The $30 Oil Cliff Threatening Russia's Economy

Updated on
  • Oil, geopolitics top risks for Russia in 2016, economists say
  • Russia unprepared to weather another oil shock, survey shows

Global Glut: Oil Inventories on the Rise

For Russia, $30 is the number to watch.

Crude prices at that level will push the economy to depths that would threaten the nation’s financial system, according to 15 of 27 respondents in a Bloomberg survey. Lower prices for the fuel are next year’s biggest risk for Russia, which is unprepared to ride out another shock on the oil market, most economists said. Other dangers for 2016 include geopolitics, strains in the banking industry and the ruble, according to the poll of 27 analysts.

“If oil prices fall lower and stay at that low level for longer, risks of fiscal and financial destabilization increase significantly,” Sergey Narkevich, an analyst at PAO Promsvyazbank in Moscow, said by e-mail.

Russia, which has adjusted to the worst commodities slump in a generation with spending cutbacks and a weaker ruble, may be hard-pressed for policy answers if oil slumps further after losing more than a third of its value in the past year. While Brent, the European benchmark, is trading around $45 a barrel, a warmer-than-average winter could weaken heating-fuel demand enough to trigger a decline in the price of crude to $20, analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a note Nov. 18.

‘New Reality’

“The situation we are in is no longer a crisis,” Deputy Finance Minister Maxim Oreshkin said at a round-table at the upper house of parliament in Moscow on Monday. “It’s a new reality, reflecting new prices for oil, a new situation with the balance of payments.”

Oil has dropped as U.S. inventories climbed to near a record and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries produced above its quota. OPEC, which meets to discuss policy Dec. 4 in Vienna, is set to stick with its strategy of defending market share by maintaining output and driving down higher-cost production elsewhere, according to all 30 analysts and traders in a separate Bloomberg survey.

Low or lower oil prices remain “the key risk for the Russian economy, despite adaptation to the shock during 2015,” said Andreas Schwabe, an economist at Raiffeisen Bank International AG in Vienna. “From that risk, an even weaker ruble and new waves of high inflation and budget problems derive.”

Further complicating the outlook are geopolitical tensions that followed the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey in Syria last week and pushed investors to sell Russian assets. In addition to events in the Middle East, Russia also has to contend with international sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine.

Whither Sanctions

A diplomatic thaw between Russia and its Cold War-era foes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris and Egypt has stoked optimism that the improved relations will help remove the punitive measures.

Russia may get that boost in the next 12 months, with 56 percent of economists saying the European Union will ease its penalties during the period, up from 34 percent the last time the question was asked in August. Twenty percent predict the U.S. will begin relaxing its restrictions in the next calendar year, compared with 3 percent three months ago.

EU countries will probably extend sanctions for another six months at the end of January despite improved cooperation in Syria, according to three European diplomats. The bloc’s 28 leaders are set to discuss the issue at a Dec. 17-18 summit.

“Only without sanctions will the Russian economy return to GDP growth,” said Wolf-Fabian Hungerland, an economist at Berenberg Bank in Hamburg, Germany. Despite “a unique chance for a thaw between Russia and the West,” there’s “a substantial risk that this chance is not taken, implying prolonged sanctions.”

Ruble, Economy

The adjustment to the new economic reality was helped by swift changes in the exchange rate, Bank of Russia First Deputy Governor Ksenia Yudaeva said in Moscow Friday. The ruble is down more than 31 percent against the dollar since the central bank shifted to a free-floating regime in November 2014. That’s the third-worst performance among its emerging-market peers after Brazil’s real and Colombia’s peso, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

A renewed bout of ruble weakness last summer forced policy makers to pause monetary easing in September and October after five consecutive interest-rate cuts brought their benchmark to 11 percent. Even as high borrowing costs choke investment, Governor Elvira Nabiullina in November left open the possibility of keeping rates on hold until March.

$30 Oil?

Russia has learned to live with oil near $40 and only a decline to $30 a barrel can provoke another deterioration, which isn’t the most likely scenario, the Finance Ministry’s Oreshkin said Nov. 25. The central bank estimates that in a stress-case scenario, with crude below $40 in 2016-2018, the economy will contract 5 percent or more next year and price growth may be at 7 percent to 9 percent. That would also raise risks to inflation and financial stability, according to the Bank of Russia.

GDP will contract 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent this year and may shrink as much as 1 percent next year if oil stays at $50 a barrel, the central bank forecasts.

“Russia is better prepared than it was last year to manage another oil price shock; the exchange rate is flexible, the budget has been tightened, the banking sector is consolidating, and reserves are still ample,” said Per Hammarlund, chief emerging-markets strategist at SEB AB in Stockholm. Still, “even without another oil price shock, the government is caught between a rock and a hard place,” with crude at the current level leaving it the choice of weakening the ruble or cutting expenditures.