Oil price drop creates winners and losers

Oil companies are hurting, but cheap oil isn't bad news for everyone. Here's a brief look at some of the winners and losers of oil's crude awakening.
A Greenpeace activist protests against an oil development in Poland. While cheap oil has lots of winners and losers, on the whole it's probably bad for the environmental movement. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

The price of oil has dropped by about 40 per cent in the last few months and the fluctuation is playing havoc with anything related to the always volatile commodity — and in Canada, that's a lot.

Cheap oil isn't bad news for everyone. Here's a brief look at some of the winners and losers of oil's crude awakening.

WINNER: Manufacturers (and anyone who likes a cheap loonie)

​The oil patch is definitely hurting. But lower oil prices are undeniably good news for other industries. Cheaper oil means lower prices for things like electricity, transportation and heating — which are some of the biggest input costs for Canadian companies. A sudden break on how much it costs to make your product and bring it to market is a great shot in the arm for factory owners, many of whom have been shuttered since the recession due in part to skyrocketing costs and diminished returns.

For those people, cheap oil also comes with the added bonus of a lower loonie. BMO recently estimated that every $10 movement in the price of oil works out to about a three-cent move in the Canadian dollar. Do the math and the $40 drop-off in crude prices since June has dragged the loonie down too. That doesn't sound like great news for Canada, but it's great for exporters because it makes our goods look cheaper overseas, which encourages other countries to buy more of our stuff.

The $1.5-trillion question is whether the benefits to the latter group are enough to offset the losses being sustained by the former, and the truth is: we don't know yet.

LOSER: Canadian governments

Oil companies aren't the only ones taking a bath due to suddenly cheap oil. Governments in Ottawa and several Canadian provinces had gotten used to the revenues that had been coming along with $100 oil. About a quarter of Alberta's annual revenue comes from oil, and that pile of cash to pay for government services is drying up quickly. 

BMO economist Robert Kavcic estimated the Alberta government is missing out on about $1.2 billion because of cheaper oil — and he said that when oil dropped from $105 to $85, never mind the $65 it's trading at today.

Alberta's budget estimates were based on $97 oil, but they were far from the only ones. Saskatchewan based its budget on just under $100 a barrel. And Newfoundland had assumed oil prices would be $105 last spring, when Brent Crude was going for $115 a barrel. Today, it's under $70.

Whether you're an oil company (or you're invested in one) the reality is all Canadians are impacted by cheap oil because numerous levels of government suddenly have a lot less cash to go around.

WINNER: Drivers and air travellers

One of the major uses of crude oil is gasoline, so it's reasonable enough that drivers and consumers should expect some relief at the pump. Sure enough, that seems to be happening — although the drop-off is nowhere near as pronounced as it's been in the underlying commodity.

Several cities, including Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, are already seeing the price of a litre of gas drop below $1, a level they haven't seen in years. It may be a minor factor (and one we in the media certainly pay too much attention to) but those savings are real dollars that are likely to be spent elsewhere in the economy.

A man fills up his motorbike in a gas station in Jakarta last month. While they haven't fallen as much as crude oil, gasoline prices are have been dropping everywhere in recent weeks. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

As Capital Economics put it in a recent research note, "lower prices mean that most households will have more disposable income left over for spending on other goods and services."

Slumping oil prices should also be good for airline travellers, as jet fuel is the industry's biggest cost next to salaries. That's not happening so far, but with cratering oil prices in the news every day, it's only so long before the industry will have to start cancelling some of the fuel surcharges they've implemented in recent years.

LOSER: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely be glad to see the end of 2014. After blowing a record $51 billion to put on one of the more underwhelming Olympic games, his problems continued through the summer with the the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

With vast oil and gas reserves, Russia has ridden an energy wave for the past decade a half to become a global player again. But all that is going up in smoke as sanctions against foreign companies doing business in Russia add up, and the country wakes up to a new reality with drastically cheaper energy prices.

Russia's government estimates are built on an assumption of $100 per barrel oil, a forecast that looks laughably off-base. That's playing out in what's happening with the country's currency, the ruble, which has lost about 40 per cent of its value since the start of the year.

WINNER: Investors — but not in oil

There's another group of people who are quietly doing just fine as oil seemingly sets a new multi-year low on a daily basis. People invested in things that aren't oil are doing quite well indeed.

Sure, the TSX's energy subindex is off by almost 25 per cent since August, but other sectors are quietly doing just fine. Health care is up by 26 per cent in the same period. Consumer staples like retailers are up by 15 per cent. Even Canada's steady-as-you-go banks have stayed above the fray, eking out about a two-per-cent gain in a time of mass hysteria over plunging oil prices. And after all that, remember the TSX is still up by more than 10 per cent since the start of the year.

Outside Canada, things look even better. U.S. stock markets are a lot less oil dependent than Canada's and that's playing out in their performance. The S&P 500 only has about 40 oil companies on it, which together make up less than 10 per cent of the total index. The S&P as a whole is quietly up 11 per cent this year, on the back of booming airline stocks (up 83 per cent) technology stocks (up by 40 per cent) and breweries, whose stocks are up a foamy 35 per cent since the start of the year.

LOSER: The environment

There's definitely a downside to a world that's suddenly awash in fossil fuels. One of the major reasons for investment in recent years into alternative energy sources has been expensive energy prices. With that impetus at least temporarily out of the picture, there's a very real concern among environmentalists of going back down a wasteful track.

"It is not good news for the environment," economist Mark Jaccard, a professor in the energy and materials research group at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University said in a recent interview. But cheap oil will just spur more consumption in developing economies eager to catch up to the West's standard of living.

Cheap oil may lead to a victory for environmentalists, here and there, in stopping individual pipeline or shale oil projects. But the cheaper oil gets, the reality is the more likely it is to one day get used.

"The good news is that lower oil prices will put a damper on the breakneck pace of expansion in the tarsands, creating time and space for the alternatives to take root," Keith Stewart, a climate researcher with environmental group Greenpeace says.

And that's not the only environmental concern. The Bank of England said Monday it will start investigating what it is calling the current "carbon bubble" in an attempt to sort out the economic cost of oil. Many economists argue there's a heavy economic toll to be paid if the world ever burns off all of its carbon reserves. But there's also a cost associated with not using that carbon, as the trillions of dollars tied up in the value of those energy companies effectively goes to zero.


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