why the oil price will continue to be weak

supply and demand

In the short term (read:  for now and for some vague time into the future), demand for oil is pretty constant, no matter what the price (i.e., demand is inelastic).   People need to fuel their cars and heat their homes.  Industry needs to generate electric power and keep factories humming.

The supply of oil is similarly inelastic, for two reasons:

–major oilfields are mammoth, expensive, multi-year capital projects.  Engineers get underground oil flowing toward wells at what they calculate to be the optimal rate to drain the entire deposit.  Changing that rate once the oil is moving can mess things up so that lots of oil gets left behind–meaning having to do expensive and time-consuming extra drilling to recover it.

–a macroeconomic look at OPEC’s oil-producing countries, especially in the Middle East, is a real eye-opener.  These nations typically have large young populations and more or less no economic activity other than oil.  In my cartoon-like view, they have tons of high school graduates entering the workforce each year and nothing to offer them but make-work “jobs” funded by oil money.  Keeping the political status quo ultimately requires that the oil keep flowing.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the budget breakeven oil price for Iran, for instance, is $140 a barrel and Saudi Arabia’s is $93.  (This isn’t an immediate do-or-die thing, though.  Countries can use savings, borrow or sell assets to bridge a budget gap for a while.)

recent history

Over the past decade or more, supply and demand have been close to being in balance, with China’s strong economic growth giving prices an upward bias.

China is now trying to halt the proliferation of low value-added, energy-wasting industry, so this source of extra demand is fading.  More important, the advent of oil extraction from shale in the US has raised world oil supplies by about 6%, or 5 million barrels a day over the past five years.

Given that demand is relatively constant, the only way to get buyers for this extra oil is to cut prices.  This is what’s happening now.

revisiting the 1980s

There’s lots of ugly history of colonial exploitation of Middle Eastern oil producers in the 1970s and before.  Let’s skip over that, in this post at least.

During the 1970s, OPEC pushed the price of a barrel of oil from under $2 to around $25.  By the start of the 1980s, the association was clearly divided in to two camps.  One wanted to maintain the highest possible current price (which had risen to around $35 for the easiest oil to refine).  The other, led by Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC producer, feared users would find substitutes for oil, diminishing the long-term value of their vast untapped reserves.  It wanted prices at, say, $15 – $20 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia decided to force its will on the other camp by unilaterally raising production to stabilize prices.  However, a long and deep global recession soon began (partly caused by higher oil prices, mostly by the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates sharply to choke off runaway inflation in the US).

Saudi Arabia then reversed course and began to cut production, again to defend its preferred price level.  Other OPEC nations agreed to reduce production as well, but by and large never did.  Prices eventually bottomed at about $8 a barrel.

The point, though, is that the Saudi attempt to act as the “swing” producer by raising and lowering its output in order to stabilize prices, didn’t work out.  All that happened was that Saudis absorbed a huge amount of the pain of the price decline, allowing its OPEC rivals to prosper, in a relative sense at least.


I think Saudi Arabia learned from its experience in the early 1980s that unilaterally reducing production doesn’t work.  Besides, unlike in the early 1980s, it needs its current coil income to balance its budget.

Shale oil production will continue to grow, if nothing else simply from projects begun a few years ago.

As a result, I think the oil price will drift lower, either until a healthier world economy increases demand, or until lower prices force high-cost oil producers to shut down.  We’re a long way from the latter happening.

Bad for oil producers–in fact, energy producers of any stripe, great for everyone else.

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