How to profit from the oil price crash – invest in the opposite of Russia

As the price of oil continues to slide, Russia might seem like the perfect ‘contrarian’ bet. But it’s not, says John Stepek. You're better off investing in the economies and sectors that profit from the oil price crash.


Russian president Vladimir Putin: dependence on oil can lead to unhappiness

The biggest casualty from the oil price crashso far? Russia.

The rouble briefly saw its biggest one-day fall against the dollar since 1998 yesterday. That's significant because 1998 is the year Russia went bust.

The country is in a better financial position today than it was back then. But unfortunately for Russia, its economy is still way too dependent on oil. So while it has more breathing room, it remains very vulnerable.

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Russia is a niche interest as far as most investors are concerned. So you might not think this matters. Trouble is, Russia is just the canary in the coalmine.

Any country, industry or market that was built on the back of expensive oil prices faces a similar problem.

In short, Russia's not the only one in trouble.

The dangers of being too dependent on any one export

Oil cartel Opec which markets had rashly assumed would be able or willing to maintain oil prices at a specific level decided to maintain production at its latest meeting last week. The biggest player, Saudi Arabia, drove through the decision to the discomfort of some of its smaller rivals.

Do the Saudis want to scupper the US shale explorers? Or is it co-operating with the US to undermine Russia and Iran? Or is it happy to do both two birds with one stone?

Choose the scenario that suits your taste frankly it doesn't matter. The oil price looks highly unlikely to rebound to the $100-a-barrel level in the near future. And that's been painful for countries who structured their economies on the assumption that oil would remain above that level forever more.

Experts have been warning for years that Russia was too dependent on oil. And the Kremlin has been muttering about diversifying the economy for years too. But reform has never quite happened. It's been too easy to sit back and enjoy the oil boom, and to indulge in comfortable old habits. Why engage with other countries when you can wield oil like a weapon?

The answer to that question of course is that oil isn't always going to be expensive. And if you don't have a fallback, you're in trouble.

Watch out for other commodity-dependent markets

But I won't be joining you. The honest truth is that while I'll admit I've occasionally been tempted by the valuations argument in the past, and written to that effect - there's not a bargepole long enough to tempt me to invest in Russia now.

I might be biased. But put it this way if Russia was a company, I'd want to see evidence of a turnaround plan and a management team with a track record of competence before I bought in. Otherwise I'd just be worried I was catching a falling knife.

However, Russia is just one extreme example. We've just been through a massive resources boom. Lots of nations are dependent on not just high oil prices, but high commodity prices in general.

There's the likes of Venezuela and Nigeria. But there's also commodity-rich Australia and oil-rich Canada.

Both the Aussie and Canadian dollars have slid against the US dollar in the last 18 months or so. But there are still plenty of headlines in local papers in both countries about housing bubbles'. If anything can pop those bubbles, it's a slide in resource prices undermining local industries.

Of course, it's always possible for certain stocks and sectors to buck trends in investment. And there will be some bargains to be picked up amid the resource rubble (which we'll be looking out for).

But in terms of bigger picture asset allocation, it makes more sense to go with the wider trend. Find the economies and sectors that benefit from falling oil prices, and invest in them.

For example, this is good news for India. It lowers the country's import bill. It has provided great cover for the new prime minister to cut subsidies on petrol prices, which would otherwise be unpopular. And it might even allow the central bank to cut interest rates, which is generally good news for stocks.

My colleague Matthew Partridge looked at some of the best funds for investing in India in a recent issue of MoneyWeek magazine.If you're not already a subscriber, get your first four issues free here.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.