[Editor's Note: This report on the global oil market is the latest installment in a series of Money Morning quarterly reports that will examine such topics as gold, housing and U.S. equities. These reports will now be a regular feature at the end of each quarter.]
By Jason Simpkins
Oil has staged an impressive rally since dropping below $35 a barrel in mid-February, soaring 42% in little more than a month to about $50 a barrel.
And while there remains a risk that prices will retreat further due to sluggish demand, there are also three very compelling reasons why oil is still a safe long-term bet:
- OPEC has made substantial progress in reducing the amount of oil on the market.
- The dollar has been made vulnerable by the U.S. Federal Reserve's aggressive policy of quantitative easing.
- And low oil prices and tight credit have reduced global energy investment, putting future supply at risk.
There's no question that downside risk remains. On April 13, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) lowered its demand forecast by 1 million barrels a day, and now expects the world will use about 83.4 million barrels per day in 2009. That would be 2.4 million barrels a day, or 2.8% less than last year.
But so far dwindling demand has failed to contain oil prices.
The futures contract for benchmark crude settled at $49.66 a barrel on March 31, up 11.3% from where it ended 2008. As Money Morning predicted in its annual outlook series, the first quarter was a volatile one, in which oil prices tested the low $30s before surging over $50 in recent market rally.
And analysts are almost completely united in the view that, despite its short-term volatility, declines in production, exploration and development, and the value of the dollar will drive oil prices substantially higher in the years ahead.
OPEC Keeps a Lid on Production
The members of OPEC generated tremendous revenue from oil prices that soared over $147 a barrel last year. However, just as the world's top oil producers began looking for ways to spend their massive stockpiles of cash, prices began a plunge that would see crude lose more than three-quarters of its value.
In a desperate effort to put a floor under oil prices, OPEC – supplier of 40% of the world's oil – has issued three production cuts totaling 4.2 million barrels per day (bpd), or nearly 12% of its capacity, since September.
While the cuts have not yet been able to return oil prices to the group's desired price range of $60-$70 a barrel, the cartel abstained from making any further reductions at its latest meeting in March and even voiced optimism that crude would reach $60 a barrel by the end of the year.
"That suggests to us that not only does OPEC have the firepower to support this oil price but there's enough internal agreement between OPEC members that they can actually achieve it," Tom Nelson, an analyst for the Guinness Atkinson Global Energy Fund told BusinessWeek.
Many analysts had speculated that OPEC members would ignore the quotas and continue to produce oil to generate income, thereby rendering the cuts ineffective. But OPEC's discipline has proven many critics wrong.
Despite foot-dragging from Iran and Venezuela – two countries that rely heavily on oil revenue to fund massive social programs – OPEC has gotten about 80% compliance on the 4.2 million bpd production cut. Historically, the cartel only gets about 60% compliance on such cuts.
As of February, Saudi Arabia accounted for about 46% of the 3.4 million bpd decline in production, according to PFC Energy. And the United Arab Emirates have fully complied with their share of the cuts. Iran's compliance by that time was only 33% and Venezuela had only adhered to half of its commitments.
Still, Abdallah El Badri, OPEC's Secretary General, estimates the production cuts will take about 800,000 bpd of supply off the market, significantly reducing the overhang in global markets, BusinessWeek reported.
OPEC officials from Libya, Algeria, and Iraq have all said that oil prices will reach $60 a barrel by the end of the year.
"One of the reasons why OPEC felt able to roll over quotas was that they do appear to have set a floor for prices," Mike Wittner, an analyst at Societe Generale SA (ADR: SCGLY), told Reuters. "According to a lot of the balances, including ours, if you have OPEC holding steady or cutting a bit more, you get a big, counter-seasonal stock draw in the third quarter."
Crude Thrives on the Diving Dollar
Crude futures doubled from July 2007 to July 2008, soaring from about $74 a barrel to a record-high $147 a barrel. Much of that rise can be attributed to supply and demand, but there was another catalyst for the soaring prices that few investors recognized: The rapid decline of the dollar.
