Market Analysis

The EU’s Holey Natural Gas Conservation Plan

Rationing may yet happen, but this week’s agreement doesn’t guarantee it.

Here are two things that seem related but—on a closer look—aren’t: Tuesday, the IMF sounded the global recession alert, citing the potential for a severe winter energy shortage in Europe. Also Tuesday, the European Commission agreed on a natural gas conservation plan for EU member states.

The IMF’s latest projection may or may not prove correct about those shortages, but in our view, that is less important than the fact that it echoes the past several weeks’ worth of fearful headlines, which stocks have already moved on. Therefore, what matters from here is how reality evolves compared to baked-in expectations. That is where the EU’s move comes in. Read the finer points, and we think it becomes evident the conservation plan mostly kicks the can and doesn’t automatically tee up tough cuts that would take German industry offline and guarantee a eurozone recession.

The EU’s plan is not energy or electricity rationing. Heck, it isn’t even rationing. It is a loose agreement for most member states to voluntarily reduce natural gas consumption by -15% from the average amount each used over the past five years. It won’t apply to islands (Ireland, Cyprus and Malta), which are disconnected from Continental supply lines. It doesn’t have a clear enforcement mechanism, which is jargon for a clear answer to “or what?” It doesn’t mandate how to curb consumption. It leaves loopholes for countries that have full gas reserves, “are heavily dependent on gas as a feedstock for critical industries,” or have sharply raised consumption over the past year (exposing them to severe hardship if they go -15% below the prior average).[i] It also offers exemptions for countries that don’t draw much gas from Continental pipelines and feed gas into the system for their neighbors. And while it leaves room for the cuts to become mandatory if the European Commission declares a “Union alert,” details on what would trigger that aren’t sketched out yet (beyond a request from five member states to do so).

In other words, this is a loose plan with more holes than Swiss cheese, which makes sense considering the Commission’s original plan drew objections from many EU governments. In our view, it seems mostly about appearing to do something while appeasing the member states in opposition to the plan when it was first floated last week. It nods kindly to nations that would take a severe hit to living standards and economic output—much like the EU’s energy sanctions against Russia did. It also nods to those, like Spain, which aren’t reliant on Russian gas for energy and don’t appreciate having to sacrifice for others, like Germany, that haven’t diversified their suppliers over the years. In that way, it is a fun-house mirror image of member states’ stances on bailouts during the eurozone crisis, which, irony can be pretty ironic sometimes. Behold the age-old collision of solidarity and self-interest.

But we digress. The main goal here, which may or may not work, is to cut consumption enough that gas from all sources can flow to the nations that need it this winter if Russia keeps supplies through the Nordstream 1 pipeline at a trickle or less. A -15% curb is a big ask, but it isn’t insurmountable. In France, for instance, nuclear energy is the main source of electricity, with natural gas largely confined to heating and air conditioning. So reducing demand there basically amounts to turning down the thermostat. Spain and Portugal are eyeing the exemption for well-supplied countries. Germany has more of a pickle, but fall-back plans there are already in the works to restart idled coal plants to fill a potential energy shortfall. There is also talk of pausing the final steps of the nuclear phase-out, allowing the remaining reactors to stay online. Additionally, the exemption for countries that rely on natural gas as a feedstock for key industries could also help, given its importance to Germany’s mighty chemical industry.

We don’t know how all of this will shake out. But it does seem clear that there are too many questions and too much complexity for it to make sense to pencil in a rationing-induced recession today. Even if one does occur—and even if a recession in general is underway now—it is questionable whether it would mean much for stocks at this juncture. Several European countries are in bear markets in euros, meaning, their declines aren’t a product of currency depreciation. That is pretty consistent with stocks pricing in an economic slide. Headlines have warned of this slide for months, with energy shortages cited as the chief driver. So if voluntary or eventually mandatory cuts indeed play into this, we mostly see it as reality mirroring the expectations that stocks have already priced in. That doesn’t point to a severe market downturn from here—rather, we think it would be right in line with stocks getting confirmation that the thing they feared is happening. Often, that enables markets to get over the fear and get on with life.

[i] “Member States Commit to Reducing Gas Demand by 15% Next Winter,” Council of the EU.

If you would like to contact the editors responsible for this article, please click here.

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.