OPEC Has a New Best Friend: Russia

Putin has helped resolve conflicts within the cartel, giving the country considerable influence over oil markets

When the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries met in Vienna in December, it was in danger of imploding.

Oil prices had plunged. Member states Iran, Venezuela and Libya were refusing to cut production. Qatar had quit. And U.S. President Donald Trump was pressuring Saudi Arabia to keep prices low.

With negotiations teetering on the brink of failure, rescue came from an unlikely place—Russia, which isn’t even an OPEC member. President Vladimir Putin agreed to cut Russian oil production in league with OPEC, provided that Iran was allowed to keep pumping.

The degree of acrimony that pervaded that critical meeting, and the critical role Russia played in resolving the crisis, hasn’t previously been reported. What happened behind closed doors in December was a pivotal moment in Russia’s transformation from a nation that didn’t cooperate with OPEC at all to one that has become an indispensable partner.

Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih recently joked that he talks more with his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak than with some of his colleagues in the Saudi cabinet. “We met 12 times in 2018,” he said of Mr. Novak at a news conference in March.

At the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for May, Russia and Saudi officials will discuss whether to formalize what has been until now an temporary alliance.

For decades, the U.S. has embraced Saudi Arabia as one of its close geopolitical allies, selling it arms and encouraging its role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. In exchange, Washington has come to expect a stable supply of oil to global markets to help damp price spikes and to prevent harm to the U.S. economy.

With its new ally in Russia, Saudi Arabia is no longer beholden only to Washington.

Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has altered its longstanding, hands-off approach to the cartel. Mr. Trump has repeatedly tweeted for OPEC to boost output to drive oil prices down, and he has phoned the Saudi government directly asking the kingdom to open the taps.

“The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship plays a critical role in ensuring Middle East stability and maintaining maximum pressure against Iran,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The U.S.-Saudi relationship remains strong.”

The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last October created a fresh rift between the Saudi kingdom and the U.S.—and provided an opening for Russia to insert itself further into OPEC.

.. Oil prices had cratered in 2016 and didn’t look likely to rebound. The three men needed to orchestrate a deal to reduce crude output to lift global prices. Russia and OPEC agreed to cut production.

By the middle of last year, crude was soaring again, thanks to lower output from OPEC and Russia and renewed prospects for global economic growth. By the end of the year, however, amid a U.S.-China trade battle, the world’s economic outlook was dimming.

As the December OPEC meeting loomed, oil prices had plunged some 30% in six weeks. The Saudis needed unanimous agreement on proposed production cuts to shore up prices. Iran, already hobbled by U.S. sanctions that began in November, was reluctant to curb its output. Libya and Venezuela, with domestic troubles of their own, also were holdouts.

With the cartel about to meet in Vienna, Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor in the Persian Gulf, shocked global oil markets by announcing it was leaving OPEC. It was among a small group of member countries that felt overshadowed as the Saudi-Russia alliance grew stronger. OPEC has become “basically all about what [Prince Mohammed] and his buddy Putin want,” says a Qatari official.

.. When Mr. Falih asked Iran to join the collective production cut, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh rejected the demand and blamed Persian Gulf countries for replacing Iran’s sanctioned oil. According to the people familiar with the conversation, he pointed his finger at Mr. Mazrouei, the Emirati minister in charge of the meeting, and said: “You are the enemy of my country.” Mr. Zanganeh then threatened to suspend Iran’s membership in OPEC, these people said. Spokesmen for the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s energy ministries couldn’t be reached for comment.

 .. Mr. Novak acknowledged that Russia would benefit from the cartel’s cuts. “We need $60 a barrel and we are under sanctions” from the U.S., OPEC officials recall him saying.When Mr. Falih re-entered the OPEC meeting room, he was beaming.

The coalition began curbing output in January. Oil prices have risen 30% since the beginning of the year, their best annual start since the early 1980s.

Saudi Arabia says it has trimmed more than it promised. Russia had pledged to curb production by 230,000 barrels a day, but in March it had slashed daily output by just 120,000 daily barrels, according to OPEC and Russian officials.

Saudi officials say Riyadh is willing to overlook Russia’s shortcomings because it needs support on the international stage. “We cannot afford to lose them,” says one Saudi official.

Trump Hasn’t Killed the Global Trade System. Instead, He Split it in Two.

