Before I became a strategist back in 2009, I had spent more years than I care to remember working as an oil sector analyst, required to supply a continuous narrative on developments in petroleum markets. So the events of recent weeks, which have seen crude prices in free-fall, haven’t put me under the kind of pressure that I became accustomed to whenever the oil markets took a dramatic turn for the better or the worse.
Even so, I feel a need to provide some analysis here, not least because I have read so much nonsense on the subject of late, particularly where medium- and longer-term prospects are concerned. It was ever thus – a sharp fall in prices inevitably triggers predictions of long-run disaster for the industry, just as surely as a spike provokes dire warnings of sustained disaster for everybody else.
Let me cut to the chase. The recent crash in crude prices is eminently rational, and should indeed have happened quite a long time ago. No political sub-text is required to explain this slump, which is not to say that there are no such sub-texts as, pretty clearly, there are.
Second, things are likely to get worse – a lot worse – before they get better, and markets are likely to be far more glutted with oil by March than they are now.
Third, though, what we are witnessing is not the dawn of an age of cheap energy.
To understand why the slump in oil prices was not just inevitable but long overdue, take a look at the table below, which is based on OPEC data and is expressed in millions of barrels per day (mmb/d).
Comparing 2014 with 2011, demand for oil has increased by 2.9 mmb/d, a number exceeded by the combined total of non-OPEC production (+3.4mmb/d) and non-conventional output from OPEC countries (+0.5 mmb/d). The overall effect has been to squeeze the market’s need for OPEC crude downwards by about 1.0 mmb/d, from 30.3 mmb/d in 2011 to around 29.3 mmb/d this year.
Moreover, this number could worsen further next year, under the combined impact of economic weakness and further increases in non-OPEC supply. Since much of what is shown in 2014 – and, specifically, the probably oversupply of close to 1 mmb/d – was eminently predictable, the only real surprise about the recent slump in oil prices is that it didn’t happen earlier.
If you understand how oil markets work, you can only anticipate further pressure over the coming three months. Essentially, there are two peaks in oil demand – the winter heating season, and the summer motoring (and flying) peak. These are at their most pronounced in January and August, respectively.
These are the periods of peak demand for refined products. The peaks in the purchasing of crude oil, however, anticipate these consumer peaks, because oil has to be shipped, refined and distributed before it reaches the customer.
Thus, any crude purchased after November isn’t going to reach the end-user until after the winter peak, which is why crude purchasing reaches its high-point in November. Thereafter, crude purchasing diminishes until it begins its run-up to the second (June) peak.
Hence, industry purchasing drops sharply between November and March, and this swing factor can easily be of the order of 5 mmb/d. This is why, come March, markets are likely to be glutted with oil. You can see how this works on this chart:
Of course, OPEC is always able, theoretically anyway, to shore up prices by reducing its production, something that on this occasion the cartel, guided by Saudi, has been conspicuously unwilling to do.
Some have tried to impute political meaning to this reluctance. Is the intention to bankrupt Iran, or Russia, or maybe both? This seems somewhat unlikely. Low oil prices will indeed inflict severe damage on the Russian economy, but, and as the forex markets have been telling us for months, Russia was already well on the way to economic catastrophe even without an oil price crash. As for Iran, the suffering inflicted by low oil prices will be severe, but it is by no means obvious that this will have a particularly acute impact on the policies of the Iranian government.
Rather, the unwillingness of OPEC (meaning, in effect, Saudi and its closest allies) to cut production results from two, essentially economic calculations. First, Saudi sees no reason why it should cut its export volumes and revenues to benefit its competitors.
Second, Saudi has probably calculated that a period of severely depressed prices can deal a mortal blow at competing producers, principally in the unconventional sectors of shale oil and tar sands production.
And this, of course, brings us to what used to be called “the sixty-four thousand dollar question” – what is the outlook for shale oil production?
This is clearly critical because, within the 3.4 mmb/d increase in non-OPEC production since 2011, no less than 2.8 mmb/d is attributable to increased shale oil output in the US.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), shale output is scheduled to increase significantly further between 2014 (4.07 mmb/d) and 2021 (4.80 mmb/d) before entering a very gentle decline. With demand growth likely to be sluggish, this is clearly an unappetising prospect for Saudi, and one that they would dearly like to stop in its tracks.
Fans of shales seem to believe that low oil prices are unlikely to inflict significant damage to production, arguing (amongst other things) that improving technologies will drive costs downwards. Others, including me, believe that shale production is going to peak a lot sooner than the EIA believes, and that the subsequent decline will be very much sharper.
I am on record as believing that the economics of shales are far from robust, mainly because output from each well deteriorates very rapidly indeed, declining by 60%, or even more, within the first year of production.
This being so, the only explanation for the continued increase in shale oil output lies in an extraordinary rate of drilling, which has enabled output from new wells to more than offset declines from existing sources, but has also inflicted negative cash flows on the industry, even with oil prices in excess of $100/b. This is the “drilling treadmill”, which forces producers to keep drilling in order to stave off a slump in production.
If I’m right about the drilling treadmill, US shale oil production was already poised to enter a precipitate decline from 2018-19. This suggests that OPEC’s unwillingness to shore up oil prices could bring that downturn significantly nearer, not by causing the shut-in of existing wells but, rather, by blocking the flow of funds that keeps the drilling treadmill turning. We should have a pretty clear idea about the outlook for shales within a year from now.
Meanwhile, there is one factor that we should not lose sight of, and that is the cost-mix of the global oil production portfolio. That cost-mix continues to rise, and is the best long-run indicator of the outlook for prices. Output from big, low-cost fields continues to decline, and the cost of replacement production continues to increase.
The marginal cost of replacement barrels is now far higher than the market price of crude oil, which can have only one implication on any long- or even medium-term assessment of the outlook.