For the first time since last October, the price of a barrel of oil has broken through $50. So it seems a good time to update the analysis I presented in January 2015.
Back then, I argued that $50 or thereabouts would turn out to be a long-term ceiling for the oil price. At the time, with crude prices still above $60, almost everyone believed that $50 would be the rock-bottom floor. After all, futures markets predicted prices of $75 or higher; the Saudi and Russian governments needed $100 to balance their budgets; and any price much below $50 was considered unsustainable, because it would put the US shale-oil industry out of business.
As it happened, the price of Brent crude did fluctuate between $50 and $70 in the first half of last year, before plunging decisively below $50 in early August, when it became obvious that the lifting of sanctions against Iran would unleash a massive increase in global supply. Since then, $50 has indeed proved to be a ceiling for the oil price. But now that this level has been exceeded, will it again become a floor?
That seems to be what many investors are expecting. Hedge funds and other “non-commercial” speculators have increased their long positions to an all-time high of 555,000 of the main oil contracts traded on the New York futures market, compared to the previous record of 548,000 contracts, set just before the oil price peaked at $120 in June 2014. The return of speculative enthusiasm is usually a reliable sign that the next big price move will probably be down. More important, the fundamental arguments are more compelling than ever that $50 or thereabouts will continue to be a price ceiling, rather than a floor.
The case begins, as it did in January 2015, by observing that the oil market is no longer controlled by the monopoly power of OPEC (or the Saudi government and OPEC). Because of new sources of supply, advances in energy technology, and environmental constraints, oil is now operating under a regime of competitive pricing, like other commodities do.
This is what happened for two decades from 1985 to 2004, and, as the chart below shows, trading in the spot market during the past 18 months has been consistent with this idea. So has trading in the futures market: oil for delivery in 2020 has fallen to $56, from $75 a year ago.
If this competitive regime continues, the price of oil will no longer be determined by the needs and desires of oil-producing governments. Saudi Arabia or Russia may want, or even “need,” an oil price of $70 or $80 to balance their budgets. But oil producers’ need for a certain price does not mean that they can achieve it, any more than iron-ore or copper producers can achieve whatever price they “need” to keep paying the dividends their shareholders expect or want.
Similarly, the fact that many debt-burdened shale producers will go bankrupt if the oil price stays below $50 is no reason to expect a rebound. These companies will simply lose their oil properties to banks or competitors with stronger finances. The new owners will then start to pump oil again from the same acreage, provided prices are above the marginal cost of production, which will now exclude any interest payments on loans that are written off.
A clear illustration of the “regime change” that has taken place in the oil market is the current rebound in prices to around the $50 level (the likely ceiling of the new trading range). The steepest part of this increase occurred after April 17, when OPEC failed to agree on a new price target and persuade the Saudi, Russian, and Iranian governments to coordinate the output cuts that would be required to achieve any such target.
Now that all of the main oil producers are unequivocally committed to maximizing production, regardless of the impact prices, oil will continue to trade just like any other commodity (for example, iron ore) that is in oversupply in a competitive market. Prices will be determined as described in any standard economics textbook: by the marginal costs of the last supplier whose production is needed to meet global demand.
When oil demand is fairly strong, as it is now and tends to be in early summer, the price will be set by the marginal production costs in US shale basins and Canadian tar sands. When demand is weak, as it often is in autumn and winter, the market-clearing price will be set by marginal producers of cheap but less accessible oil in Asia and Africa, such as Kazakhstan, eastern Siberia, and Nigeria.
From now on, the costs faced by these marginal producers will set the top and bottom of oil’s trading range. Low-cost producers in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Russia will continue to pump as much as their physical infrastructure can transport as long as the price is higher than $25 or so. The price needed to elicit enough production from US shale and Canadian tar sands to meet strong demand may be $50, $55, or even $60, but it is unlikely to be much higher than that.
Unpredictable shifts in supply and demand will, of course, cause fluctuations within this trading range, which past experience suggests could be quite large. In the 20-year period of competitive pricing from 1985 to 2004, the oil price frequently doubled or halved in the course of a few months. So the near-doubling of oil prices since mid-January’s $28 low is not surprising. But now that the $50 ceiling is being tested, we can expect the next major move in the trading range to be downward.