historical oil prices
Mexico is the third biggest exporter of oil to the United States. That's bad news for the U.S. economy which always gets hit when oil prices rise.
From 2004 to 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy reports such jolts, along with OPEC price manipulation, cost roughly $1.9 trillion. Plus, a recession followed each major blow.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Mexican oil production reached a peak of 3.2 million barrels a day in 2008. And by 2011, it wasn't even producing 3 million barrels a day.
Since then oil production has slipped to 2.5 million barrels a day.
Worse still, Mexico could actually become a net importer of oil within a decade if it cannot find fresh discoveries to make up for the 25% production drop since 2004 and fails to change its current policies.
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Well, not this time.
During the run up to mid-$4 gas and $147 a barrel oil in 2008, many assumed these costs would continue to advance. That made alternative sources - especially renewables such as solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal - more attractive to investors, politicians, and energy enthusiasts.
Alternative sources are more expensive than conventional oil, gas, or coal. They are, however, more environmentally friendly. Paying those higher costs was regarded as a tradeoff for cleaner energy sources and a reduction in emissions.
Today, that view has changed.
U.S. Oil and Gas Squeezes Alternative Energy ProspectsIt's part of the reason why I've recently avoided alternative energy companies like First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR), Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ) or SunPower Corporation (Nasdaq: SPWR) in my Energy Advantage portfolio.
The economic downturn has made reliance on more expensive energy sources a difficult proposition to accept. Renewables are hardly a convincing argument anymore, especially during a sluggish economic recovery.
Yes, increasing oil and gas prices should reduce the spread between conventional and renewable, thereby providing stronger arguments for change. And proponents argue that alternatives provide an enhanced advantage given that they can also be domestically produced.
Just don't bet on these arguments holding up this time. Here's why.
Releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).
Trial balloons floated all over Washington during the past few days. The only reason politicians didn't move on this sooner (say a few months ago) was the price level.
Until the last month or so, both oil and gasoline prices were heading in the other direction. Near-month futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the crude oil benchmark traded on the NYMEX, were below $78 a barrel in intraday trade toward the end of June, while the same futures for RBOB (the NYMEX traded gasoline contract) were at $2.55 a gallon.
At the time, all the sage pundits predicted that oil would fall below $60 a barrel; some even suggested that prices could approach $40. On the gasoline side, these same wise guys were proclaiming we may see prices at the pump breach $3.
Everything has changed quickly.
Yesterday morning the markets opened with WTI 23% higher than late June and RBOB up by more than 20%. Oil stands at more than $96 a barrel in New York, while Brent has exceeded $116 a barrel in London. And retail gas prices are once again approaching $4 a gallon.
Recently, I discussed why oil prices are moving up. But for some politicians, including the fellow running for reelection at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, those prices are becoming a job liability.
So it's back to hitting the SPR.
But there are four reasons why tapping the SPR won't make oil prices any cheaper in the end.
Maybe you should let your Congressman know about them...
According to the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), the current system of oil price reporting is "susceptible to manipulation or distortion."
Comparisons to Libor manipulation have been made because oil prices, such as Brent, serve as a benchmark for trillions of dollars of securities and contracts.
There is the potential for market participants to manipulate oil price assessments published by price-reporting agencies (PRA) through the submission of false information and selective reporting of deals.
Traders at various banks voluntarily report the prices they pay for oil contracts to Platts and other PRAs. Platts, which provides the most influential assessment, uses a number of trades to decide what the benchmark price, quoted to the outside world, should be.
That is where the trouble begins.
Benchmark crude slid $1.95 Wednesday to finish the day at $89.90 per barrel.
The decline came on the heels of several weeks of slipping oil, sparked by a plethora of less than stellar economic reports. The concerning data mostly involved Europe's ongoing sovereign debt saga.
Oil gained 0.5% in early afternoon New York trading Thursday, but the reasons for the rally were unclear.
"You don't know if this is just a short-covering rally or the start of a more significant rally," Andy Lebow, an oil analyst with Jefferies, told The Wall Street Journal. Lebow said that progress in the talks between Iran and Western powers about Tehran's nuclear ambitions could have spurred Thursday's price reversal.
If the gain isn't maintained, however, prices could head closer to $85 a barrel.
The aftermath of the Greek elections propelled the new radical left party SYRIZA into the limelight as the second strongest party in the country. Given the adamant refusal by SYRIZA leadership to accept bailout reforms, the party's new brokering position means the crisis will continue.
Bitter austerity measures await the formation of a coalition government, since no party received a majority of the seats in parliament from the vote. The coalition is supported by both the New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties, which have taken turns ruling Greece for nearly four decades.
