Tuesday, January 06, 2015

2015: Asymmetric Oil Warfare

Let's consider some examples of potential asymmetric-warfare tactics as they relate to the price of oil.

The world has habituated to the never-ending undeclared war over ownership and access to hydrocarbons. Now we are entering a new phase of asymmetric war being waged not over oil but the price of oil. Many observers see a parallel in Saudi Arabia's stated intent to force other exporters to cut their production (if they want to maintain the price of their oil) to the mid-1980s, when a similar oil-pricing war drove prices to lows that helped bankrupt the Soviet Union.

While there are certainly parallels to that period of superpower confrontation and the Saudis' use of the oil weapon, it seems to me that the current era is less a replay of the 1980s than a new chapter in asymmetric warfare that may see a variety of oil-related weapons being deployed.

Asymmetric warfare is defined as war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly. Oil exporters come in a variety of sizes and favors, as do major oil producers and consumers (for example, the U.S. is a major producer but it still imports oil from other producers).

Each party with an interest in the price of oil has a different set of weapons, goals, and relative military/financial power.

What does that mean in the undeclared war over the price of oil? Let's consider some examples of potential asymmetric-warfare tactics as they relate to the price of oil.

1. One way to crimp the production of one's perceived opponents is to blow up a few pipelines or port facilities via guerrilla-type strikes, a.k.a. "terrorist attacks" that would have an immediate effect on supply and thus on the global price of oil, which is remarkably sensitive to supply and demand on the margins.

The ability to exploit physical supply vulnerabilities has become widespread, via proxy irregulars and relatively easy access to explosives.

The asymmetry between the enormous difficulty in protecting long supply chains and costly infrastructure and the relatively low cost of disrupting supply is obvious.

2. Digital disruption of supply facilities via Stuxnet-type computer worms. A thumb drive inserted into a network node can unleash all sorts of electronic mayhem that shuts down key oil-supply choke points.

3. Financial strategies that support one's domestic producers regardless of current global prices. Those producing nations that can print their own credit and currency--for example, the U.S. Federal Reserve--can quietly underwrite domestic production by buying shale-oil related junk bonds via proxies, effectively burying the debt.

Defaults? What defaults? The bonds are either refinanced via proxies or enter suspended animation in forbearance, i.e. the interest is not being paid but the owner of the debt (the Fed) doesn't care.

4. Oil exporters with decrepit oil-production infrastructure can be squeezed by restricting their access to the credit needed to repair/overhaul their infrastructure. Their production will decline as things literally fall apart.

Alternatively, cheap credit can be extended to underfunded exporters to keep production high.

5. A key central bank (for example, the Fed) can cease issuing money/credit and thereby trigger a global slowdown that constricts demand. If oil production remains high, price plummets as the erosion in demand takes hold.

6. A central bank might decide to support the price of oil not by influencing physical supply or demand but by buying up vast quantities of futures contracts. Such buying would eventually trigger a short-covering rally that would push the price of oil significantly higher, at least in the short-term, regardless of physical supply-demand.

These are a few of many possibilities of asymmetric warfare that could be applied to the price of oil. 

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