Why Crude Oil Will Present Investors with a Golden Opportunity in 2009

[Editor's Note: This is the ninth installment of our “Outlook 2009” series, which looks at the global investing outlook for the New Year.]

By Jason Simpkins
Associate Editor
Money Morning

Oil prices have fallen 70% since hitting Outlook 2009a record $147.27 a barrel in July, which means in just five months, crude has given up all the price gains it made in the past four years.

After such a wrenching plunge, many analysts believe the outlook for the “black gold” remains bleak – and in the short term it certainly is. In the long run, however, dwindling supplies, resurgent demand, and a lack of investment will cause crude oil to double, triple, or even quintuple in price over the next few years.

In fact, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) – energy advisor to 28 industrialized nations – says oil will rise to $100 a barrel by 2015, as a result of a major “supply crunch,” and will ultimately soar to $200 a barrel.

But before it does, prices are likely to sink even further, perhaps falling as low as $20 a barrel in the first quarter of the New Year.

Indeed, much of Wall Street expects oil prices to average about $50 a barrel in 2009. Some of the firms and their specific forecasts include:

  • Deutsche Bank AG (DB, which says oil prices will average $47.50 for all of next year.
  • Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. (MER), which predicts that prices will average $50 even.
  • Moody's Investors Service (MCO) also says crude will average $50 a barrel in 2009, but says that average will increase to $55 a barrel for 2010.
  • Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) is slightly more bearish, predicting that prices will average $45 for all of next year – after falling as low as $30 in the 2009 first quarter. (It’s worth noting that Goldman – just five months ago – predicted oil prices would hit $200 a barrel in 2009).

But analysts also agree on something else: When the recessionary tide finally recedes, all of the factors that drove oil to its record high last summer will once again be exposed, and crude again will again soar to record highs.

"We may see prices drop lower – into the twenties, even – but there’s a better-than-average chance that they’ll be back over $70 a barrel by the end of next year,” says Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald. “That's where firms like Goldman and Merrill are getting all of these 'middle-of-the road,' $50-a-barrel estimates. And it’s why investors who buy in through the first quarter could enjoy compelling returns at the end of the year."

In the meantime, however, low oil prices are crimping investment in new capacity, a reality that will lead to much higher prices down the road.

Just ask the IEA.

IEA: Rising Demand + Lack of Investment = ‘Supply Crunch’

The IEA forecast 2008 global oil demand to slide 0.2%, or 200,000 barrels per day (bpd), to 85.8 million bpd on average. But the IEA also says that oil demand will rise 1.6% a year on average between 2006 and 2030.

The bottom line: Regardless of any short-term pullback, daily demand will rise from the current level of 86 million barrels to 106 million barrels in 2030. To meet that demand, the agency estimates that the world needs $26.3 trillion in supply-side investments over the next 21 years

China, India and other developing countries, alone, will need investments of $360 billion a year through 2030, the agency said.

About 7 million bpd of additional capacity needs to be added to the market by 2015. And right now – because of marketplace changes – the financial incentives to make that happen just don’t exist.

Exploration costs have more than quadrupled since 2000, as oil producers have been forced to take on more complex projects, and the costs of both labor and materials have skyrocketed. At the same time, the steep drop in oil prices has put even more pressure on energy companies to curtail their investments rather than increase them.

Earlier this year, for instance, ConocoPhillips (COP) and Saudi Arabia Investment Co. (ARAMCO) were forced to postpone bidding on the construction of a 400,000 bpd export refinery at the Yanbu Industrial City.

"We see and hear about energy investments being delayed ... this is a major worry and could lead to a supply crunch and much higher oil prices than we've seen before," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist.

The IEA predicts that, by 2015, a lack of investment and rising demand will create a "supply crunch" – that will once again send oil prices up into the triple digits.

“There remains a real risk that under-investment will cause an oil supply crunch in that time frame,” the IEA said in an executive summary of its “2008 World Energy Outlook.” “The gap between what is currently being built and what will be needed to keep pace with demand is set to widen sharply after 2010.”

The agency predicts that crude will average more than $100 a barrel from 2008 to 2015 and rise above $200 a barrel by 2030, as demand far outpaces supply.

“While the situation facing the world is critical, it is vital we keep our eye on the medium to long-term target of a sustainable energy future," Nobuo Tanaka, the Paris-based agency's executive director, told reporters in London. "While market imbalances will feed instability, the era of cheap oil is over."

While it’s probably true that the “era of cheap oil” is in our rearview mirror, a new question has arisen: Just how high do oil prices go?

According to some analysts, the IEA’s target price of $200 a barrel is far too conservative.

$500 Oil?


The lack of exploration and development is certainly a problem. But a much bigger issue is the fact that output from the world’s existing oil fields has sharply declined.

“The future rate of decline in output from producing oilfields as they mature is the single most important determinant of the amount of new capacity that will need to be built globally to meet demand,” the IEA says.

And output from the world’s oilfields is declining faster than previously thought.

In its “2007 World Energy Outlook,” the IEA estimated that output from the world's existing oilfields was declining by 3.7% a year. But in its latest report, published in November, the IEA revised that estimate to an annual decline of 6.7%. (The November report was based on the first major study of the world's 800 largest oil fields.)

Unfortunately, the IEA is behind the curve.