But the surprise showing of SYRIZA has thrown the possibility of an accord into disarray.
At best, this means a further delay and likely a new election.
On the other hand, Greece has little time left. Any further delay in forming a government, with no guarantee that a very angry population will vote any differently the next time around, puts the next tranche of the European Union bailout package in jeopardy.
It is now more likely that Greece will leave (or be pushed out of) the Eurozone, casting a greater uncertainty on both the currency and the southern tier of countries still in the zone.
Spain is the current focus of concern, but Italy is also exhibiting renewed weakness.
Unlike Greece, Spain and Italy have debt problems that dwarf the ability of any Brussels-led support package. These economies are simply too large to be "rescued" from the outside.
The concerns over contagion, therefore, may actually expedite a Greek departure earlier than most thought possible.
It is true that any members leaving the Eurozone will have a negative effect upon currency strength and economic prospects. It is also unclear how the Greek departure will aid in shoring up either Spain or Italy. The problems in each of these economies are endemic; they are not primarily a result of "spillovers" from the situation in Greece.
All of which means, to borrow a phrase from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there are a series of "known unknowns" now facing the EU. The credit and banking problems are essentially the "known" part of this equation. The extent of the fallout on the euro as a whole is the massive "unknown" flowing through the calculations.
This is accentuated by recent developments in the two major economies using the euro -- Germany and France. No rescue package for any EU member is possible without the leadership of these two dominant European economies. To date, Paris has emphasized protecting its suspect banking sector, while Berlin has a strong political undercurrent demanding additional protection of German production and trade.
However, the recent French elections, in which a socialist has been elected president, and indications surfacing that the German economy may be facing a slowdown, will put continued support of a "bailout for austerity" approach to Greece in question.
Thus far, both major nations have led the EU-Greek approach, strongly arguing that the preservation of the euro demands it. The dramatic political events unfolding in Athens are rapidly undermining that support.
And this has impacted the price of oil.
It appears those concerns are going to be short lived.
According to a report by the IMF this morning, Chinese GDP will rebound strongly to 8.8% in 2013, up from a dip to 8.2% in 2012, propelled largely by increased domestic consumer consumption.
That's important to note since the Chinese also need reliable energy sources to continue this remarkable, ongoing boom.
After all, China needs to procure oil supplies from around the globe to facilitate this sort of growth.
Having heard this refrain so many times, I thought I'd dig a little deeper.
After all, a peak of $145 per barrel in the West Texas Intermediate oil price pretty well coincided with the onset of the 2008 recession.
The question is whether or not high oil prices are always correlated with an inevitable downturn.
For instance, when you look closer, oil was not to blame in 2008. Other factors were much more serious culprits, including the housing crisis (by then in market collapse) and the banking crisis that followed.
Between them they are the hallmarks of financial crisis that brought on the nasty recession.
To find out why, we need to do a little arithmetic.
High Oil Prices and the EconomyThe U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down personal consumption expenditures (PCEs) on energy versus other items on a month-by-month basis.
The PCE on energy goods (which include natural gas and electricity) rose from 5.05% of total PCE in 2004 to 5.88% in 2007 and 6.31% in 2008. When oil prices peaked in July 2008 PCE hit a maximum monthly level of 7.01%.
Thus taking the increase from 2007 to the highest month in 2008, energy PCE rose by 1.13 % of total PCE, or about $115 billion on an annualized basis.
That sounds like a lot of money, but it's well under 1% of GDP.
For example, it's less than the estimated $152 billion cost of former President Bush's ineffective 2008 tax rebate stimulus.
Indeed, it is one-seventh the size of President Obama's stimulus the following year, which didn't have much visible effect. Thus the high oil prices of 2008 might have made the difference between marginal growth and marginal decline, which according to the "butterfly effect" of chaos theory could have caused other larger changes.
However, high oil prices were certainly not sufficient to push an otherwise healthy economy into recession.
How can the price of oil be declining, yet the price of gasoline remain so high?
At close of trade yesterday, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark futures crude oil contract for the near out month in NYMEX trade had declined 2.6% for the week and 4% for the month.
However, the same contract for RBOB (Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending) - the NYMEX gasoline futures standard - was up 1.6% for the week and 4.2% for the month.
Normally, we expect that movements in the crude oil price, as the single-largest component in oil product prices, would pretty much dictate where gasoline is headed.
And in normal circumstances, that is usually the case.
