By Benedict De Meulemeester on 1/02/2011
Yesterday the Brent has traded above 100 dollar again. This is its highest level in 28 months. The first time that the oil price broke above 100 dollar was on the 28th of February 2008. It was then followed by a speculative craze that pushed the Brent price all the way up to 146,08 dollar per barrel. By that time oil demand in the US, the key oil consuming region, was going down. More and more US citizens defaulted on their mortgages and one of the reasons for this was the derailing fuel budgets. It is clear that rising fuel prices and their consequences for other commodities such as food was one of the reasons for the 2008 financial crisis.
This time, the consequences for European consumers of oil products and oil-indexed natural gas are even more severe than in 2008. Back then, the euro was worth 1,5121 dollars whereas now its value has declined to 1,3692 dollars. This means that in euro, a barrel of crude oil is now more than 10% more expensive than in February 2008.
There are parallels to be found with the situation in 2008:
However, we also see two important differences:
Overall, and as always, the picture for the next months is complicated and unpredictable. Mister Mubarak might survive the crisis. He might be replaced by mister El Barradei who seems to be a peaceful figure (he has a Nobel prize on his desk to remind him of that). I have read in many books and articles that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has developed more in the direction of Turkey's moderate Islamic party than in the direction of radical Islamism. It is clear that no one can predict what will happen in Egypt. And even if Egypt becomes a broader conflict with ramifications for oil supplies, it is not clear whether oil prices can continue to rise. My best guess is that it will cause a new recession as governments raise interest rates and middle classes see higher commodity prices cutting into their buying power.
The economic picture of the past decade looks really bleak. A large part of this planet is growing towards a better future by growing their economies rapidly. This leads to spectacular boom phases. But the planet is unable to support that growth with sufficient commodities. The consequence is high inflation cutting into buying power which leads to spectacular busts. There is a shimmer of hope however and it lies in the third difference with the situation in February 2008. This time, many gas consumers in the West are not affected by the rising oil price. They buy gas in the Hub markets. In Europe, these prices haven't risen much higher than 20 euro per MWh even in the coldest winter in decades. In the US, prices are half that thanks to the shale gas boom. The developments in the gas market show the way out of the boom and bust cycle. We have to reduce our dependence on scarce commodities such as oil.