Featured StoryThe uncertainty looming around worldwide economies sent oil prices sinking below $90 a barrel yesterday (Wednesday), a level not seen since October of last year.
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.
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oil price per barrel history
Oil Prices and the Death of Greece
As the Eurozone continues to show weakness, events last weekend in Athens may accelerate the situation. The downward movement in oil prices this week in both London and on the NYMEX testified to the rising concern.
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.
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Stable Oil Prices are the Key to Chinese Growth
Last week, oil prices dropped on concerns that Chinese demand might begin to slip.
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.
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Oil and Gasoline: A Tale of Two Prices
A number of you have contacted me asking some variation of the same question.
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.
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Not Even Saudi Arabia Can Save Us From High Oil Prices
With oil prices soaring ever higher, Saudi Arabia stepped in last week and vowed to increase its production by 25% if necessary.
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?
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Prepare for Iran's Energy Market Chaos with the United States Oil Fund LP (NYSE: USO)
Iran kicked off the New Year with aggressive messages for the Western world, setting the stage for heightened political tensions and a huge oil price push in 2012.
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.
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Should We Be Worried About Iran?
If the Iranian government makes good on its recent threats to stop oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, oil prices would shoot up $20 to $30 a barrel within hours and the price of gasoline in the United States would rise by $1 a gallon.
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.
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Buy, Sell or Hold: Brigham Exploration Co. (Nasdaq: BEXP) is a Strong Growth Play Poised to Profit from Higher Oil Prices
The energy crisis of 2008 - during which oil prices climbed to $147 per barrel before falling to the low $30s - led to some big rewards for investors locked in to the right companies. But with oil prices again approaching $100 a barrel, it's important to remember that not all oil plays are profit machines.
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.