S&P just downgraded Saudi Arabia

Ratings agency S&P just downgraded Saudi Arabia’s debt rating.

In a release on Friday, S&P cut its rating on Saudi Arabia’s foreign- and local-currency sovereign credit ratings on Saudi Arabia to ‘A+/A-1’ from ‘AA-/A-1+.’ S&P’s outlook for the kingdom remains negative.

In a release, S&P said a “pronounced negative swing” in Saudi Arabia’s fiscal balance prompted the downgrade.

Over the 10 years ending in 2013, S&P noted that Saudi Arabia’s budget surpluses — or money available after all government expenses had been met — averaged about 13% of GDP. This situation, however, has changed rapidly as the price of oil has crashed, and in 2015 Saudi Arabia is expected to see a budget deficit equal to 16% of GDP.

The main implication of a debt rating downgrade is that it becomes more expensive for an issuer to borrow money in the market.

In a separate report on Friday, analysts at RBC Capital Markets looked at what implications potential conflicts inside Saudi Arabia’s ruling family could have for global oil markets.

In short, RBC noted that there have been growing reports of discontent within the royal family since the ascent of King Salman to the throne in January. The firm said that much of this conflict has been driven by the outsized influence Salman’s favourite son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has enjoyed.

RBC notes that the King’s son, who is believed to be between 29 and 32 years old, “controls some of the most prized political real estate in the country despite having a shorter resume than many of his older relatives.”

He is, however, third in line to the crown, with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the 79-year-old king’s nephew, currently next in line. But as Business Insider’s Mike Bird noted, a grandson of Ibn Saud, who founded the Kingdom, recently published a series of letters calling for all three of them to be replaced.

S&P, for its part, notes that the power in Saudi Arabia effectively lies with the King, the Crown Prince, and the Deputy Crown Prince, and any tensions in or among the monarchy could pose problematic for Saudi Arabia’s economy.

“In our view, reconciling intra-family issues around succession could make the kingdom’s policy decisions more challenging and difficult to predict … Broader institutional checks and balances are still at early stages of development,” S&P wrote on Friday.

Saudi Arabia, which is seen as the de facto leader of OPEC, the 12-member cartel of nations that get most of their revenue from the sale of oil, has been a driver of OPEC’s strategy to continue flooding the market with oil in an effort to both receive as much revenue as possible from oil sales and drive prices lower to squeeze smaller US shale producers from the market.

So far, US shale has proved a bit more resilient than perhaps OPEC had expected when it announced last November that it would not curb production. OPEC is set to meet next on December 4.

And so it remains to be seen if the current power structure in place in Saudi Arabia will push for a shift in OPEC strategy, or if a change in power could be what triggers something new in the world’s oil market.

Here’s RBC:

Depending on his path to power, a new monarch might feel the need to quickly generate additional revenue to fund popular infrastructure projects and social welfare programs, as well as boost the overall mood of the populace and the private sector, which depends heavily on government largess. Market share might therefore take a back seat to maintaining public support in a power shift scenario.

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