For nearly a decade, Matthew R. Simmons has said that the world’s oil production was nearing – or already at – an “inflection point.” While his book "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy," was scoffed at when it was originally published back in 2005, Simmons is now viewed as perhaps the preeminent expert on the so-called “peak oil” movement.

Like most people who ignore conventional wisdom, he was scoffed at, ridiculed, and denied," commodities guru Jim Rogers told Fortune magazine. "And now, of course, people are starting to say, ‘Oh, well, I thought of that.’"

Simmons, chairman of the Houston-based investment bank Simmons & Co. International, poured through hundreds of technical documents submitted by Saudi oil geologists to the Society of Petroleum Engineers over the past 50 years.

“I finished reading the last paper on a Sunday afternoon,” Simmons told Fortune, “and I sat back and thought, ‘Holy crap, this is unbelievable. I’ve just discovered the biggest energy illusion ever in the world. We’re in big trouble. I’m going to write a book.’ ”

Much of the alleged Saudi Arabia subterfuge has to do with a complete lack of transparency with respect to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. After OPEC decided to base its production quotas on reserve figures in the 1980s, several of the cartel's producers suddenly raised their levels of  "proven reserves" by 40% or more.

Back in 1988, for instance, Saudi Arabia raised its proven-reserve figure from 170 billion barrels to about 260 billion barrels. That figure has remained more or less constant since then, despite the fact that billions of barrels of oil have been pumped out of the ground.

"Saudi Arabia has announced for 20 years in a row that they have 260 billion barrels of oil in reserve," Rogers told Money Morning during an exclusive interview in Singapore recently.  "It’s astonishing.  The figure never goes up and it never goes down.  They have produced dozens of millions – billions – of dollars of oil in that period of time.

Every oil country in the world has declining reserves except Saudi Arabia,” Rogers said. “And I know that every oil company has declining reserves.  So unless somebody discovers a lot of oil very quickly in very accessible areas, the surprise is going to be how high the price stays, and how high it goes.”

Simmons thinks oil prices could hit $300 a barrel – and could possibly even surge as high as $500 a barrel – during the next several years.

“Black Gold” Profit Plays

When it comes to investing, the oil sector poses some very clear risks, especially given the murky near-term outlook. However, there are a number of large-cap integrated oil companies that may offer some truly compelling values at current prices.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chevron Corp. (CVX) are currently trading at multi-year lows, making them exceptionally cheap in both relative and absolute terms. These companies also have strong balance sheets (Exxon is “AAA”- rated and has more cash on its balance sheet than debt), generate strong cash flows, and have traditionally increased their dividends on a regular basis.

Chevron was actually recommended as a “Buy” by Money Morning Contributing Editor Horacio Marquez in his “Buy, Sell or Hold” column earlier this year.

“Chevron is the kind of company that is capable of continuing to post large profits - propelling its share higher from current levels – even if oil-and-gas prices were to drop from current levels over the next three years,” Marquez said. “That’s because Chevron’s business is well cushioned, since refining, marketing and chemicals margins would expand dramatically if market ‘spot’ prices were to decline. Also, the company’s production is poised to expand strongly and Chevron uses some selective hedging that works very well in downside oil markets.”

Offshore drillers, particularly those capable of drilling in the deepest waters, also offer value at current levels. Petroleo Brasileiro (PBR), also known as Petrobras, is particularly appealing, as it recently discovered one of the largest offshore oil fields on earth off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Known as Carioca, the field could hold 33 billion barrels of oil and gas, making the world’s largest discovery in at least 32 years.

Fitz-Gerald, the Money Morning investment director, suggests investors look at China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC Ltd. (ADR: CEO). The Hong Kong-based company recently got approval for a $29 billion exploration project in the South China Sea. The company expects to produce 50 million tons of oil equivalent per year from that region during the next 10-20 years. That would equal the production of China's biggest project, the Daqing Oil Field.

Petrobras and CNOOC are also attractive because, as foreign companies, they will also get a boost from any devaluation in the U.S. dollar.

All of these companies have been hit hard by the combination of commodity-price weakness and credit market turmoil. But these operators do not require peak-cycle commodity prices to generate stellar results and have little or no credit-market exposure.

For a more direct play on oil prices, you might also try an exchange-traded fund (ETF), such as the United States Oil Fund LP (USO), the iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Total Return Fund (OIL), or the United States Gasoline Fund LP  (UGA).

[Editor’s Note: As the whipsaw trading patterns energy investors have endured this year have shown, the ongoing financial crisis has changed the investment game forever. Uncertainty is now the norm and that new reality alone has created a whole set of new rules that will help determine who profits and who loses. Investors who ignore this “New Reality” will struggle, and will find their financial forays to be frustrating and unrewarding. But investors who embrace this change will not only survive – they will thrive.

Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald has already isolated these new rules and has unlocked the key to what he refers to as “The Golden Age of Wealth Creation.” But Fitz-Gerald brings more than a realization – and an understanding – to the table, here. After a decade of work, he’s also developed a new computerized trading model based on a mathematical concept known as “fractals.” This system allows him to predict price movements of broad indexes, or individual stocks, with a high degree of certainty. And it’s particularly well suited to the kind of market we’re all facing right now. Check out our latest report on these new rules, and this new market environment.]

News and Related Story Links:

  • Saudi-U.S. Relations.org:
    Yanbu Industrial City