Allies find relations modestly tweaked, despite the president’s rhetoric, while relations with China are entering a deep freeze

When Donald Trump entered the White House on a platform of defiant nationalism nearly two years ago, many feared he would dismantle the global trading system the U.S. and its allies had built over the past 70 years.

He hasn’t. Instead, he is presiding over its realignment into two distinct systems.

  1. One, between the U.S. and its traditional, democratic trading partners, looks a lot like the system that has prevailed since the 1980s: free trade with a smattering of quotas and tariffs like those Ronald Reagan once deployed.
  2. The second reflects an emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China carrying echoes of the Cold War. On trade, investment and technology, the U.S. is moving to undo some of the integration that followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

There are two big questions hanging over this realignment. The first is deciding how far the U.S. is prepared to decouple from China. The U.S. has given China until March 1 to avoid higher tariffs by addressing complaints it discriminates against foreign companies and steals their technology. Mr. Trump is counting on a deal that avoids a trade war. But many in his administration and Congress don’t trust China to make the necessary concessions and would likely advocate a sharper break.

The second question is whether the U.S. can persuade allies to join a united front to contain China. Other countries don’t relish the choice. Their economic ties to China are far greater than they ever were to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Two years ago, it was easy to predict a grimmer fate for the global trading system. Mr. Trump campaigned as a protectionist willing to tear up trade agreements and raise tariffs to shrink the trade deficit and bring back factory jobs.

In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.

Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.

These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.

.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Douglas Irwin, an economist and trade historian at Dartmouth College, calls these results the “status quo with Trumpian tweaks: a little more managed trade sprinkled about for favored industries. It’s not good, but it’s not the destruction of the system.”

.. Yet the status quo with China is crumbling. Businesses have grown disillusioned with China’s restrictions on their activities, forced technology transfer and intellectual-property theft, all aimed at building up domestic competitors at foreign expense. Meanwhile, legislators in both parties are alarmed at increased military assertiveness and domestic repression under President Xi Jinping.

.. When Mr. Xi visited the U.S. in 2015, Mr. Sullivan urged his colleagues to pay more attention to China’s rise. On the senate floor, he quoted the political scientist Graham Allison: “War between the U.S. and China is more likely than recognized at the moment.”

Last spring, Mr. Sullivan went to China and met officials including Vice President Wang Qishan. They seemed to think tensions with the U.S. will fade after Mr. Trump leaves the scene, Mr. Sullivan recalled.

“I just said, ‘You are completely misreading this.’” The mistrust, he told them, is bipartisan, and will outlast Mr. Trump.

While delivering one message to China, Mr. Sullivan gave a different one to the administration and its trade negotiators: Don’t alienate allies needed to take on China.

“Modernize the agreements but stay within the agreements,” he says he counseled them. “Then we have to turn to the really big geostrategic challenge facing our country and that’s China.”

His was one voice among many urging Mr. Trump to single out China for pressure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to change China’s behavior through dialogue and engagement. Obama officials had begun to question engagement by the end of the administration. Last year, in its National Security Strategy, the Trump administration declared engagement a failure.

The Trump administration regards economic policy and national security as inseparable when it comes to Beijing, because China’s acquisition of Western technology both strengthens China militarily and weakens the U.S. economically.

The administration has yet to publicly explain its goals. In 1946, at the start of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan made the case for containing the Soviet Union in his famous “long telegram.” The Trump administration hasn’t done anything comparable for China. One reason might be that administration officials are divided. Mr. Trump appears torn between wanting to halt China’s rise at any cost and hoping for “a big and very comprehensive deal” that lifts the cloud of a trade war.

.. U.S. and domestic concerns have prompted Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and Canada to restrict or consider restricting Huawei equipment in their telecom infrastructure, in particular for the next 5G mobile phone standard.

The U.S. is also seeking to wall China off from future trade deals. It insisted the pact replacing Nafta include a clause letting the U.S. quit if either Canada or Mexico signs a free-trade agreement with a “non-market economy,” i.e., China.

.. The first goes to the heart of Mr. Trump’s goal. If his aim is to hold back China’s advance, economists predict he will fail. China’s innovative capacity has expanded dramatically. China now accounts for 18.6% of articles in international scientific journals, according to one study, and nearly a quarter of global venture-capital investment, according to another.

