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Oil Price Plunge Creates New Winners, Losers

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Even those investors who aren’t invested in the energy sector have noticed what’s going on with the price of oil, simply by filling up the tank. Prices have fallen 40% since June.

While it’s too soon to be sure whether the downward direction of oil prices is something that will last, that doesn’t mean it isn’t making winners and losers in the market. And investors need to be wary.

Oil producers are on track to see revenue decline by an eye-popping $1.5 trillion for 2014. In November’s OPEC meeting, Saudi Arabia strong-armed other member states into holding firm on current production levels instead of dropping them in response to market pressure. That further depressed the price of crude. And another OPEC meeting is not scheduled till mid-2015.

But while the other oil-producing nations are feeling the pinch of lower prices, Saudi Arabia is not. Its production costs are the lowest among the OPEC nations. It also has the added gratification not just of putting pressure on shale production in the U.S., but of pushing Russia deeper into the red. Low oil prices are taking a bite out of Russia that’s even harder than the sanctions imposed on it after it marched into Crimea earlier this year.

Although Russia had plenty of oil money stockpiled, sanctions were biting—and now, with the fall of crude prices, that money is evaporating as the country tries to shore up its currency. Moscow has gone so far as to start raiding its sovereign wealth funds to bail out not just oil companies, but banks and other companies that have suffered under sanctions.

Rosneft, for one, has gone hat in hand to Moscow asking for $44 billion. Should the government accede, that could lead to worse problems for Russia and Russian investments, since the money would have to come from the Wellbeing Fund, which was supposed to support the pension system in case the price of oil fell. VTB Bank and Gazprombank, among others, have already siphoned off $7 billion from the fund, but want more—and the central bank has held off on more actions supporting the ruble so that the money will be there for the banks.

Should fund money be used to shore up oil companies, the whole purpose of the fund would be defeated—not to mention that the government itself is already planning to tap the fund to cover the shortfall being caused because its 2015 budget was based on oil priced at $100 per barrel. With the price currently in the neighborhood of $70 and looking to fall even lower, that does not bode well for the fund—and by extension, Russian citizens who will depend on that money.

And while Russia is hurting, it’s taking its former associates from the old Soviet Union along with it. The collapse of the ruble is taking down other former Soviet country currencies, which look likely to suffer even more if the price of oil continues to fall. Such countries as Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan are seeing their currencies fall so far that they’re considering taking action to devalue them—but there’s only so much they can do, thanks to limited foreign reserves.

All the problems are not centered there. Other countries from Iran to Venezuela are feeling the hit from lower oil prices, with the former sharing with Russia the pain of sanctions and the latter falling deeper into an economic crisis as it struggles to compensate for lower prices while maintaining fuel subsidies and price controls.

While oil companies are taking such a big hit, however temporary it may be, the new enthusiasm over the climate change agreement between the U.S. and China could also spur some pivoting from fossil fuels to renewables. The risks presented by the exposure to fossil fuels in investment portfolios were already highlighted by divestment declarations from such entities as the Rockefeller Foundation in September.

Institutional investors aren’t the only ones turning away from fossil fuels. Scandinavian financial services company Storebrand ASA was already on board, having begun divestment last year from 19 companies; since then, the list has grown to 35, numbering coal users and producers and oil sand miners among them.

At the beginning of December, Germany’s largest utility company EON SE—which also happens to be the country’s second largest polluter—announced that it is now looking toward renewable energy. And on the same day Bank of England Governor Mark Carney notified Parliament that his staff is undertaking a review of the potential losses tied to so-called “stranded resources”—those reserves of coal, oil and gas that have not yet been harvested and that might in the future be deemed too environmentally hazardous to extract—and how those losses could impact insurers, investors, banks and the financial system as a whole.

Coupled with the news that Elon Musk’s Tesla mega-factory for electric power storage is finding all sorts of opportunities to team with utility companies—as well as providing opportunities for consumers to go off the grid altogether—the fall in the price of oil could shake up the energy sector far beyond political or economic expedients.

So how could this play out for investors? If lower crude prices aren’t helping oil companies or shale producers, they’re certainly offering opportunities for a lot of other sectors, and countries, that will benefit from smaller expenditures on something so essential to both businesses and consumers. But there are hazards as well.

According to Guild Investment Management, Inc., the investment implications are broad: “When oil falls as it has now been falling for the past five months, the move is not likely to be short in duration. Technological innovation, geopolitics, and economics are converging to increase supply and thus to drive the oil price down, and, we believe, to keep pressure on it for some time. Many countries, industries, and companies will benefit, and others will be hurt.”

China will be one beneficiary, it said, of the drop in oil prices. Since China is the world’s largest oil importer, Guild said in research that the country “could benefit to the tune of over $100 billion in savings if prices stay at current levels through 2015. This money could find many uses in China. Almost all corporations would enjoy cost savings, consumers would have more money to spend, and infrastructure costs would fall. All of these factors would increase economic growth while lower oil prices might moderate inflation.”

Guild added, “Investment implications: Easing from the central government and the benefit of lower oil and other commodity prices could give Chinese growth a tailwind into 2015.”

Guild stated that sectors from exporters to transportation would see the benefit of those lower prices. In particular, consumer goods, healthcare, home improvement retail and manufacturers of everything from appliances to electrical, plumbing and construction materials would see benefits from consumers spending less at the gas pump and more on other things.

It added that corporations would be likely to take part of their energy savings and put it into “building new plant and equipment; and … hiring new employees to manufacture goods in their home countries.”