OPEC at the Crossroads

OPEC is currently in a difficult situation. How should it react to the oil glut that followed the emergence of shale oil technology? In our view, today’s situation is comparable to the oil glut in the 1980s. Back then OPEC unsuccessfully tried to support prices by curtailing supply with the result that core-OPEC members were sitting on vast amounts of idle capacity for nearly two decades. Thus, we view the recent production cuts as an attempt to speed up the drawdown of the global inventory overhang rather than a sign that OPEC has returned to a policy of balancing the market. If OPEC, going forward, truly allows market forces to play out without carrying a lot of spare capacity, unforeseen shortfalls could result in violent price swings.
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Trading oil has been challenging over the past few months. To be fair, it has been challenging for a while, but those trying to predict price movements based on fundamentals have had a particularly hard time recently. Rather than moving with improving fundamentals, the oil market has hung on every word from OPEC officials, which has sent oil prices on a rollercoaster ride. In the past two weeks, fundamentals continued to improve with U. S. oil inventories showing counter-seasonal draws, yet prices collapsed on May 25 after OPEC announced it would extend production cuts by nine months. The price action indicates that market participants were hoping for an even larger cut and were disappointed that the current cuts were merely extended, but the current curtailments have already had a profound impact on inventories (we saw and continue to see large counter-seasonal draws in high frequency data), which is what we suspect OPEC had intended.
OPEC is currently in a difficult situation. How should it react to the oil glut that followed the emergence of shale oil technology? In our view, OPEC’s options and its influence on oil prices are limited. To understand this, we must go back to the 1980s, which is the last time OPEC was faced with a technological step change that led to an oil glut from non-OPEC producers.
OPEC was founded in 1960 by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. The founding members were later joined by Qatar (1961), Indonesia (1962 – 2008; rejoined 2016), Libya (1962), United Arab Emirates (1967), Algeria (1969), Nigeria (1971), Ecuador (1973 – 1992; rejoined 2007), and Gabon (1975 – 1994; rejoined 2016). By 1973, OEPC had increased its production to about 30 million b/d, just over 50% of world production. Supported by Egypt and Syria, the Arab members of OPEC imposed an oil embargo against the United States and other countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. OPEC output subsequently dropped by close to 4 million b/d, which was about 7% of global output. As a result, oil shortages occurred in the west and prices soared from USD3.29/bbl in 1973 to USD11.58/bbl in 1974, and prices remained high even after the oil embargo ended in March 1974. In 1979 oil prices moved sharply higher again to as high as USD40/bbl. In our view, the 1979 price increase must be attributed to several factors; the Iranian revolution and ensuing Iran-Iraq war certainly played their part, but general USD price inflation was rampant, reaching 20% per annum. Arguably, part of the reason why inflation was so high was because oil prices had previously risen on the back of the oil embargo, which trickled into general price inflation. But even without the tightness in oil fundamentals, USD inflation would have been high given the monetary environment of the time; however, the price inflation in oil was several magnitudes higher than broad price inflation, suggesting that the tightness in the oil market itself was the main reason for the sharp price increase in oil. Most importantly, this prolonged period of extremely high oil prices and the crippling effect the oil shortages had on western economies led to profound changes in oil and energy markets.

This post was published at GoldMoney on JUNE 06, 2017.


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