Indeed, some China experts fear that the U.S., by adopting a more adversarial approach, weakens China’s reformers and strengthens its nationalist factions, making conflict more likely. They predict China will intensify its pursuit of technological self-sufficiency.

.. Persuading other countries to hold China at arm’s length will be harder than containing the Soviet Union. China accounts for 11% of world exports, whereas the Soviet Union in the 1980s accounted for less than 3%,

.. China is 22% of Japanese imports and exports; the Soviet Union was less than 1%.

.. Many of China’s close neighbors depend far more, economically, on China than on the U.S.

.. U.S. officials note that China’s aid, such its Belt and Road infrastructure program, often saddles recipients with debt. Yet the U.S. offers no alternative, said Mr. Rudd.
.. Some of Mr. Trump’s trade policies undermine the united front he wants against China. He hasn’t sworn off protectionism against U.S. allies, promising to withdraw from Nafta even if its replacement isn’t ratified by Congress. His steel and aluminum tariffs, most of which remain in place, outraged such allies as Canada.

U.S. officials play down such frictions as easily worked out. Abroad, they are seen as more serious. Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaugton said he told U.S. trade negotiators that if Mr. Trump carried through on his threatened 25% tariff on Canadian autos, it would fundamentally change bilateral relations for the worse for years to come. In a letter accompanying Nafta’s replacement, the U.S. agreed not to levy the tariffs.

How Tariffs Could Trickle Down to Your Kitchen Remodel

Just about every material you’d need to remodel a kitchen is now subject to the earlier round of tariffs. Many U.S. vendors import the majority of their materials from China. Flooring, cabinets, countertops, sinks, refrigerators and lighting fixtures are on the list of imports from China that now have a 10% tax, as are many of the materials used to make them, from plywood and quartz to stone and granite.

The Ghost of Trump Chaos Future

Sorry, investors, but there is no sanity clause.

Two years ago, after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, financial markets briefly freaked out, then quickly recovered. In effect, they decided that while Trump was manifestly unqualified for the job, temperamentally and intellectually, it wouldn’t matter. He might talk the populist talk, but he’d walk the plutocratic walk. He might be erratic and uninformed, but wiser heads would keep him from doing anything too stupid.

In other words, investors convinced themselves that they had a deal: Trump might sound off, but he wouldn’t really get to make policy. And, hey, taxes on corporations and the wealthy would go down.

But now, just in time for Christmas, people are realizing that there was no such deal — or at any rate, that there wasn’t a sanity clause. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Put an unstable, ignorant, belligerent man in the Oval Office, and he will eventually do crazy things.

To be clear, voters have been aware for some time that government by a bad man is bad government. That’s why Democrats won a historically spectacular majority of the popular vote in the midterms. Even the wealthy, who have been the prime beneficiaries of Trump policies, are unhappy: A CNBC survey finds that millionaires, even Republican millionaires, have turned sharply against the tweeter in chief.

.. The reality that presidential unfitness matters for investors seems to have started setting in only about three weeks (and around 4,000 points on the Dow) ago.

  • First came the realization that Trump’s much-hyped deal with China existed only in his imagination. Then came
  • his televised meltdown in a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,
  • his abrupt pullout from Syria,
  • his firing of Jim Mattis and
  • his shutdown of the government because Congress won’t cater to his edifice complex and build a pointless wall. And now there’s
  • buzz that he wants to fire Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Oh, and along the way we learned that Trump has been engaging in raw obstruction of justice, pressuring his acting attorney general (who is himself a piece of work) over the Mueller investigation as the tally of convictions, confessions and forced resignations mounts.

.. And even trade war might not do that much harm, as long as it’s focused mainly on China, which is only one piece of U.S. trade. The really big economic risk was that Trump might break up Nafta, the North American trade agreement: U.S. manufacturing is so deeply integrated with production in Canada and Mexico that this would have been highly disruptive. But he settled for changing the agreement’s name while leaving its structure basically intact, and the remaining risks don’t seem that large.

.. Now imagine how this administration team might cope with a real economic setback, whatever its source. Would Trump look for solutions or refuse to accept responsibility and focus mainly on blaming other people? Would his Treasury secretary and chief economic advisers coolly analyze the problem and formulate a course of action, or would they respond with a combination of sycophancy to the boss and denials that anything was wrong? What do you think?