Welcome to the Unusual Pricing CaseThe current gasoline phenomenon results from several factors:
- Refinery capacity utilization;
- The continuing outsized spread between WTI and Brent oil prices in London; and
- The mix of increasing unconventional domestic oil flow (shale, heavy, tight oils produced in the U.S., synthetic oil from oil sands coming down from Canada); and
Put simply, while we are using more of this new "replacement oil" than we ever have (a good thing for those concerned about reliance on imports from abroad), its use is also adding to the price at the pump.
Of greater importance, however, is the second element: the WTI-Brent pricing environment.
We have talked about this spread on a number of previous occasions. Brent is again selling higher by about 20% to the price of WTI.
That's important when factoring in the actual cost of the feeder stock for refineries.
While the WTI price has been going down (until this morning), Brent has been more subdued. In fact, the Brent price is down only 0.5% over the past month and is slightly higher (also about 0.5%) over the past week.
This year, the U.S. market is likely to be importing on average about 45% to 47% of what it needs on a daily basis. Only a few years ago, that market was dependent on imports for two-thirds of its requirements.
Additionally, American domestic daily production will be close to 10 million barrels, a level not seen since the mid-1990s. That is a result of the acceleration in unconventional extractions in places like the Bakken in North Dakota, the Monterey in California, and Eagle Ford in Texas, as well as for prospects for new basins like the Utica in eastern Ohio.
There's another important question that needs to be asked at this point.
But while that assurance managed to siphon a few dollars off of oil futures, the reality is there's nothing Saudi Arabia - or anyone else, for that matter - can do about rising oil prices.
In fact, crude is still on track to reach $150 a barrel by mid-summer.
As Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi pointed out last week, current oil supplies already exceed global demand by 1 million-2 million barrels per day.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is already breaking its own OPEC-imposed production quota limit, churning out about 10 million barrels of oil per day - close to its 12.5 million barrel capacity.
Yet the effect of that production has been negligible.
Oil is still trading at $106 a barrel on the NYMEX - something that has clearly flummoxed the world's largest oil producer.
"I think high prices are unjustified today on a supply-demand basis," said Naimi. "We really don't understand why the prices are behaving the way they are."
Naimi and his colleagues may not understand oil's price gyrations, but Dr. Kent Moors, an adviser to six of the world's top 10 oil companies and energy consultant to governments around the world, does.
"Despite the excess storage capacity in both the U.S. and European markets and the contracts already at sea, oil traders set prices on a futures curve," said Moors. "In a normal market the price is set at the expected cost of the next available barrel. During times of crisis, on the other hand, that price is determined by the cost of the most expensive next available barrel."
And with tensions with Iran running high, we are currently in crisis mode. Pushed to the brink by Western sanctions, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow channel in the Persian Gulf through which 35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments and at least 18% of daily global crude shipments pass.
If Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, crude oil prices will pop by between $30 and $40 a barrel within hours. Should the strait remain closed for 72 hours, oil trading will push up the barrel price to $180 in New York, and closer to $200 in Europe.
The situation is further complicated by potential military conflict - such as an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
And with indications that Iran will have the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the next 18 to 24 months, Western powers have apparently shifted their focus from halting Iran's nuclear program to sowing instability in the country with the hopes of catalyzing a regime change.
So what does that mean for investors?
Oil futures finished at their highest level in eight months yesterday (Tuesday), with West Texas Intermediate crude jumping 4.2% to settle at $102.96 a barrel on the on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).
The surge came after Iran warned a U.S. aircraft carrier to stay out of the Persian Gulf. The message fueled speculation that Iran will make good on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers.
An average of 14 supertankers carrying one-sixth of the world's oil shipments every day pass through the Strait, a narrow channel which the U.S. Department of Energy calls "the world's most important oil chokepoint."
With global oil demand expected to rise to a record 89.5 million barrels per day in 2012, a major disruption to oil exports from Iran would drastically affect pricing.
Even though Iran has made such threats repeatedly over the past 20 years, tighter sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe may have pushed the country to its breaking point. Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.
Now Iran is expected to trigger oil market performance similar to spring 2011, when Libya's civil war caused oil prices to spike close to $115 a barrel.
In fact, if the Iranian government made good on shutting down the Strait, oil prices would probably shoot up $20 to $30 a barrel within hours and the price of gasoline in the United States would rise by $1 a gallon.
While we can't control Iran's actions, we can control how we prepare for whatever political and economic turmoil it inflicts. That's why it's time to buy the United States Oil Fund LP (NYSE: USO).
Global Political Tensions Will Bolster US Oil FundIran is trying to scare the world out of imposing more sanctions against it, which drastically limit the country's ability to conduct business.
The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama last Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter.
Such a steep spike in crude oil prices would plunge the United States and Europe back into recession, said Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors.
