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Saudi Oil Gambit Leads to Market Panic

Financial markets see some of the worst results since 2008 as traders react to Saudi Arabia’s oil price war.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 09, 2020 in New York City.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 09, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Saudi oil price war puts markets in turmoil, coronavirus shuts down all of Italy, and Ashraf Ghani survives rocket attack at his presidential inauguration in Afghanistan.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Saudi oil price war puts markets in turmoil, coronavirus shuts down all of Italy, and Ashraf Ghani survives rocket attack at his presidential inauguration in Afghanistan.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Markets Panic as Russia Holds Nerve in Saudi Price War

Global stock markets tumbled on Monday amid falling oil prices and uncertainty driven by the global coronavirus outbreak. In New York, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 2,000 points—the most points ever lost in one session. In London the FTSE 100 suffered its fifth-worst day in history as the index lost almost £125 billion (approximately $160 billion) in market value.

What sparked the selloff? The immediate catalyst appeared to be Saudi Arabia’s decision to offer deeply discounted oil prices following Russia’s refusal to go along with OPEC’s plans for cuts in production. In the face of potential falling oil revenues, Russia has remained defiant, “The Russian oil industry has a quality resource base and enough financial resilience to remain competitive at any forecast price level, and to keep its market share,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said at a government meeting on Monday.

Who will blink first between Russia and Saudi Arabia? Between the two, Russia seems best placed to weather the storm ahead. Russia only needs a $42 a barrel price to balance its budget, whereas Saudi Arabia needs prices to be over double that amount. As Jason Bordoff argued yesterday in Foreign Policy, “The problem for the kingdom is that Russia is more resilient to lower prices than it is, having added considerably to its foreign exchange reserves while Saudi Arabia’s fiscal cushion has dwindled since the 2014 oil price collapse,” he wrote. Even with ample reserves “a prolonged period of low prices will strain the Saudi budget, undermine investor confidence, and lead to speculation about the devaluation of the Saudi riyal.”

According to Sarah Ladislaw, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Saudis can’t sustain their bluff for long. “I don’t think this is a situation Saudi Arabia finds comfortable,” she said, citing the dual pressures of the domestic budget and the need to keep Saudi Aramco’s share price stable. “I don’t think they want to do it for very long, I don’t think they can do it for very long, and that’s why I think they’ve taken such aggressive action,” Ladislaw said.

Is it time for U.S. government intervention? U.S. President Donald Trump, who has a habit of celebrating stock market highs on twitter, has so far shrugged off concerns about the recent market drops, tweeting, “Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!” However, Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson writes that if low oil prices persist, a wave of bankruptcies in the U.S. shale sector will likely follow. The Washington Post reports that intervention is on the table to mitigate the economic effects of the coronavirus, with several policy options available to the president—including introducing paid sick leave measures and emergency funds for small businesses.

What We’re Following Today

Coronavirus response escalates in Italy. Italy further extended its quarantine to include the entire country in another unprecedented move for the European nation worst hit by the coronavirus. Italians will only be allowed travel for work, medical reasons, or emergencies until April 3. “The right decision today is to stay at home,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters, “Our future and the future of Italy is in our hands. These hands have to be more responsible today than ever before.”

The drastic move could slow the spread of the virus, but it may be too late. As Mattia Ferraresi argues in FP, Italy’s ruling class and its scientists have been publicly squabbling for weeks in order to score political points and gain publicity, while imperiling the country’s health.

Is it a pandemic yet? Speaking at a news conference yesterday, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stopped short of calling the outbreak—now at 110,000 confirmed cases worldwide—a pandemic, but said the threat of one is “very real.” Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that all travellers entering the country from abroad would need to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. The ruling is in place for the next two weeks and could affect up to 268,000 Israelis already outside the country.

Rockets disrupt Ghani inauguration. In Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as president. He wasn’t alone in claiming that title: His rival, Abdullah Abdullah, held his own swearing-in ceremony as the two continue to dispute the outcome of a September presidential election. Ghani’s speech was interrupted by rocket fire during the ceremony, but he played down its impact, “We have seen major attacks. Don’t be afraid by two small blasts,” he said.

Is the Afghan peace process still on? As Afghanistan endures more political turmoil, the March 10 date for talks between the Afghan government and Taliban has now been missed. However, hope of dialogue still remains: Sources told Reuters that President Ghani plans to issue a decree releasing at least 1,000 Taliban prisoners this week, a move that addresses a major sticking point.

Marines killed in Iraq. Two U.S. Marines were killed and four other U.S. troops were wounded in Iraq during an anti-Islamic State operation conducted alongside Iraqi security forces. Joint counterterrorism operations have resumed in the country after a pause following the killing of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani in January.

Keep an Eye On

France floats cease-fire hopes. Following French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar, a presidential source said that Haftar is open to signing a cease-fire agreement as long as militia groups on all sides also sign on. Libya is currently caught between warring factions—backed by Turkey on one side, and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other—after a peace conference failed in January.

Political violence in Sudan. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok survived an assassination attempt on Monday when his convoy came under attack. State television said he was targeted by a car bomb, while state radio reported an attack by gunfire and projectiles. Hamdok is leading Sudan’s transitional government following the downfall of former President Omar al-Bashir. In response, the Sudanese Professional Association—the group instrumental in Bashir’s overthrow—has called for public rallies to show support for civilian rule.

Mexican women strike. Thousands of women in Mexico staged a daylong strike in protests against gender-based violence and disappearances of women in the country. The move comes after large demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands on Sunday to mark International Women’s Day. The strike puts pressure on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to take action to stem the wave of femicide the country is experiencing. His approval rating has dropped 11 points over the past year.

Odds and Ends

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, completed their final royal engagement at Westminster Abbey before they start their new lives away from Britain’s royal family. The couple will now begin anew in Canada, where citizens are questioning their long-standing relationship with the British monarchy, as Stéphanie Fillion wrote in FP last week.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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