The Chinese Behemoth That is (Not-So) Secretly Buying Up the World’s Oil Reserves

Here’s a brief three-part history and economics primer, followed by some advice on how to make money from it, courtesy of Andy Obermueller and Street

The Past
Nearly a half-century ago, on Dec. 14, 1960, the United Nations passed Resolution 1514, a declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples.

Though far less eloquent than Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the United Nations’ missive is nevertheless a profound statement in support of liberty and the right of self determination.

“Recognizing the passionate yearning for freedom…convinced that the continued existence of colonization prevents the development of international economic cooperation, … [and] affirming that peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources,” the declaration holds that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.”

The Present
Countries don’t colonize anymore. Today, if the British Empire needs tea, tobacco or beaver pelts, it buys them for cash rather than sending the Royal Navy. If the French need rubber, ivory or timber, they import them rather than functionally enslaving the Congo.

And if Red China needs oil, it doesn’t send Chairman Mao’s army (Proud motto: Every man a private), it sends a state-owned company.

That company is Cnooc (NYSE: CEO). And it is on the march.

Recently, Cnooc — China National Offshore Oil Company — sealed a ten-figure deal to acquire a third of the massive Tullow find in Uganda, a region thought to contain several billion barrels of oil. Cnooc is also developing a 2.5 billion-barrel field in Iraq. And late last year Cnooc inked a deal with Venezuela to gear up production in a field in the eastern part of that country.

Now, after several British firms say they’ve found oil in an area north of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, Cnooc has spent $3.1 billion to buy a stake in nearby Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

The Future
China’s growth targets for the foreseeable future are off the charts. For 2009, when the rest of the world was mired in recession, China’s economy grew +8.7%, besting even the government’s own optimistic targets. This year, growth is expected to come in at a sizzling +9.6% before “decelerating, in the words of The Economist Economic Intelligence Unit, to a mere +8.1% growth in 2011. Some observers have suggested that sustaining an extremely high level of economic growth is necessary to contain civil unrest.

They have a point. The Chinese government may not afford its citizens many human rights — the latest U.N. report on the subject called conditions there “poor and worsening” — but the people are absolutely demanding improved economic conditions. That means great wealth for a few (Forbes says China has 89 billionaires) and it means modest affluence for scores of millions. Result: Cars. Over the next 40 years, the world’s automotive fleet will quadruple. In 2050, China will have more vehicles on its roads than there are cars on the planet today.

How to Make Money from It
Cnooc, which is the Chinese company that deals with oil outside of China’s borders, isn’t going to quit buying up crude reserves anytime soon. And though it has inked deals with governments directly — Venezuela, to name one — it mostly deals with companies. The Argentine deal, for example, involved Cnooc paying $3.1 billion for a stake in a company called Bridas Energy Holdings. It also paid dearly for a sizable stake in Tullow’s find.

The clear fact is that this company is unconstrained by geography or even economy. It’s going to buy oil wherever it can for as much as it takes. The smart money bet is that Cnooc will continue to develop fields in Africa and South America and that it will keep its finger on the pulse of Iraq with an eye toward expanding whenever possible. No one should be at all surprised if Cnooc begins to eye the possibilities of deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico or even to start buying up U.S.-based independent producers such as Berry Petroleum (NYSE: BRY) or Plains Exploration & Production (NYSE: PAA).

While the era of colonization is over, the age of the corporation is here and here to stay. Cnooc, which is partially public-owned and whose ADRs are traded on the NYSE under the ticker CEO, is setting up corporate colonies all over the world with three facts in mind: There’s only so much oil left. The Chinese government wants it. The Chinese government will pay for it.

Growing Chinese control over the world’s natural resources is inevitable. Investors who position their portfolio to benefit from these large government actions appear to be putting themselves in a position to profit, either from ownership in Cnooc or by taking positions in companies with assets Cnooc needs.


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