Iran just concluded a 10-day military exercise intended to prove to the West that it can choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil whenever it wants.
The world's fourth-biggest oil producer is unhappy with fresh U.S. financial sanctions that will make it harder to sell its oil, which accounts for half of the government's revenue.
"Tehran is making a renewed political point here. The message is - we can close this anytime we want to," said Moors, who has studied Iran for more than a decade. "The oil markets are essentially ignoring the likelihood at the moment, but any increase in tensions will increase risk assessment and thereby pricing."
One reason the markets haven't reacted much to Iran's latest rhetoric is that although it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz many times over the past 20 years, it has never followed through on the threat.
But a fresh wave of Western sanctions could hurt Iran's economy enough to make Tehran much less cautious.
The latest sanctions, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, will make it far more difficult for refiners to buy crude oil from Iran. And looming on the horizon is further action by the European Union (EU), which next month will consider an embargo of Iranian oil.
"The present United Nations, U.S. and EU sanctions have already had a significant toll," said Moors. "They have effectively prevented Iranian access to main international banking networks. Iran now has to use inefficient exchange mechanisms."
Because international oil trade is conducted in U.S. dollars, Moors said, Iran must have a convenient way to convert U.S. dollars into its home currency or other currencies it needs, such as euros.
Pushed to the BrinkThe impact of the sanctions combined with internal political instability has driven Iran to turn up the volume on its rhetoric.
"Tehran has limited options remaining," Moors said, noting Iran has historically used verbal attacks on the West to distract its population from the country's problems. "The Iranian economy is seriously weakening, the political division among the ayatollahs is increasing, and unrest is rising."
Analysts worry an Iranian government that feels cornered would be more prone to dangerous risk-taking in its dealings with the West. So while totally shutting down the Strait of Hormuz isn't likely, Iran could still escalate a confrontation beyond mere talk.
West Texas Intermediate crude last week dropped below $80 a barrel before bouncing back up to $87 a barrel this week. Meanwhile, Brent crude fell to a six-month low below $100 a barrel before climbing back to $110 a barrel this week.
To hear the mainstream media tell it, much of the drop is based on the assumption that global growth is waning and oil demand is soon to follow.
But that couldn't be more wrong.
Energy is one of the most highly leveraged and most liquid trading vehicles on the planet. A good portion of the decline we've experienced in recent weeks can be explained by nothing more than trading houses raising cash to meet margin calls or redemption requests from hedge funds, pension funds, and other investors.
That's all there is to it. Firms simply need cash and are selling the most easily sellable assets they've got. In the past that's been gold, but lately it's been oil.
Longer-term, demand is still going up and $120 a barrel oil is our next stop, followed by prices of $150 or more in the years ahead.
What's happening now with the markets and energy prices is like being in the eye of a hurricane.
That is, it won't be long before we're once again caught up in the whirlwind growth of emerging markets and energy demand shoots sharply higher.
The Looming Demand DownpourGlobal demand is still rising - and it's not going to slow down any time soon. There are huge swaths of the world now adopting gasoline engines.
Let me give you two examples.
Take the farmers in Cambodia. Many put up sheets in their fields at sunset. They then mount small incandescent light bulbs on sticks behind the sheets. The bulbs are powered by small gasoline generators to ensure they stay on all night.
In the morning, those farmers go back and harvest the thousands of crickets that have collided with the sheet after having been drawn to the lights. They wrap up the fallen bugs and head to the markets where they are sold as food.
It's much the same situation in Africa, where small villages require simple engines to pump water.
You may think bugs and small farm pumps are no big deal, but there's an even greater energy revolution going on in the transportation industry.
In addition to the increased demand we talked about in January, violence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has driven oil prices into the stratosphere. The price of light, sweet crude climbed above $112 a barrel last week, up more than 22% from where it started the year.
A recent pullback has driven prices back down to about $107 a barrel, but don't be fooled. Strong demand in emerging markets, a weak dollar, political turmoil in the MENA region, and a strong speculative sentiment will continue to push oil prices higher.
However, one company that is worth watching is Brigham Exploration Co. (Nasdaq: BEXP).
Brigham is an oil & gas exploration company that's focused on the Bakken Formation in the Montana and North Dakota area of the United States. The company operates on an area of about 200,000 acres and says it could have as many as 1,600 drilling locations on its Bakken property. I would be shocked if it ended up drilling 25% of those locations, but it is always nice to know that there is a solid inventory of prospects waiting in the wings.
Brigham has turned the Bakken into one of the largest on shore fields in America, and the oil that's now being produced there is increasingly valuable. However, equally valuable is the proprietary knowledge Brigham has derived from the project.