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Here's How Long Saudi Arabia's US Treasury Stash Will Last Under $30, $40, And $50 Crude

On Friday we explained why the most important chart in global finance may well be the combined FX reserves of Saudi Arabia and China plotted against the yield on the 10Y. 

Here’s the reason that graphic is so critical: Saudi Arabia and China are sitting on the first and third largest stores of reserves, respectively, and if these two countries continue to liquidate those reserves, it will amount to “reverse QE” or, "quantitative tightening" as Deutsche Bank calls it. 

For Saudi Arabia, the FX reserve pressure comes courtesy of the deathblow the country dealt to the petrodollar system late last year.

In other words, the pain is largely self-inflicted as the kingdom is determined to “preserve market share” by bankrupting US shale drillers. The attendant decline in oil revenue has resulted in a fiscal deficit on the order of 20% of GDP which, in the absence of sharply higher oil prices must either be financed by drawing down reserves or else through the bond market because between the war in Yemen (which escalated meaningfully on Thursday) and the necessity of maintaining the status quo for a populace that’s become used to a certain level of stability and comfort, fiscal retrenchment is a decisively difficult task. 

On Thursday, we got the latest data on Saudi Arabia’s FX reserves and, thanks to new debt, the burn rate slowed. Here’s Reuters:

The speed of decline in Saudi Arabia's foreign reserves slowed in July after the government began issuing domestic debt to cover part of a budget deficit created by low oil prices, central bank data showed on Thursday.

 

The world's largest oil exporter has been drawing down its reserves to cover the deficit. Net foreign assets at the central bank, which acts as the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, have been sliding since they reached a $737 billion peak last August.

 

But the latest data showed net foreign assets shrank only 0.5 percent from the previous month to 2.480 trillion riyals ($661 billion) in July, their lowest level since early 2013. They had dropped 1.2 percent month-on-month in June and at faster rates early this year.

 

In July, the government began selling bonds for the first time since 2007, placing 15 billion riyals ($4 billion) of debt with quasi-sovereign funds; this month it sold 20 billion riyals of bonds to banks.

 

The domestic debt sales appear to have reduced the need for the government to cover its deficit by drawing down foreign assets. Authorities have not publicly said how many bonds they will issue in future, but the market is expecting monthly issues of roughly 20 billion riyals through the end of 2015.

 

The foreign assets are held mainly in the form of foreign securities such as U.S. Treasury bonds - securities totalled $465.8 billion at the end of July - and deposits with banks abroad, which totalled $131.2 billion. The vast majority of the assets are believed to be in U.S. dollars.

And while taking on debt to offset the reserve burn is a viable strategy, especially when you’re starting from a debt-to-GDP ratio that’s negligible, the reserves are still at risk of running out, even if 50% of spending is financed in the debt markets.

Here’s more from BofAML on how long the Saudis can hold out under various price points for crude and assuming various mixes of debt financing and spending cuts:

Safeguarding Fx reserves will require deep budgetary cuts at current oil prices, in our view. Our dynamic analysis suggested that current low oil prices could rapidly erode the sovereign creditworthiness, even as the sovereign balance sheet is at its strongest on an historical basis. Despite the rapid drawdown over 1H15, SAMA’s Fx reserves still stood at c100% of GDP in June, and government deposits at SAMA represented US$294bn or 42% of GDP. Another way to look at sustainability is a static analysis to calculate the number of years required to exhaust government deposits under various oil, spending and financing scenarios.

 

Based on the narrow definition of resources available to the government, we think that there is no realistic mix of debt financing and spending cuts at US$30/bbl that can decrease pressure on Fx reserves, and pressure on the USD peg would be acute if oil prices were to be sustained at this level. However, at US$40/bbl and US$50/bbl, debt financing and deep capex cuts (to bring spending 25% lower) can keep government deposits at SAMA covering 7 years and 11 years of government spending, respectively. Government spending has historically adjusted to oil prices with a variable lag. It is worth recalling that spending was 50% lower in 1988 compared to its 1981 peak as oil prices tumbled, and government spending in 2000 was at the same levels as that of 1980 in nominal terms.