oil: the view at 30,000 feet

Oil is either a very complex subject or a very simple one.

There’s a wide variation among various types of oil, the kinds of input a given refinery can process, the politics/stability of the countries that provide the different grades of oil to the market, and the regulatory regimes in different countries where refined oil products are used.

Nevertheless, there are general patterns that can be of investment significance.

In particular, I think it’s at least possible that we’re entering a period of extended oil price weakness, due to slow economic growth in the US, and to a lesser extent in the EU, plus the sharp rise in unconventional oil production in the US.

Here’s why:


In the short run, oil supply is relatively invariant.  Major oilfields are very expensive long-term projects designed to bring large deposits of subterranean oil to the surface.  Once the oil starts flowing, it can’t be stopped without risking major damage to the oil reservoirs.  This could mean a lot of extra drilling to reach now-isolated pockets of crude.  So capping wells to reduce supply generally isn’t done.

Same with oil demand.  In the absence of large price moves,  people will continue to use transportation fuel in the same way.  Industrial processes won’t change.  So this major portion of demand is pretty much locked in.  And until a shockingly large heating bill comes in the mail, people won’t turn the thermostat down.

Because both supply and demand are relatively inflexible, small changes in either can result in large changes in price.  We saw this a few years ago when oil spiked above $150 a barrel as desperate users bid up the price of scanty supplies.  But the opposite could equally well occur:  panicked producers, running out of storage space to put barrels of crude customers don’t want, offering large discounts to get someone to take them off their hands.

On the supply side, OPEC is the largest factor, accounting for about a third of world output.

On the demand side, the US is the world’s largest, and most profligate, petroleum consumer.  We use 20% of the world’s oil while representing less than 4% of the globe’s population.  As I invariably try to work into the conversation, the US is also the only developed country not to have an energy policy that promotes conservation.   The intent has been to protect an inefficient domestic auto industry that ended up imploding in the last recession anyway.  One unintended effect has been to help preserve OPEC’s immense economic power.

shale oil

What’s new in the supply/demand story is coming out of the US.  It’s the rapid rise in production of shale oil, which has lifted total US crude output from 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to just shy of 9 million now–with at least another one million b/d gain likely over the next year.

Arguably (read: this is what I think, but have no definitive evidence for), the main reason oil prices haven’t been spiking up despite turmoil in the Middle East is the steady new flow of US crude from places like North Dakota.

The International Energy Agency has just pared a bit from its estimate of oil demand over the coming year, based on slowdown in the EU.  Large-scale purchases of new, more fuel-efficient cars in the US may begin to put a lid on domestic gasoline consumption, which is the biggest part of US oil usage.  China, the #2 world oil user, with about half the consumption of the US, is also growing a bit more slowly than anticipated.

Will all this be enough to tip the world oil supply/demand balance in favor of oversupply (and significantly lower prices)?  Who knows?   …but maybe.


…a shot in the arm for stocks generally (other than the oils).  Lower gasoline prices would mean higher discretionary income for ordinary Americans, which would be a plus for mass-market consumer stocks.

Bet on this?   …no.  Just something to think about, to consider what we’d buy if signs of a weakening oil price began to emerge.


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