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Saudi Arabia's Problem with High Oil Prices

Why Saudi Arabia wants to see oil prices fall...

WHY on Earth is Saudi Arabia's oil minister Ali Naimi talking down oil prices? asks Dan Denning, editor of the Daily Reckoning Australia.

If the Saudis wanted lower oil prices, wouldn't they just pump more oil instead of writing op-eds? Yet Naimi took the op-ed page of the Financial Times last week and wrote:

"It is clear that sustained high prices are starting to take their toll on European economic growth targets...The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia would like to see a lower price. It would like to see a fair and reasonable price that will not hurt the global economic recovery, especially in emerging and developing countries, that will generate a good return for producing nations, and that will attract greater investment in the oil industry."

It's not clear at all that Europe's record-high unemployment has anything all to do with oil prices. Europe can't grow because its leaders are heavily invested in prolonging the life of its current debt-based system, which mostly benefits bankers and bureaucrats. Oil prices don't have anything to do with it, although refinery capacity may have something to do with it.

The Saudis claim to have about 2.5 million barrels of spare daily capacity. But to increase production from 10mbpd to 12.5mbpd, the Kingdom would have to pump out mostly heavy sour crudes. Those heavier crudes (as opposed to the light, sweet stuff) require refineries that can "crack" the extra carbon atoms out of the oil to produce refined fuels.

Investing in refineries is not really at the top of the Welfare State's list of priorities. It doesn't exactly win votes. But the lack of refinery capacity for sour crudes clearly DOES have something to do with high prices for refined fuels in Europe, and in Australia for that matter. We'll come back to that in a moment.

For the Saudis, a high oil price supports social spending too. So why would Ali Naimi be trying to talk down oil prices? Is he really worried that high oil prices are destroying demand for oil? If that were the case, wouldn't we have already seen a big drop off in consumption?

We haven't seen that drop off, of course. Oil demand has probably been held up by the giant debt hangover that began ailing the world in 2007. But still, our sense is that the Saudis are worried about the persistently high oil price because it's a function of limited supply. If and when demand DOES rise, it will be revealed that the oil producers can't quickly increase supply.

The sooner energy consumers realize that the oil reserves are a scarce and depleting resource being carefully managed by producers like Saudi Arabia, the sooner energy consumers will look for different sources of energy. THAT is probably what Ali Naimi is worried about. The Saudis don't want oil users looking for other suppliers. They think talking down the price will prevent oil consumers from thinking about alternatives.

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Best-selling author of The Bull Hunter (Wiley & Sons) and formerly analyzing equities and publishing investment ideas from Baltimore, Paris, London and then Melbourne, Dan Denning is now co-author of The Bill Bonner Letter from Bonner & Partners.

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