The signs are everywhere that oil is headed for stratospheric highs - $200, $250 or even $300 a barrel. Some of these signs are just plain obvious. But even the subtle indicators are telling us that some very expensive energy costs headed our way.
Let me tell you about one such indicator that I came across over the New Year holiday. A tiny news item said that Saudi Arabian oil concern Aramco is abandoning a lease on Caribbean oil storage, and further reported that PetroChina Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: PTR) is moving in to take Aramco's place.
Most investors here in the West - if they even read the item - would've dismissed it as just another minor business transaction, one among the thousands that take place each day. But this particular deal was much more than that. It's another indication of China's continued global emergence. And it also underscores this country's relegation to the growing legion of "former" world powers that have been eviscerated by the financial crisis that they created.
In case you missed the story, let me share the details, and then explain what I believe those details actually mean.
The supertankers, each of which can hold over 2 million barrels of oil, are steaming "all ahead full" to deliver their stores of crude, heating oil and other distillates to the United States.
Their clients - which include several huge Wall Street investment firms - are eager to unwind what's become known as the oil storage trade.
The way we price it. The places we trade it. The companies that stand to profit most.
It's all about to change.
This was confirmed at a meeting I just attended in The City, London's financial district. I arrived from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport for an unusual Saturday morning gathering of bankers, traders and analysts called only days before.
The subject? A new oil-pricing index.
This is huge.
More oil-project funding is raised within a three-mile radius of The City's Liverpool Street train station than anywhere else on Earth. And now they're preparing to control the oil trade, as well.
This will create all kinds of new ways to make money in oil. Not just with fancy financial instruments designed for the "big boys," but with retail investments, too. So there's money in this for you.
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- Total SA (NYSE ADR: TOT) will pay up to $2.25 billion for a 25% stake in Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s (NYSE: CHK) assets in the Barnett Shale natural gas field in North Texas, Total said yesterday (Monday). Total will pay $800 million for the stake, and up to $1.45 billion for as long as six years by funding 60% of Chesapeake's costs in the field. The Barnett Shale field is the biggest producer of natural gas in the United States and accounted for 52% of Chesapeake's third-quarter output.
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- In what's been called a "perplexing" move by one analyst, the U.S. Treasury lifted a $200 billion cap on the amount of taxpayer dollars that can be injected into ailing mortgage firms Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) , providing unlimited support to them. The Treasury put into $60 billion into Fannie and $51 billion into Freddie, and were unlikely to need more than the $200 billion cap, wrote Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. analyst Bose George in a note to investors yesterday (Monday). George views the Treasury's move as a way to more aggressively prop the U.S. housing market, and said the government could step up efforts of its Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), a mortgage-modification program designed for homeowners who can no longer afford them. But so far, HAMP and other government props have failed to stop a continuing wave of foreclosures, as Money Morning reported last fall. Shares of the firms, both government-sponsored enterprises (GSE) skyrocketed in trading yesterday. Fannie was up 20.95% to close at $1.27, while Freddie gained 26.98% to close at $1.60.
Oil prices staged a remarkable rally this year on the back of a weak dollar and a nascent economic recovery. In 2010, it's likely that these same factors will combine with an increase in global energy demand to push oil prices back up over $100 a barrel.
With stockpiles still high and energy demand rebounding sluggishly, most forecasts are calling for the "black gold" to edge up into the low-triple-digit price range. That's 40% higher than where oil is trading right now - but is still well below the record high of nearly $150 a barrel that was established in 2008.
Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald is even more bullish. He believes that a price of $100 a barrel is "easily attainable" and says that some sort of unforeseen market shock could cause crude oil to spike as high as $150 barrel by the end of 2010.
I've known Sergei for almost two decades now. We compare notes whenever I'm in Moscow. This time, I briefed his team on key developments in the international oil markets. And, as usual, I came away from the meetings with some incredibly valuable information - information the public simply can't get on its own.
So let me share what I've just learned. It's a tremendous opportunity to profit from Russian oil - without investing a dime in the country itself. Indeed, as you'll see in a minute, there are several ways to make money right here at home.
First, here's what's going on.
But U.S. oil companies have signed surprisingly few development contracts – and foreign rivals have swooped in to scoop up major deals.
Take last weekend, when Iraq wrapped up the biggest oil-field auction in history. Major new deals were announced by Europe's Royal Dutch Shell PLC (NYSE: RDS.A , RDS.B), OAO Gazprom (OTC ADR: OGZPY), Lukoil (OTC ADR: LUKOY), China's China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), and Malaysia's Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas).
The U.S. oil majors – ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) and Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) – were nowhere to be seen.
Exxon, which hasn't made a major acquisition since it bought Mobil ten years ago, is taking advantage of the low gas prices pressuring smaller, debt-laden gas exploration companies. The economic downturn and discoveries of vast pools of North American natural gas have kept a lid on gas prices, leaving companies in the industry strapped for operating cash.
The deal announced yesterday (Monday) values XTO at $51.69 a share, 25% higher than Friday's closing price. XTO holders will get 0.7098 share of Exxon for each share of XTO. The Texas-based oil giant will also assume $10 billion in debt.
The traditional Russian oil fields in Western Siberia are well past peak production. Some satellite fields in the region remain, but the extraction gains will be marginal.
My sources in Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology (MNRE), the government entity responsible for distribution and oversight of development leases, now acknowledge that the country's overall crude oil production could decline by more than 7% over the next several years.
In a Money Morning column last December, I predicted that "commodities may be due for a recovery in 2009." It's always nice to be right, but I have to say the move in some commodities has surprised me. Just look at the performance figures for the 12-month period that ended in mid-November.
When it comes to commodities, most of 2010 will be a reasonably close repeat of 2009. You may think that sounds dull - until you look at the accompanying chart (see chart below) and realize just how much more there is to go.
Although the rally started at an admittedly low point in January, by mid-November it was very clear that commodities were once again in a major bull market. A few commodities have been left out - coal, natural gas and many foodstuffs have experienced lackluster performance - but many of the others (such as the metals, in particular) have had an exceptional year.
Stocks rocked and rolled on Friday as traders reacted to a better-than-expected jobs report for November. Payrolls dropped just 11,000 and the unemployment rate fell to 10%. The consensus was expecting a payroll drop of 100,000 and the unemployment to remain at 10.2%. Sure, employers still made cuts. But by all indications were on the cusp of a job market turnaround.
An initial early morning blast took small cap stocks up as much as 3% before sellers emerged. The main concern was that a strong economy will force the U.S. Federal Reserve to drop its easy money policy that has it purchasing some $3 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) per day while keeping short-term interest rates pegged near zero. The futures market now pegs the probability of an interest rate increase by August 2010 at 100%.