how low can the crude oil price go?

This is my response to the comment of a regular reader.

There’s no easy answer to this question.  I have few qualms about putting a ceiling on the oil price.  In round terms, I’d say it’s $60 a barrel, since this is most likely the point at which an avalanche of new shale oil production will come on line.  Also, for investing in shale oil companies this number doesn’t matter than much, so long as it’s appreciably above the current price.

A floor is harder.

a first pass through the issue

We can divide the source of oil production into three types.  I’m not going to look up the numbers, but let’s say they’re all roughly equal in size:

–extremely low production cost, less than $5 a barrel, typified by production from places like Saudi Arabia

–very high production cost, like $100+ a barrel, which would be typical of exploration and production efforts of the major international oil companies over the past decade or so, and

–shale-like oil, with production costs of maybe $35 -$40 a barrel.

In practical terms, there’s never going to be an economic reason for the low-cost oil to stop flowing.

Shale oil is basically an engineering and spreadsheet exercise.  The deposits are relatively small and the cost of extraction is almost all variable.  So shale will switch on and off as prices dictate.  We know that at the recent lows of $25 or so, all this production was shut in.

The very high production cost is the most difficult to figure out.  Of, say, $100 in production expense, maybe $70 is the writeoff of exploration efforts + building elaborate hostile-environment production and delivery platforms.  This is money that was spent years ago just to get oil flowing in the first place.  What’s key is that for oil like this is that the out-of-pocket cost of production–money being spent today to get the oil–may be $30 a barrel.  From an economic perspective, the up-front $70 a barrel should play no role in the decision to produce oil or not.  So, dealing purely economically, this oil should continue to flow no matter what.

second pass

First pass says $30 – $35 a barrel is the low;  $60 is the best the price gets.

Many OPEC countries (think:  Saudi Arabia again) have economies that are completely dependent on oil and which are running deep government deficits.  Their primary goal has to be to generate maximum revenue; the number of barrels they produce is secondary.  If so, they will increase production as long as that gives them higher revenue.  Their tendency will be to make a mistake on the side of producing too much, however.  Their activity will make it very hard to get to a $60 price, I think.

On the other hand, shale oil producers who can make a small profit at, say, $35 a barrel may tend to shut in production at $38 – $40, on the idea that if they exercise a little patience they’ll be able to sell at $45, doubling or tripling their per barrel profit.

third pass

Second pass argues for a band between, say, $40 and $55.

Bank creditors don’t care about anything except getting their money back.  They will force debtors–here we’re talking about shale oil companies–to produce flat out, regardless of price, until their loans are repaid.  This was an issue last year, and what I think caused the crude price to break below $30 a barrel.  I don’t think this is an issue today.

There’s a seasonal pattern to oil consumption, driven by the heating season and the driving season in the northern hemisphere.  The driving season runs from April through September, the heating season from September through January.  February-April is the weakest point of the year, the one that typically has the lowest prices.

If the financial press isn’t totally inaccurate, there are a bunch of what appear to be poorly -informed speculators trading crude oil.  Who knows what they’re thinking?

my bottom line

This is still much more of a guessing game than I would prefer.  I see three positives with shale oil companies today, however.  Industry debt seems more under control.  Operating costs are coming down (more on this on Monday).  And seasonality should soon be providing support to prices.




the wobbly crude oil price

Over the past week or so, the world crude oil price has dropped by about 10%–although it is rebounding a bit as I’m writing on Wednesday morning.

I have several thoughts:

–this is the weakest part of the year for crude oil demand, since the winter heating season is over and the spring driving season is yet to begin

–the surprising aspect of recent crude oil prices is not that they are weak, but rather how strong they have been in January and February in the face of a rising rig count in the US and a milder than average winter in heavily populated areas around the world

–hard as this may be to believe, the price drop suggests to me that many traders in the crude oil market are new to the game, and for some reason haven’t filled themselves in beforehand on the basic characteristics of the commodity

–since there’s a direct relationship between the price of oil and the price of oil exploration and development stocks, the current odd price action in the crude market makes evaluating and trading in the equities more difficult

–I’ve built a small position in e&p stocks over the past couple of months, so I’m sitting on my hands.  If I owned nothing, I’d be tempted to buy something–although I’d be more comfortable if crude had been gradually declining in price over the past month, rather than exhibiting the panicky behavior of the past week.  This is also predicated on the idea that what’s driving crude is thoughts #2 & #3.

firming oil prices: seasonal strength or something more?

September through mid-January is the period of greatest seasonal strength in oil prices.  Early in this period, refineries shift from making gasoline to supply drivers to manufacturing heating oil in advance of winter in the northern hemisphere.  There’s normally some friction in the supply chain as this takes place.  But the key reason for current oil price strength, I think, is the typical behavior of wholesalers, retailers and end users accumulating supplies of heating oil for winter use as autumn commences.

This period of strength usually ends in late January–after which there’s be no time to get newly-refined heating fuel to users before the weather warms.

What follows from February through April is the period of greatest seasonal weakness for oil.


What to make of current firmness in crude.  Is there any evidence that the proposed OPEC production limiting agreement is exerting upward pressure on the price?

My private hunch is that, yes, there is.  At the same time, I also think there will be little lasting (meaning over six months or a year) collective discipline to keep to promised quotas once they’re seen to be having an effect.  Budget deficits are too large and the third world us-against-them cohesiveness that enabled OPEC’s remarkable past cartel success is no longer present.


Still, I think that prices will be strong seasonally for a while in any event, so there’s no need to have a view on whether a production agreement will stick.  That time will come early in the new year.

At that point, for 2017 investment success, having a (correct) opinion about oil will be crucial, I think.  I’m hoping–and anticipating–that I’ll be able to make that decision on other grounds, i.e., the innate cheapness (or not) of shale-related exploration stocks, even without price increases.  In the meantime, I’m content to be on the sidelines.


thinking about Big Oil

I’m starting to feel I should be interested in oil stocks again.  That’s mostly because I think that we’ve already seen the lows for the oil price earlier in this year, when quotes were flirting with $25 a barrel.  I continue to think that crude will trade in a range between $40 and $60.

Under normal circumstances, I’d figure that the big multinational integrated oils would be the safest bet and that one could add some oilfield services shares to provide speculative upside potential.

For today, however, I don’t think the traditional formula is right.  Instead, I think the main thing to come to grips with is the technological change that hydraulic fracturing has brought to the industry.  I think this is similar to what happened in the steel industry when mini-mills began to compete with blast furnaces  …or to semiconductor manufacturing when third-party fabrication plants opened in Taiwan, enabling the separation of thought-intensive design from capital-intensive plant ownership  …or to the computer industry when the minicomputer and the PC replaced the mainframe.

If I’m right about this, then anything that has to do with the older order is out.  This means multi-year mega projects in remote or hostile environments (physically or politically) are substantially more risky than they have been.  It also means that the builders of giant offshore drilling equipment to find, lift or transport this kind of output aren’t coming back any time soon.  Nor are the service companies that own this sort of equipment and specialize in this kind of drilling.

The Big Oil majors, who have been the leading proponents of exotic mega projects, must also come into question, as well.   How quickly can/will they mentally adjust to a new era of abundant oil rather than perpetual shortage?  What will they do about projects that are now under way?

What other industries undergoing radical transformation have shown in the past is that the incumbents take a surprisingly long time to adjust to the new circumstances.  If that proves true again, then the best way to make money will be to undertake the tedious task of examining smaller fracking-related drillers and service companies to see how they will benefit.