Premarket: Oil prices are rising fast. Saudi Arabia may not come to the rescue

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CNN Business

A global hunt for spare barrels of crude is underway as sanctions slam Russia, the world’s second largest exporter, following its invasion of Ukraine.

But do not expect Saudi Arabia to step in to fill the gap, at least for now.

What’s happening: The kingdom could help ease global oil prices, which have spiked to their highest level since 2014. Saudi Arabia has the capacity to raise production by 2 million barrels per day, according to Claudio Galimberti, senior vice president of analysis at Rystad Energy .

But Saudi Arabia’s government said Tuesday that it thinks the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries should stick to its plan of gradually increasing output. That means markets will not get much relief as investors scramble to assess the impact of rising energy prices.

“They want to keep their heads down,” Richard Bronze, head of geopolitics at research firm Energy Aspects, told me.

Step back: Russia exports between 4 million and 5 million barrels of crude oil per day. While sanctions announced by the West aren’t intended to hit Russia’s energy sector, major oil companies have been ditching their ventures in the country, and traders have been shunning Russian cargoes even though they’re trading at a huge discount.

“A lot of buyers and their banks and their shippers have been cautious because we are still awaiting the full legal detail of the sanctions that have been announced publicly,” Bronze said.

That’s creating fears of a gap in supply, which is driving up prices. Brent crude futures, the global benchmark, were last trading near $ 103 per barrel. At the start of the year, they were trading at roughly $ 78 per barrel, and were near $ 63 per barrel a year ago.

Saudi Arabia could step in. So could the United Arab Emirates, which has 1.1 million barrels per day of spare capacity, according to Rystad Energy.

But all signs indicate that OPEC, which meets Wednesday, will continue to add just 400,000 barrels of oil per day to the market each month as it waits to see how the crisis plays out.

“What OPEC has shown so far is they do not like to make their decisions based on volatile information,” Rystad’s Galimberti said.

Galimberti thinks some buyers – especially from China and India – could return once there’s more certainty about the impact of sanctions on the energy industry. Some European refineries built to process Russian crude, which rely on longer-term contracts, could keep receiving volumes, too.

That would put less pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia to change course, even if they face intense lobbying from the West to provide assistance.

The kingdom is also keen to avoid angering Russia, a cornerstone of the larger producer group known as OPEC +.

“The politics are tricky for a lot of OPEC members,” Bronze said. “They see an importance in the strategic relationship with Russia… so politically I think they’d really like to stay out of having to pick sides.”

Investor impact: Reluctance from Saudi Arabia to intervene is a major reason Wall Street thinks oil prices could continue to climb should the war in Ukraine drag on. Goldman Sachs recently raised its one-month price forecast for Brent to $ 115 per barrel, and acknowledged that could be conservative.

BP (BP) made headlines when it announced over the weekend that it was exiting its large business in Russia. But as risks to corporate reputation and operational challenges increase, more firms are making similar choices.

Here are a few top companies that have made announcements in recent days.

  • Shell: The UK-based oil giant said Monday it would ditch its joint ventures with Russia’s Gazprom, citing “a senseless act of military aggression which threatens European security.”
  • Abrdn: The Scottish investment manager said Tuesday it will not be investing in Russia or Belarus “for the foreseeable future.” It cited “ESG grounds,” a reference to the push for investors to only hold assets that meet higher standards on environmental, social and governance issues.
  • Disney: Hollywood’s top movie studio is pausing the release of its films in Russia, including Pixar’s upcoming “Turning Red.”
  • General Motors: The automaker said it was halting exports to Russia (though it only sells about 3,000 vehicles a year there through 16 dealer locations).

One exception: French oil major TotalEnergies condemned Russia’s military aggression on Tuesday and said it would no longer provide capital for new projects in the country. But it stopped short of announcing it would ditch existing projects, including a 19.4% stake in Russian gas producer Novatek.

The United States and its European allies have announced new sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin in a rare move targeting a foreign leader’s personal wealth.

But the impact of those penalties may be largely symbolic. Although Putin is believed to hold billions of dollars in personal wealth, little is known about the exact amount or where it might be, my CNN Business colleague Allison Morrow reports.

Breaking it down: Putin has left almost no paper trail for his assets – mostly property – which are hidden behind complex financial schemes organized by his confidantes, according to a 2016 “Panama Papers” report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Among the luxuries that have been linked to Putin’s friends and family, but never directly to him, are a $ 100 million mega-yacht and a Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin’s personal use.

On paper, the Russian leader looks like a humble bureaucrat. In 2018, Putin submitted an official income declaration that shows he owns an 800-square-foot apartment in St. Louis. Petersburg, along with two Soviet-era cars and an off-road truck. The Kremlin says his annual income is about $ 140,000 – not an immodest figure in Russia, though hardly one that could keep Putin sporting his rotation of luxury watches.

“Putin’s visible watch collection is worth multiples of his official salary,” Bill Browder, an investor in Russia who became a fierce critic of Putin, told CNN in 2018.

Browder testified before the US Senate in 2017 that he estimates the Russian leader’s wealth to hover around $ 200 billion in assets, which would make him among the wealthiest people on the planet. Still, tracking his wealth has proven next to impossible. Forbes magazine, which counts sleuthing the personal fortunes of the world’s elite as part of its core mission, said figuring out Putin’s net worth is “probably the most elusive riddle in wealth hunting.”

AutoZone (AZO), Baidu (BIDU), Domino’s Pizza (DMPZF), Hostess Brands (TWNK), JM Smucker, Kohl’s (KSS), Target (TGT) and Wendy’s (WEN) report results before US markets open. AMC Entertainment (AMC), Nordstrom (JWN), Salesforce (CRM) and SoFi follow after the close.

Also today: The ISM Manufacturing Index for February posts at 10 am ET.

Coming tomorrow: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies on the state of the US economy before the House Financial Services Committee.

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