So, a simple question is what do we now do with cheap oil? What to sell? What to buy?
I would suggest buying gasoline but only if the needle on your dashboard gets close to E.
The widows and orphans portfolio that was posted on this blog a couple of years ago included Exxon and/or Chevron. The logic behind holding them is that the dividends would be superior to what one could get in a savings account and would grow faster than inflation or rising interest rates. The logic still holds. So, someone who owned the widows and orphans portfolio would not do a thing. On the other hand, if someone were constructing a portfolio, the current price of Exxon and/or Chevron would present a good entry point.
As commentators have pointed out, the Saudi's might continue supplying enough oil to keep prices down, what they refer to as “a big sweat.” They have done it before in order to drive out higher cost producers. If they do, Exxon and Chevron's stock could go down more, but their current prices looks good. Exxon and Chevron will not be the producers that the Saudi's drive out of business. It is very unlikely that the Saudi's will even be able to force them to cut dividends. For a very good analysis of the issue of the dividend safety of various oil companies I'd recommend “Which Big Oil Dividends Are Safe?” published today on seekingalpha.com.
There is one wrinkle. US is now the second-largest oil producer. A fair share of the high cost production the Saudi's are targeting is in the US. Today General Electric outlined the effect of lower energy prices on its energy divisions. We should anticipate more of those secondary effects on firm supplying the energy industry.
ECONOMIST magazine had an interesting cover two weeks ago. The title was "Sheikh vs shale." It showed a picture of a sheikh and a roughneck standing back-to-back with their gas pumps drawn. It is an interesting concept. Shale producers are in many respects the swing supply. However, unlike the high-cost producers of the past, shale production does not require a huge upfront fixed cost to develop the field. In addition, although shale may be the swing production, it is not necessarily the highest cost production. Consequently, shale production can gear up and down fairly easily. Highly leverage producers may go under and have to sell their fields to that less leverage producers during periods when the industry is gearing back. But, if prices go back up, those less leverage producers will quickly restore production.
If prices stay down long enough to reduce the drilling activity in shale fields, it may also cause extreme duress for other higher cost producers. The Canadian tar sands are clearly vulnerable especially given the one-two of the Saudi's unwillingness to support prices and environmentalists success at delaying increases in efficiency of the transportation sector that would allow their production to reach global markets. However, the greatest risk to the global economy may result from governments that own or have strong links to producers. That affect is already shifting foreign exchange rates. The Russian ruble has been an early casualty, but the risk to Venezuela, Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Brazil and Mexico are very real.
The foreign exchange markets are so big that a major dislocation there can have all sorts of unanticipated consequences. Today PIMCO’s emerging-market fund is showing the stress caused by significant holdings of Russian bonds. We should expect more of that. In fact, a default by one of the government's that has nationalized its oil resources, and thus the risks associated with energy production, is not out of the question. It is worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of oil reserves are owned by governments.
There will also be many winners and losers among European companies that export to Russia. For US investors in US corporations, exports to Brazil and Mexico may be more important than Russia or Venezuela. However, the major risk is not from slower exports. One should keep in mind that financial institutions make markets in both currencies and foreign bonds. If a major financial institution gets caught with excess inventory of the wrong currencies or bonds, dislocation to the financial system could be significant. That is a far greater risk for European banks than US banks. However, some US banks, such as Citi, are so global, and the banking system of the developed economies are so linked, that financial dislocation is not out of the question.