My grandfather had a wealth of colorful expressions, most of which were the product of his Appalachian upbringing. One, however, was a little different. Whenever it was too late to do something about a particular problem, he’d say: “Well, it’s a little late for herpicide.” In context, I understood what he meant, but the exact meaning escaped me. I asked him one time, and it turns out that Herpicide was a (quack) hair loss cure in the ’30s or ’40s. The company’s add campaign pictured a cue ball-bald man with the caption: “A Little Late for Herpicide.” I guess now it would be “A Little Late for Rogaine.”
This expression came to mind when I read in the FT that “Russia considers hedging part of its oil revenues.” It would have been a good idea when the price was $100, or $90, or even $50. At $30 (or below, as happened on Wednesday and Thursday), well, it’s a little late for hedgicide. Yes, oil could indeed go lower, but hedging today would lock in prices that are low by historical levels.
Hedging would make sense for Russia, just as it does for a highly-leveraged corporate. It clearly incurs financial distress costs when prices are very low. Hedging would reduce the expected costs of financial distress.
Presumably Russia would implement a program like Mexico’s, buying large quantities of out-of-the-money puts. This would allow it to capture the upside but obtain protection on the downside. It would also avoid a problem that it might face if it sold swaps/forwards: finding a counterparty. Selling a put to Russia doesn’t involve counterparty risk. Buying swaps from them would. Although this would be a right-way risk, one could readily see Russia balking on performance if oil prices were to spike, putting a short swap position well out of the money. It would have the cash to pay: the willingness to pay, not so much. Further, although Russia’s ability to pay is closely related to oil prices, it is exposed to other risks that could impair that ability, and these risks would create credit risks for anyone buying swaps from Russia.
Buying puts does create an issue, though: this would require Russia paying a rather hefty premium upfront, at a time when it is cash-strapped. As an illustration of its financial straits, note that it is attempting to avoid having to come up with cash to stabilize troubled megabank VEB. Borrowing to pay the premium is also problematic, given its dicey creditworthiness. Russia’s CDS spread is around 370bp (which, although it has turned up as oil prices took their latest plunge, is still below post-Crimea levels, and even below the levels seen in August). Current sanctions and the prospect of the crystallization of future political risks may also make lenders reluctant to front Russia the premium money.
One interesting thing to consider is how hedging would affect Russia’s output decisions going forward. Hedging, whether by buying puts or selling swaps, would reduce its incentive to cut output in low price environments. As I’ve written before, Russia doesn’t have a strong incentive to cut output anyways because market share, market demand elasticity, and the cost of shutting down production in Siberia make it a losing prospect (as its refusal to cut output in 2009 and in the past 18 months clearly indicate). However, whatever weak incentives Russia has to cut (in cooperation with the Saudis for instance) would be even weaker if it was hedged. If cooperation on output between OPEC and Russia has proved hard up to now, it would be harder still if Russia was hedged.
A Russian hedging program, if big enough, could affect market pricing, but not the price of oil (at least not directly*): hedging is a transfer of risk, and a big Russian hedge would affect the price of oil risks. Its hedging pressure would tend to increase market risk premia (i.e., reduce forward prices relative to expected spot prices). If done using puts, it would also tend to steepen the put-wing volatility skew and increase volatility risk premium. Adding its hedging pressure to the market would also necessitate the entry of additional speculative capital into the market in order to mitigate these effects. Sechin has criticized speculators in the past: hedging Russian oil price risk would be prohibitively expensive without them.
Although Russia has mooted the possibility, I doubt it will follow through. I would imagine that the combination of the cash cost of options and criticism within the ruling clique of locking in low prices will cause them to pass. If and when oil prices rise substantially, I predict they will forego hedging because they will convince themselves that prices won’t fall again, just as they did post-2009.
In sum, this sounds like an idea that the technocrats have advanced that will die at the hands of the siloviki, like various privatization initiatives.
* The spot price of oil depends on output and demand. Hedging affects spot prices to the extent that it affects output. One way that could happen is that if it reduced Russia’s incentive to cut output. Another way it could happen is that hedging increases Russia’s capacity to finance investments in oil production by reducing capital costs. In this case, investment would be higher and output would be higher.
In each of these scenarios hedging reduces spot oil prices in some states of the world, not because of the direct effects of forward selling, but because the hedging provides incentives to increase output. This is a good thing.