Saudi data suggest budget squeeze may be several years away

Study suggeststhat at $50 oil, Saudi Arabia could carry on as it is for about three years without being forced into major spending cuts

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Pressure on Saudi Arabia's state finances is mounting as oil prices fall but the latest official figures suggest the world's top crude exporter still has at least several years before it faces a budget crunch.

Brent oil sank last week below $50 a barrel, near six-year lows, from $70 three months ago. That promises to increase the rate at which the kingdom is drawing down its foreign reserves to cover its budget deficit.

A study by a former Saudi central bank official released last week said the world might have entered a sustained period of low oil prices, leaving Riyadh vulnerable down the road.

"Oil revenues alone are unlikely to keep pace with future spending needs," wrote Khalid Alsweilem, a former chief investment officer of the central bank and now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center in the United States.

But central bank data released last week showed the kingdom still far from any fiscal crisis. Net foreign assets at the bank - the best indicator of Riyadh's fiscal strength, since the bank acts as a sovereign wealth fund -- fell $59.8 bln from the end of 2014 to $664.5 bln in June.

Brent oil averaged $60 during the first half of this year. If it now stays around $50 and the government continues spending at current record levels, the pace of reserve depletion will increase, perhaps to around $140 bln annually.

Saudi authorities will want a minimum level of reserves to reassure financial markets they can protect the riyal’s peg to the U.S. dollar. They have not disclosed that level, but 18 months of imports - more than twice the import cover of most countries - would work out to about $225 bln.

Such calculations suggest that at $50 oil, Saudi Arabia could carry on as it is for about three years without being forced into major spending cuts.

With public debt of just $12 bln or 1.6 percent of gross domestic product at the end of 2014, Riyadh has plenty of room to issue bonds. It could cover two years of record budget deficits entirely with bonds and still have a low debt level by international standards.

So while low oil prices are uncomfortable, they are not yet a game-changer for Saudi Arabia - and for now at least, budget pressures alone do not look likely to force Riyadh to reconsider its decision last year to let oil prices fall as it seeks to protect market share.

"There is no short-term crisis - Saudi Arabia's ability to cover the fiscal deficit is still strong," said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.

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