08 November 2010

Crude up, but what does it mean?

Crude oil finished the week on a high, with Brent coming closer to US$90 a barrel than at any time since October 2008.

That’s good.


Well, maybe.

Certainly, in the short run it brings in some extra cash.  The provincial government low-balled production estimates in the spring budget but the actual production level only offset prices below the forecast average of US$83. in the end, the forecast oil revenue will likely not be far off the actual budget projection of $2.1 billion. 

Don’t be surprised if it is more like $2.5 billion.  if that’s the case, then the current budget is the first one in a long while where the provincial government gave figures that were close to the actuals.

Unfortunately, the budget forecast a cash deficit of around $900 million.

Two things will help bring that number down.  First, production at Voisey’s Bay – even allowing for a strike – might start pushing government’s mining royalty back up to where it was before the recession.

Second, and perhaps most likely, the provincial government could be way off in its  capital works spending.  This is – you will recall – a government that has a real problem getting the job done.  If someone could come up with a little blue pill for it, these guys would buy it by the container load.  We are talking projects announced in one year, forecast to end in a couple and they only get around to tendering the thing at the end of the two years.  Delays and massive cost over-runs are routine.

Things would be a lot clearer if the provincial finance minister issued a mid-year financial update in September as he should.  That’s halfway through the fiscal year.  As it is, he will say something in December.  If last year is any indication, he’ll toss a load of sheer bullshit into the public mix in the hopes of keeping people lined up at the counter spending cash for Christmas.

The we just have to keep an eye on crude prices.  Oil is still the biggest revenue source the provincial government has. Things are fine as long as oil stays where it is now.  But when the markets can show an eight dollar a barrel increase in as many days, they can equally show a drop if the factors come together in the right way.

If the provincial government plans to unleash a year of election spending at the same time as the markets start to sort themselves out, this could prove to be a very interesting year indeed, right up to the next provincial election.