Declining oil price: geopolitics or just plain economics?

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 24/12/2014

The main event in 2014’s energy market has been the sharp decline in oil prices in the second half of the year. In the first six months, geopolitical tensions regarding Ukraine & Russia still caused hick-ups in the oil markets, with Brent prices reaching 115,06 dollars per barrel on the 19th of June. But then the barrel started a bear correction that even brought it below 60 dollars per barrel on the 16th and 18th of December. Even if oil pricing has lost much of its importance for European industrial energy consumers, due to the decoupling of natural gas from oil prices, I obviously want to share some thoughts on this sharp bear trend.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

 In general, the press is always quick in looking for geopolitical explanations of oil price trends. Even seasoned oil traders often have one eye on CNN and the other on their trading screen. However, a look at supply and demand dynamics of 2014’s oil markets is telling much more than the images of war and political leaders that color the many ‘the world in 2014’ retrospectives that we currently see on television. First of all, demand is not growing as fast as before. Economic growth in Europe and Asia is sluggish, and the one economy which is doing well, the US, is switching towards other fuels and higher efficiencies. Moreover, the US is producing more and more of their petroleum needs themselves. According to the International Energy Agency, the US have grown their oil production in the first nine months of 2014 by 3,5% compared to the same period in 2013. The US is now solidifying its position as the world’s biggest producer of oil. And they’re not there yet, but they could be heading for the enviable position of net crude exporter.

The increase of oil production in the US is caused by the rapid development of shale oil production, the petroleum equivalent of shale gas. This boom is obviously attracting much attention. But we shouldn’t forget that oil production booms are happening in other countries as well. Still according to the International Energy Agency, Canada has grown its oil production in the first nine months of 2014 by 6,5% compared to 2013, thanks to the development of oil sands. And the deep sea oil production of Brazil, causes that country to report an 11,5% increase of oil production in October compared to one year earlier (source: Forbes).

Is Opec waging a price war?

All that increasing production in non-OPEC countries should obviously provoke a reaction from OPEC countries. Traditionally, we expect OPEC to cut supplies when prices hit historical lows. But that’s not what it is doing. On Monday the 22nd of December, the Saudi oil minister, Saudi-Arabia still being the most important OPEC-member, announced that OPEC would not cut supplies, however low the oil price would drop. This strongly confirms the decision at the latest OPEC summit at the end of November not to cut.

A hawkish interpretation of OPEC’s policy of not cutting supplies sees it as a price war. OPEC is consciously dragging down prices, hoping that it will undercut the economics of that new oil production in the US, Canada and Brazil. We’ve seen OPEC (and Saudi-Arabia) attempting similar price wars in the 1980’s, then mostly hoping to stop the development of North Sea and Gulf of Mexico offshore oil production. It failed spectacularly, with the competitors continuing their development and the Saudi budget fatally hurt by low oil prices. Price wars are a tough game. Mostly because of the way that supply and demand dynamics or price elasticity work. For understanding them, you need to make a firm distinction between fixed or investment costs and variable or operating costs.

Short term price elasticity is mostly influenced by operating costs. If the price of a product drops below the operating costs, producers will stop producing the product. In terms of crude oil, if the price of crude drops below the variable costs of operating a well, the producers will shut down production from that well. Now, as far as oil production is concerned, we need to make an important remark here. Operating costs of oil wells are often quite low. Wells are often quite expensive to drill, causing a high investment cost. This is especially the case for the US shale oil and Brazilian deep sea offshore wells. But once drilled, the costs of letting the oil flow out are not very high. To understand this, look at the situation of Brazilian oil producer Petrobras. They have just invested hundreds of billions of dollars to develop their deep sea offshore oilfields. Why on earth would they stop producing from those wells now? Of course, they and their American shale oil colleagues would prefer getting the 110 dollar plus prices for their oil of a few months ago. But the less than 60 dollars that they get at this moment is still giving them some return on their massive investments. Stopping production and getting 0 dollars per 0 barrel is not paying back anything.

With its combination of high investment and low operational costs, the oil market is not a good place to see short term effect in a price war. Price warlords should therefore aim for the long term effects of lower oil prices. Investors in the US, Brazil and Canada could be frustrated and stop investing in the oil developments in those countries. Lower stock prices of oil companies seem to point in that direction. This could have only limited effect on large scale developments like those that we’ve seen in Brazil. However, it could be more effective in hurting the US shale oil development. Shale oil wells typically have steep production decline curves, meaning that most of the oil is produced in the first years after drilling the well and then the production volumes per well drop rapidly. So, you need to maintain investment in drilling new wells to keep up the overall production rate. If lower prices would cause a decline in investment, the expansion of US shale oil production could be slowed down or even reversed. However, experience in the shale gas industry has shown that investment has been more resilient to lower prices than initially thought, especially since a fall in natural gas prices coincided with a drop in the investment costs due to the falling cost of the newly developed horizontal fracking technology. Therefore, it’s all but certain that a conscious price war by OPEC (and/or the Saudis) against further investment in new oil production could produce results.

Maybe, what we are seeing is far from a conscious attempt by OPEC to wage a price war, but a simple struggle for market share. OPEC cannot idly sit by and watch the US, Brazil and Canada steal away its market share. Oil supply growth is currently outstripping oil demand growth, meaning that the oil market is currently a buyers’ market and not a sellers’ market. In such a market, price wars are usually not fought in an offensive attempt at hurting competitors, they are fought as a defensive strategy for keeping market share. In the end, at the sellers’ side everybody is hurt and only the strongest survive. The Saudis could be hopeful that they will prevail with their low cost oil production.

Are Opec and the US working together?

Amateurs of geopolitical explanations of the events in oil markets are pushing an opposite theory. Saudi-Arabia and the US are not fighting each other, they are collaborating. Flanked by the economic sanctions of the EU, they work together to lower the oil price down to levels that really hurt the Russian enemy. Early in November, Vladimir Putin himself put forward this theory by stating that he believed that politics were the cause of the lower energy price. Whether this global conspiracy theory is true or not, it is indeed effective, if you see the turmoil of the Russian economy and currency in the last weeks.

 

All in all, these events are showing once again how utterly unpredictable energy markets are. Six months ago, Russia, an important oil producing country was engaged in a deep geopolitical conflict, with concerns over the impact on supply causing oil prices to increase. Anyone that would have said then that by the end of 2014 the oil price would drop below 60 dollars per barrel would have been declared a nutcase. But it happened. We can make educated guesses about its causes: simple supply and demand dynamics, a conscious commercial policy by OPEC or a complicated geopolitical intrigue? Or a combination of two or even all three of these options? Which explanation we choose, probably depends more on our own personal convictions than on empirical reality. Which obviously shows that we shouldn’t attribute any predictive quality to our theories. What has happened has happened. The oil price is historically low, benefit from it. And prepare for the next move which will come just as unexpected as this decline.


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