a political dimension to this, and an operational one.
The political issue is how rapidly a deal will result in the dismantling of the myriad sanctions that impede Iran’s ability to sell oil:
“Don’t expect to open the tap on oil,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat told Reuters. It is much easier to lift financial sanctions because so many components of Iran’s oil trade have been targeted, the diplomat said.
. . . .
But for Iran to sell significantly more crude and repatriate hard currency earnings, many U.S. and European restrictions on its shipping, insurance, ports, banking, and oil trade would have to be lifted or waived.
Yet because they represent the bulk of world powers’ leverage over Iran, initial relief would probably be modest, said Zachary Goldman, a former policy advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, where he helped develop Iransanctions policy.
Goldman predicted the first step would be to allow Tehran to use more of its foreign currency reserves abroad, now limited to specific bilateral trade.
“It’s discrete, and it doesn’t involve dismantling the architecture of sanctions that has been built up painstakingly over the last five years,” said Goldman, who now heads the Center on Law and Security at New York University.
Even with a nuclear deal, oil sanctions would probably effectively stay in place until early 2016, said Bob McNally, a former White House adviser under George W. Bush and now president of the Rapidan Group energy consultancy.
The operational issue is how rapidly Iran can reactivate its idled fields, and how much damage they have suffered while they have been off-line. The Iranians claim that 1mm barrels per day can come online within months. The IEA concurs:
Turning lots of production back on suddenly can be complicated—and time consuming—even if wells and reservoirs are maintained studiously. It could be even harder in complex Iranian fields that have been pumping for decades.
Still, some analysts have concluded that a good deal of that lost output could return more quickly than often anticipated. The International Energy Agency, for example, has said that it expects a relatively rapid burst of exports if sanctions are lifted.
“They’ve deployed considerable ingenuity in getting around sanctions and keeping fields in tiptop shape. We think Iran could pretty much come back to the market on a dime,” Antoine Halff, head of the IEA’s oil industry and markets division, recently told an audience at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
Perhaps up to 2mm bpd of additional output could come back later. Then there is the issue of how a relaxation or elimination of sanctions would affect output in the long run as (a) western investment flows into the Iranian oil sector, and (b) other producers, and notably OPEC, respond to Iran’s return to the market.
In the short run, the 1mm bpd number (corresponding to about 1.1 percent of world output) looks reasonable, and given a demand elasticity of approximately 10, that would result in a 10 percent decline in oil prices. Additional flows in the medium term would produce additional declines.
Even if Iran’s return to the market is expected to take some time, due to the aforementioned complications of undoing sanctions, much of the price effect would be immediate. The mechanism is that an anticipated rise in future output reduces the demand to store oil today: the anticipated increase in future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, reducing the benefit of carrying inventories. There will be de-stocking, which will put downward pressure on spot prices. Moreover, since an increase in expected future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, future prices will fall more than the spot price, meaning that contango will decline.
Some of the price decline effect may have already occurred due to anticipation of the clinching of a deal: the May Brent price has declined about $10/bbl in the last month. However, the movement in the May-December spread is not consistent with the recent price decline being driven by the market’s estimation that the odds that Iranian output will increase in the future have risen. The May-December spread has fallen from -$4.47 (contango) to -$6.36. This is consistent with a near-term supply-demand imbalance rather than an anticipated change in the future balance in favor of greater supply. So too is the increase in inventories seen in recent weeks.
Predicting the magnitude of the price response to the announcement of a deal-or the breakdown of negotiations-is difficult because that requires knowing how much has already been priced in. My lack of a yacht that would make a Russian oligarch jealous indicates quite clearly that I lack such penetrating insight. However, the directional effect is pretty clear-down (for a deal, up for a breakdown).
Which is very bad news for the Russian government and economy, which are groaning under the effects of the oil price decline that has already occurred. Indeed, Iran’s return to the market would weigh on prices for years, reducing the odds that Russia could count on a 2009-like rebound to retrieve its fortunes.
Add to this the fact that a lifting of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves (second only to Russia’s) to be supplied to Europe and Asia, dramatically reducing the profitability of Russian gas sales in the future, and Iran’s return to the energy markets is a near term and long term threat to Russia.
Which makes Putin’s apparent indifference to a deal passing strange. The Russians freak out over developments (e.g., the prospect for an antitrust investigation of Gazprom, or pipsqueak pipeline projects like Nabucco) that pose a much smaller threat than the reemergence of Iran as a major energy producer. But they have not done anything overt to scupper a deal, nor have they unleashed their usual screeching rhetoric.
What gives? Acceptance of the inevitable? A belief that in the long run the deal will actually increase the likelihood of chaos in the Middle East that will redound to Russia’s benefit? Strategic myopia (i.e., an obsession with reassembling Sovokistan, starting with Donbas) that makes the leadership blind to broader strategic considerations? Distraction by internal disputes? Or does Putin (or whoever is calling the shots!) have something up his (their) sleeve(s)?
My aforementioned pining for a super yacht that would make Abramovich turn green again betrays my inability to penetrate such mysteries. But it is quite a puzzle, for at least insofar as the immediate economic consequences are concerned, Russia would be the Biggest Loser from a deal that clears Iran’s return to the oil market.
H/T to @libertylynx for the idea for this post.