oil: will falling prices reduce supply?

Ultimately, yes   …but only at lower prices than today’s., I think.

With any mining commodity, price declines normally end only when the highest-cost firms have to pay more to produce the commodity than they can sell it for.   Even then, if a production process is hard to restart or if the producers fear losing skilled workers permanently if they shut down, production often continues for a period even though cash flow is negative.

Petroleum has been an exception to this rule.  Oil had a period in the early 1980s when Saudi Arabia reduced its oil production dramatically in a vain bid to stabilize prices.  But its efforts were undone by other members of OPEC who agreed to cut production, too, but upped it instead to fill the vpoid left by Saudi cutbacks.  It took Saudi resumption of production and a consequent plunge in prices for the others to fall into line.  This time around Saudi Arabia has made it clear it won’t repeat its production-cutting mistake.

If cartel action won’t stop the current oil price decline, then we’re left with normal commodity forces to do the job.  The most likely production to shut down for cost reasons is output generated through hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota and Texas.  Estimates of cash production costs for fracked wells ranges from $40 – $60 a barrel.  In theory, therefore, production won’t be taken off the market until prices reach $60.  Even at that level, however, only a small amount of output will probably be lost–not enough for price stabilization.

One wild card:  bank loans.  Typically, smaller oil exploration companies of the type that have been successful with fracking try to boost their returns or speed their expansion by leveraging themselves financially.   Except in times of speculative excess, bank loans.to exploration companies contain restrictive covenants.  These normally mandate that the explorer must maintain reserves with a value of, say, 3x the amount of the loan.  If the value of reserves falls below a certain minimum, say 2x the value of the loan, the borrower is required to devote most or all of its cash flow to repaying its borrowings.  In other words, it can no longer pay a dividend to shareholders nor can it spend money on new drilling.  This last is potentially a big issue for frackers, whose wells tend to have relatively short productive lives.

My guess is that borrowings of the type I’ve just described will ultimately be the reason the oil price ultimately stabilizes, by halting the growth of fracking.  Two ways to gauge whether this is happening:  dividend cuts, and reductions in the number of new wells started.

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