How deep in a hole must the Saudis be to consider selling the state oil giant?

US Outlook

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The Independent Online

How much longer will Apple be the world’s largest traded company? Not much longer if an interview with The Economist this week is anything to go by.  According to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is considering an initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, the state oil producer.

Any decision is a few months away, but  if the company were to list, it could be the first IPO with a market capitalisation of more than $1trn (£680bn). It’s likely that a dual listing would be on the cards, on the Saudi stock exchange and, most likely, in New York. 

Saudi Aramco controls 15 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and produces more than three times as much output daily as ExxonMobil, currently the largest traded oil company, at a fraction of the per barrel cost. 

That’s a lot of oil, and a lot of broker commission. As for the world’s largest company, for the most part it’s a meaningless position that bestows nothing other than an ego massage for the people running it. Tim Cook, Apple’s fairly low-ego chief executive, will not lose any sleep over losing that spot. 

It might mean little in terms of size, but the potential sale of their largest state asset has great meaning as far as the Saudis are concerned – the oil markets too. Just how deep in a hole must the Saudis be to consider selling off Aramco? How deep a hole is the oil market in? The answer to both is “very deep”. The price of oil is stuck in the mid-thirties, and there aren’t many people in the oil industry who can see it back in triple digits any time soon. 

With a $100bn hole in Saudi Arabia’s budget, the sale of all or part of Aramco would be a short-term fix for long-term structural problems. Given that every Tom, Dick and Harry in the Saudi royal family will want a share of the billions on offer, it’s hard not to feel that this will not work out well. Besides, the rise of alternative energy is inexorable. It might not happen in my lifetime but the oil, gas and coal markets are doomed. 

The American stock market guru Jim Cramer might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when he said last week that fossil fuels are an obvious multi-year short, he was not far off the mark. The thought of the Saudis selling even a small chunk of an asset that they felt was still a goldmine is ridiculous; they obviously agree with him.

Gun trade booms on fears that Democrats will pull the trigger

I finally went to a gun show in 2015 after seven years of living in Kentucky, morbid curiosity getting the better of me. It wasn’t quite the conspiracy theory cum liberal hate fest I was expecting, although I am glad I thought better of wearing an “Obama 2012” T-shirt. 

Here’s what it did prove to me, beyond any shadow of doubt: despite his best efforts, the President is the greatest gun salesman in history.

The show was a bizarre mixture of the friendly and the terrifying. Anyone attending, and there were thousands, could have driven home armed to the teeth, with enough firepower to start World War III. I asked every stallholder I spoke to the same question: has President Obama been good for business? The answer was the same for all of them: a sheepish but definite “yes”.

Last week’s presidential executive order – among other things appointing a couple of hundred new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, and improving background checks on sellers – is, as one cartoonist pointed out, the equivalent of asking drivers to wear a seatbelt. Not that you would know it from the hysterical reaction from gunowners and the gun trade, via its mouthpiece the National Rifle Association.

The aim of this hysteria has nothing to do with gun control; it’s all about selling more guns. And one glance at the returns made by gun investors since Barack Obama was sworn in tells you all you need to know. Boom time, in every sense. 

The gun trade has never been more profitable and anyone willing to let morals take a back seat has cashed in. An investment in gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co 10 years ago would have turned a profit of almost 800 per cent, making it one of the best performers on the New York Stock Exchange. Give or take a few bucks, that’s about the same return as an investment in Apple over the same period. Smith & Wesson is not that far behind – over the past decade its share price has risen by almost 530 per cent. 

The last quarterly numbers from Sturm, Ruger were stunning – the kind of leap in revenue and earnings that most tech unicorns would kill for: an 82 per cent increase in profits thanks to a 23 per cent rise in revenue to $121m. That was just the third quarter, and thanks to the President a bumper first quarter in 2016 is a given. Not all gun-related stocks have performed quite so well, but the value of Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson doubled in 2015 alone, and in a flat year for markets there aren’t many stocks that were better to own.

That is not to blame the President, whose job (I assume) is to do whatever he can to protect the American population, even from itself. But there is no denying it – the gun industry has made hay during his presidency, and will privately be on its collective hands and knees praying for a Hillary Clinton win in November.

That would give the likes of Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson at least another four years of reaping profits at the expense of fearful, paranoid people willing to believe the federal agents are about to kick their front door in. In a market that looks increasingly like producing little in the way of returns over the next 12 months, it’s a blockbuster formula.