The Economics of the Saudis’ “Take-the-Money-and-Run” Strategy

As the Financial Times reported on 12 July, Saudi Arabia’s oil-output reached record highs in June 2016. Increasing production 280,000 barrels/day to 10.6m b/d, Saudi Arabia has once again waved off OPEC’s request not to glut the market with oil. 

As it turns out, economic principles explain why the Saudis began, in late 2014, to pump crude as fast as they could – or close to as fast as possible. In fact, there is a good reason why the Saudi princes are panicked and pumping. 

Let’s take a look at the simple analytics of production. The economic production rate for oil is determined by the following equation: P – V = MC, where P is the current market price of a barrel of oil, V is the present value of a barrel of reserves, and MC is the marginal recovery cost of a barrel of oil.

To understand the economics that drive the Saudis to increase their production, we must understand the forces that tend to raise the Saudis’ discount rates. To determine the present value of a barrel of reserves (V in our production equation), we must forecast the price that would be received from liquidating a barrel of reserves at some future date and then discount this price to present value. In consequence, when the discount rate is raised, the value of reserves (V) falls, the gross value of current production (P – V) rises, and increased rates of current production are justified.

When it comes to the political instability in the Middle East, the popular view is that increased tensions in the region will reduce oil production. However, economic analysis suggests that political instability and tensions (read: less certain property rights) will work to increase oil production.

Let’s suppose that the real risk-adjusted rate of discount, without any prospect of property expropriation, is 20% for the Saudis. Now, consider what happens to the discount rate if there is a 50-50 chance that a belligerent will overthrow the House of Saud within the next 10 years. In this case, in any given year, there would be a 6.7% chance of an overthrow. This risk to the Saudis would cause them to compute a new real risk-adjusted rate of discount, with the prospect of having their oil reserves expropriated. In this example, the relevant discount rate would increase to 28.6% from 20% (see the accompanying table for alternative scenarios). This increase in the discount rate will cause the present value of reserves to decrease dramatically. For example, the present value of $1 in 10 years at 20% is $0.16, while it is worth only $0.08 at 28.6%. The reduction in the present value of reserves will make increased current production more attractive because the gross value of current production (P – V) will be higher.

 

So, the Saudi princes are panicked and pumping oil today – a take the money and run strategy – because they know the oil reserves might not be theirs tomorrow. As they say, the neighborhood is unstable. In consequence, property rights are problematic. This state of affairs results in the rapid exploitation of oil reserves.