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Oil Amp Gas
Oil price fall will benefit Europe
From the Financial Times of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 12:53:33 GMT
©Bloomberg

The negative effects of the sharp fall in the oil price since June have been well aired. As this week has already shown, a collapse in the currencies of oil exporters such as Russia can infect markets across the globe. Producers of oil warn that investment will be cut, imperilling output, and jobs will be lost. In the eurozone, the drop in the oil price makes it more likely that the region will slip into outright deflation.

But these realities are obscuring the fact that, for most of Europe’s businesses, cheaper oil is an unequivocal positive. At the beginning of the year, the high cost of energy was at the top of corporate Europe’s worry list. Now, lower prices could give a big boost to investment, employment and therefore growth.

Take the macroeconomic challenges first. Energy costs make up more than a tenth of eurozone consumer price inflation, which is why falling oil prices are “bad” for deflation. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has resisted calls to take further quantitative easing measures, in part to keep the pressure on laggardly reformist governments across the region. Now, however, the oil price could provide him with a cast-iron excuse for caving in to those demands.

If further easing takes the form of a corporate bond buying programme by the ECB, the price of borrowing in the bond markets — both for refinancing and new money — could fall, potentially boosting investment. Even more likely — since pessimists point out that yields are so low already that further QE may have little effect — is that the euro would weaken, which will help the region’s exporters.

Other effects are more direct. Economists at Credit Suisse estimate the fall in petrol prices in the US is equivalent to a tax cut of more than $100bn. In Europe, oil-related expenditure accounts for about 5 per cent of total spending. Even if some of the savings from cheaper oil go under the mattress — which is particularly likely in southern Europe, given high unemployment there — some, at least, should be diverted into higher spending by consumers.

There are obvious beneficiaries, such as clothing retailers, supermarkets and department stores. Sweden’s H&M, to take one example, sells a fifth of its wares in Germany, 9 per cent in the US and 7 per cent in the UK. Travel and leisure companies should also see a boost. Tour and cruise operators such as Tui will benefit twice: first, from a fall in their fuel bills, then from any pickup in demand. The same should apply to airlines, where fuel accounts for between 20 and 40 per cent of costs. Although hedging may mitigate the upside in the near future, Credit Suisse estimates that oil at $60 a barrel could result in a 40 per cent-plus kicker to earnings at listed airline companies. Flag carriers such as IAG, the owner of British Airways and Iberia, will get as nice a fillip, as will low-cost carriers such as Ryanair.

It is not just consumer-facing sectors that should benefit, though. Lower oil helps an unexpectedly large number of industrial companies as well: from many of the large European-listed mining companies to chemical producers, for whom oil-related inputs account for two-thirds of raw material costs. Car industry suppliers, including Continental and tyremaker Pirelli, should also benefit from falling rubber prices.

When UBS analysed two oil supply shocks in 1986 and 1990, it found that, for every 10 per cent fall in the oil price, earnings at quoted European companies rose 2 per cent. For every 10 per cent fall in the trade-weighted euro, meanwhile, profitability is estimated to receive a 4 to 5 per cent boost. As a proportion of profits, the share of listed companies across Europe that suffer from a weaker oil price is significantly outweighed by the share that benefits.

It is important not to get carried away. The combination of falling oil prices and deflationary stagnation in the eurozone is a new one, and consumers could keep their hands in their pockets. Geopolitical risk, whether around pending elections in Greece, Isis in the Middle East, or Russia and Ukraine, is rising.

But the euro area equity market is the one big market from an energy-importing region to have fallen since the peak in the oil price. This suggests that investors and analysts are significantly underestimating the potential for good in the oil price fall, rather than the opposite.

sarah.gordon@ft.com



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