In all the noise surrounding the latest market moves, political news and frenzy over tomorrow’s Fed rate hike (or pause), an important development was missed by many when Saudi Arabia released its budget for 2019 earlier on Tuesday, which at 1.106 trillion riyals, or $295 billion – the largest in the kingdom’s on record – represents a 7% increase from 1.030 trillion in 2018.
During the unveiling of the budget, Saudi King Salman said his country will continue paying public sector cost-of-living allowances for citizens and will boost spending to stimulate growth even as Saudi Arabia toils to close its deficit, which it won’t do yet again as the kingdom forecasts a 6th consecutive budget deficit in a row, estimated to hit $35 billion in 2019.
“We are determined to go ahead with economic reform, achieving fiscal discipline, improving transparency and empowering private sector,” the King said.
While state-funded Saudi “generosity” to keep its citizens happy – and not, say, thinking radical, revolutionary thoughts – is well known, analysts believe the continued cost-of-living allowances, first established in January 2018 and estimated by officials to cost more than $13 billion, are intended to stimulate sluggish growth but mostly shore up support for the royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a controversy-ridden few months.
The royal allowances of 1,000 riyals a month ($266) are paid to civil servants and military personnel, and other allowances will continue for pensioners and those living on social security. Riyadh will also increase student benefits by 10 percent for the next fiscal year, the king announced.
There is just one problem: for Saudi Arabia to be able to meet its projected revenue and fund these generous payments it will need oil prices to rise higher. Much higher.
Looking at the details of the budget, a few troubling details emerge: revenue is forecast to hit 975 billion riyals while total spending will rise 7% to 1.106 trillion riyals, resulting in a 131 budget deficit, or 4.2% of GDP (nearly double the size of Italy’s projected deficit, if still quite smaller than the US deficit) as GDP is expected to grow from 2.3% in 2018 to 2.6% in 2019.
And while the government expects non-oil revenue to increase from 287 billion riyals in 2018 to 313 billion in 2019, the big question mark is what happens with oil revenue. According to the budget, Saudi Arabia expects oil revenues to grow nearly 10% from 607 billion riyals in 2018 to 662 billion in 2019, it is the assumptions embedded in this revenue forecast that are, well, concerning.
To hit 662 billion riyals in oil revenue, or $177 billion, up from $162 billion in 2018, Saudi Arabia expects near record oil output of 10.2 mmb/d sold at a price of $80/barrel, while Saudi Aramco won’t increase its allocations to the government. For reference, Brent settled just above $56 today, which means that oil has to rise at least 40% for the Saudi budget revenue assumption to be hit. Brent would have to rise an additional $15 to $95 a barrel for the kingdom to balance its budget deficit according to Bloomberg chief Middle East economist Ziad Daoud.