From July 2007 to July 2008 the dollar plunged 16% against the euro. And as the dollar became less valuable the cost of commodities around the world skyrocketed.
At the time, inflation – not deflation – was the predominant concern among the world's leading economists, as a decade of low interest rates and unconstrained lending in the United States sucked the life out of the dollar. And while inflation is nowhere near the levels it reached last year, it's important to recognize that the policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve are no less inflationary.
The Fed has cut its benchmark lending rate to a range of 0%-0.25%, and last month, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the central bank would purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities and $750 billion of mortgage-backed securities as it pursues a policy of quantitative easing.
This announcement by the Fed, along with a corresponding rise in equities, has been the driving force behind oil's recent rally.
"Alaron Trading Corp. told The Associated Press. "It's not an oil market anymore. It's a stock-currency market because that's what we're reacting to right now."," Phil Flynn, an analyst at
Ultimately, the same fear of inflation that typically drives investors into the gold market is similarly buoying oil prices. And even though the dollar has yet to be seriously affected, there's no ignoring the fact that its value has been imperiled.
"The recent announcement by the U.S. Federal Reserve of its intention to purchase over $1 trillion worth of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities has served to put additional pressure on the value of the dollar as this is viewed by the market as creating a lower yield and fanning the flames of inflation," Wall Street Strategies' senior research analyst Conley Turner told Xinhua.
The Coming Oil Price Shock
Now that a weak dollar and reduced production have bolstered oil prices, there is a growing concern about how much higher crude will climb once demand returns. Tighter lending conditions and a trough in oil prices have badly crimped investment and jeopardized future supplies.
More expensive energy projects such as oil sands have been put on hold and the number of drilling rigs at marginal shallow-water fields around the world has been scaled back to a three-year low.
Oil drilling activity dropped 43% in the 12 months through March, with year-over-year oil exploration in the United States alone down 38%. High bids for offshore drilling rights in the central Gulf of Mexico fell by more than 80% compared with last year.
OPEC has said that with oil generating substantially less revenue as many as 35 new projects could be delayed past 2013.
"I have often described unsustainably low oil prices as carrying the seeds of future spikes and volatility. In a low-price environment, the trend is often to focus on survival instead of expansion," said Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister. "If we place a low priority on preparing for the future, that lack of action can come back to haunt us through supply shortages and another round of high prices."
The current economic crisis could reduce future oil supply growth by 8 million bpd, according to a recent study by the Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA).
CERA now says that production will grow by just 7.5 million bpd over the next five years, down from the 14.5 million bpd increase it predicted last summer. According to the research group, as demand recovers throughout that span, production will struggle to keep up and a new commodities bull market, similar to the one seen in 2008 will begin.
"Seven consecutive years of rising oil prices – unprecedented in the history of the oil industry – have come crashing down, thus burying the notion that the commodity price cycle was a historical relic," said the report.
CERA isn't the only organization worried about the lack of investment in new oil projects, either. The International Energy Agency (IEA) – energy advisor to 28 industrialized nations – has also issued warnings about a coming supply crunch.
The IEA estimates daily oil demand will rise from the current level of 86 million barrels to 106 million barrels by 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.
"Unless sufficient companies have the will and financial ability to invest through the downcycle, there is a real risk that supply growth may lag the eventual rebound of demand, leading to substantial price increases – possibly as early as this year," Richard Jones, the IEA's executive director said at a recent conference in London.
Jones estimates that as much as 2 million bpd of expected new oil production has already been deferred.
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.
"," said Alaron Trading Corp.'s Flynn. "The cutbacks we see today are going to lead to a spike somewhere in the future. The big question is when it's going to happen."
News and Related Story Links:
Oil's Fledgling Recovery: Should Investors Jump In?
OPEC Sees Good Reasons to Maintain Production
- The Associated Press:
Oil rally: a boom without long-term support
New York Times:
Rising Fear of a Future Oil Shock
- The Wall Street Journal: