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These are stories Report on Business is following Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014.

Follow Michael Babad and The Globe's Business Briefing on Twitter.

Oil and water
Several things come to mind when we're talking about the world's most coveted liquids: Champagne, wine, whisky, perfume and ink are just a few.

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And, of course, oil.

So I was intrigued when George Davis, the chief technical analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, put out his morning report yesterday noting that oil is now cheaper than bottled water.

So intrigued, in fact, that I went to the gas station quickie mart and my corner store, and then hunted online, to see what else I could find.

It turns out that oil was cheaper than many of the world's popular liquids even when it peaked in June at $107.26 (U.S.) a barrel.

But, when you take into account the 50-per-cent collapse in oil prices, along with the dramatic drop in the Canadian dollar, it's a fascinating exercise that highlights just what's going on in the markets, and what it all suggests.

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations (as in, I really did scribble them on the back of an envelope).

West Texas Intermediate oil closed yesterday at $56.47 a barrel. Based on 158.99 litres per barrel, the cost a litre of oil was about 35.5 cents. The Canadian dollar closed at 85.93 cents, so on a straight conversion one litre of oil was worth about 41.3 cents Canadian.

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Compare that to when crude peaked on June 20, when a litre of U.S. oil was about 67.5 cents U.S. The loonie closed that day at a much higher 92.96 cents, valuing WTI at some 72.6 cents Canadian on a straight conversion.

Here are some comparisons from last night:

Bottled water has indeed held its value while crude has crashed from its mid-year peak. An 18.9-litre jug of Cedar Springs natural spring water costs $8.95, or just over 47 cents a litre, compared to oil's 41.3 cents yesterday and 72.6 cents in June. (Depending on how you like it, by the way, Cedar Springs reverse osmosis water costs the same as the natural spring stuff.)

If you want to get fancy and go for Perrier, it's $1.99 for 500 millilitres, or $3.98 a litre.

(For the health freaks out there, I couldn't get my head around the cost of making kale smoothies.)

Moving on up, a keg of Molson Canadian (because, of course, I am) is $122.95 for 20,000 millilitres at The Beer Store in Ontario. That's 20 litres, or about $6.15 a litre. So it costs more than oil, but it's much foamier.

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At the higher end, Canadian Club Dock 57 Spiced Whisky sells at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario at $26 for a 750-millilitre bottle, which comes to about $34.67 a litre. So it costs more than both oil and beer, but it's far smoother.

(I went searching for the world's cheapest whisky, and found something dated from a couple of years ago about Armaan's Black Booster, from Kadco in Sierra Leone, which reportedly sold at $3.65 (U.S.) for five litres. Which means about 73 cents, or 85 cents in Canada. So we're getting closer. And, it comes in a big plastic jug that you can probably reuse for watering the lawn.)

Two-litre bottles of Coke and Pepsi were on sale at the gas station – two (mix-and-match!) for $5. Which means one for $2.50, or $1.25 a litre. But it's bubblier than oil.

Then there's the stuff you drink to prep for a colonoscopy. You buy it for $27.49 and mix it with four litres of water, so let's say it's worth $6.87 a litre.

But you'd rather drink oil.

The cost
The oil rout is sweeping through Canada's oil patch as companies slash their costs and, in some cases, projects.

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True, lower prices at the gas pump are expected to save the average Canadian family about $300 a year, according to Toronto-Dominion Bank forecasts, and the weaker dollar will boost the nation's exporters.

Some regions will suffer, and others benefit.

But there will be an overall toll.

New economist projections have been rolling out, the latest today from Nomura Securities, which forecasts that the oil crunch will shave 0.5 of a percentage point off economic growth in Canada next year.

That's the direct impact, not taking into consideration other factors, said Nomura's Charles St-Arnaud.

"With oil prices now about 45 per cent lower compared with June, reaching less than $60 a barrel, certain oil projects in Canada are reaching non-economic levels," Mr. Arnaud said.

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"As a first step, this means that some investment projects are likely to be delayed, postponed or simply cancelled. This will have an impact on business investment next year, causing a drag on growth next year, if oil prices remain low."

As The Globe and Mail's Jeff Lewis reports, just yesterday Husky Energy Inc. and MEG Energy Corp. kicked off a new wave of cuts in capital spending.

Penn West Petroleum Ltd., in turn, slashed its dividend.

And as The Globe's Jeffrey Jones writes, Chevron Corp. killed off plans to drill a deep-water well in the Beaufort Sea.

Russian crisis deepens
Businesses and money are fleeing Russia in a sign of ever-deepening troubles, and other countries are suffering from the fallout.

Apple Inc. was one of the first major players, announcing earlier this week that it was suspending online sales as the ruble crashed.

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Then today, Opel, the European arm of General Motors Co., said it is suspending shipments of vehicles to its Russian dealers, as have others.

"In view of the volatility of ruble exchange rate and with the aim to manage its business risk GM Russia has decided to temporarily suspend wholesaling of vehicles to its dealers in Russia as of Dec. 16, 2014," Opel said.

"At the same time we confirm that all Cadillacs, Opels and Chevrolets already purchased by customers will be delivered on the agreed price. We are monitoring the situation."

GM has also scaled back production to one shift at its St. Petersburg's operations, at the same time hiking vehicle prices "to manage our business risk related to the volatility of the ruble."

Apple and GM aren't alone. As The Globe and Mail's Brian Milner reports, three currency trading platforms halted dealing in rubles.

Ikea is also reportedly halting sales of appliances and kitchen furniture, but that's because it can't keep up as Russians scramble to buy higher-value goods to protect themselves against the erosion of their currency.

As in, it's better to put your money into a dishwasher than a bank.

And like some others, McDonald's and Cartier have reportedly hiked prices.

Money is also fleeing the country amid the stunning drop in its currency, and as it heads into what is expected to be a brutal recession with the collapse in oil prices.

And that's causing problems for others, notably the Swiss, who moved today to defend against the fallout.

The Swiss National Bank surprised markets , announcing plans for a negative interest rate on deposit accounts above a certain mark.

It's a bid to push down Libor rates and hold down the franc.

Or, as Scotiabank's chief currency strategist Camilla Sutton put it, removing the incentive to want to put your money in Switzerland.

"The Swiss National Bank has escalated the length a central bank will go to protect its sovereign currency by reducing its interest rate to negative 0.25 per cent," said market analyst Alastair McCaig of IG in London.

"The last couple of years have seen the SNB battle to keep the [euro to the franc] pegged to the €1.20 level, and this latest action highlights the strength of its conviction to keep this going."

Today, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to calm the waters with an annual talk, the chief of the Swiss National Bank, Thomas Jordan, outlined the impact.

"The Swiss franc has been experiencing renewed upward pressure vis-à-vis the euro in the last few days," Mr. Jordan said.

"Rapidly mounting uncertainty on the financial markets has substantially increased demand for safe investments," he added.

"The worsening of the crisis in Russia was a major contributory factor in this development."

At the same time, Mr. Putin, whose country has been hit by lower oil prices, Western sanctions and the tensions in Ukraine, said his economy would recover in time.

"All seems to be well for him in his Moscow bubble, and at least as he speaks the dollar only buys around 60 rubles, not quite as many as the 70 it bought 24 hours ago," said Will Hedden of IG in London.

"In a speech much more likely to hold up to scrutiny, interesting comments from the Swiss National Bank's Thomas Jordan told us that events in Russia have had a big impact on the [franc]."

Russia's central bank tried to stem the ruble rout earlier this week with a middle-of-the-night interest rate hike to 17 per cent.

Economists have suggested Russia will have to do more, possibly via capital controls, though Mr. Putin today unveiled no solutions.

"He appeared to offer little in the way of a solution to the crisis, instead assuring people that the recession would pass in the next couple of years as the global demand for oil recovers," said market analyst Craig Erlam of Alpari.

"While his still strangely high popularity may mean he doesn't receive a backlash from the Russian public for his inaction at a time of great distress for the country, the markets aren't quite as forgiving and the dollar quickly rallied to 64 against the ruble before stabilizing around 61," Mr. Erlam added.

"Once again, Putin is relying on nationalistic pride to get him through this, claiming the West is trying to put the 'bear on a leash' and pull out its teeth. While this may work in his favour for now, once the economic troubles hit people hard, they may not be as willing to accept it."

Couche-Tard in deal
Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. has struck a $1.7-billion (U.S.) deal, including debt, to acquire the 1,500-unit U.S. convenience-store chain The Pantry Inc., The Globe and Mail's Bertrand Marotte reports.

The all-cash transaction values The Pantry at $36.75 per share.

Couche-Tard president and chief executive Brian Hannasch said the company is well positioned in the fast-growing U.S. Southeast and Gulf Coast region.

Analysts and investors had been anticipating another takeover after Couche-Tard's successful integration of the retail operations of Norway's Statoil oil-and-gas company, acquired in 2012 for about $2.8-billion.

Couche-Tard abandoned a hostile bid of about $1.4-billion for Casey's General Stores Inc. in 2010.

Barrick suspends Zambian project
Barrick Gold Corp. is suspending operations at its Zambian copper mine after the African government increased mining taxes in the country, The Globe and Mail's Rachelle Younglai reports.

The royalty on open-pit mining will jump to 20 per cent from the current 6 per cent, under the new law that will go into effect Jan.1. Barring any changes, Toronto-based Barrick said it expected to record an impairment charge on the Zambian mine, Lumwana.

"The introduction of this royalty has left us with no choice but to initiate the process of suspending operations at Lumwana," Barrick's co-president Kelvin Dushnisky said in a statement.

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