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.

 

 

 

Saudi Arabia’s about-face

About a week ago, Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement among oil producing countries to cap their aggregate output of crude at 32.5 million barrels daily.  This will require daily liftings to be reduced by 1.2 million barrels.  Of that 1.2 million barrels in cuts, the Saudis themselves will account for 486,000, or just over 40%.

This Saudi decision flies in the face of the kingdom’s previous policy and its experience in the 1980s, when it repeatedly reduced production in a vain attempt to stabilize prices.  What happened back then?   …other OPEC countries, with more pressing needs for cash and with relatively short-lived reserve bases (so playing a long game made little sense, just as today), failed to make the output reductions they agreed to.  More than that, they boosted their liftings instead in amounts that more than offset the Saudi cutbacks.  So prices continued to fall, and for years afterward Saudi Arabia lost access to long-time customers.

Over the past two years, because of the bitter experience of the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has refused to reduce its output despite pleas from other OPEC members.  It  has even increased production a bit.

…until now.

What should we make of this about-face?

The superficial arithmetic for Riyadh is clear–reduce output by 5%; the price per barrel rises by 10% as a result; total revenue rises by 5%.  That’s assuming no cheating by other parties.  But in the case of every economically-driven commodities cartel, cheating always happens.  And the Saudis know that OPEC proved itself no different from other cartels 35 years ago.

 

What’s interesting about this case is that for us as investors situations like these, where we have imperfect information, arise more often than we would like to believe.  Rather than obsessing about what we don’t know in these cases, it’s important to see what conclusions we can draw from what we do know.

In particular:

–Saudi Arabia simply can’t have forgotten about its experience in the first half of the 1980s.  It must believe that eventually some parties will fail adhere to their production quotas.  But it must have some reason to believe that this won’t happen immediately

–it’s possible the kingdom thinks that with supply and demand are almost evenly matched, output reductions will cause the crude oil price to rise substantially.  The price rise will ward off cheating

–the Saudis must also think that what they’re doing now is a better strategy for them than that of pumping full-out and keeping prices low.  Why should this be?  My first thought is that Riyadh’s finances are not in strong enough shape to continue to endure $40 a barrel oil

–the Saudis must realize as well that $50+ a barrel will reinvigorate the shale oil industry in the US, capping any possible price rise.  On the other hand, keeping prices at, say, $40 a barrel won’t make shale oil go away.  The industry will simply lie dormant for a while, ready to spring to life again when prices are higher.  On the other hand, they may no longer believe that they can destroy the shale oil business forever by keeping prices low.  they may even fear that technological advances and cost-cutting will make shale viable at $40 if they are allowed to take place.  So, counterintuitively, the best strategy for combating the threat of shale may be to discourage the development of such new techniques by keeping prices higher

my take

Buy shale oil and monitor OPEC closely.

 

 

 

 

 

will OPEC cap its oil output?

…maybe, for a short while anyway.   Ultimately, no.

Will this move shore up oil prices?

…probably not.

Yesterday OPEC announced a provisionary agreement according to which the oil cartel’s members will limit aggregate output to between 32.5 million barrels per day and 33.0 million.  At the lower end, that would remove 750,000 daily barrels (or 2.3%) from OPEC production.  According to the Financial Timesvirtually all of the reduction would be by Saudi Arabia; other OPEC members promise only not to increase theirs.

Saudi Arabia has previously been dead set against any agreement of this type.  Why?   During the early 1980s oil glut, the Saudis sliced oil liftings from 13 million barrels daily to 3 million in a vain attempt to stabilize prices.  That effort failed because everyone else in OPEC cheated, boosting their output to fill the void.

That such cheating happens shouldn’t come as a shock.  It’s standard cartel behavior–and the reason most cartels fail.  The truly startling development in the modern history of commodity-producing cartels was the solidarity of OPEC in its formative years, when it was a political cartel opposing exploitation of third world countries.  It has lost its power as it evolved into the current economic one.

So, as I see it, there’s no reason not to expect widespread cheating again.

Another factor arguing against this agreement actually stabilizing crude oil prices is that OPEC doesn’t dominate world oil production as it did in the 1980s.  Four of today’s top six oil-producing countries (Russia, US, China, Canada) are not members of OPEC.  There’s every reason to expect that all of the four would boost output as/when prices start to rise.

 

To my mind, the real news the OPEC accord signals is the changed attitude of Saudi Arabia.  I think this must mean that Riyadh is in worse financial shape than is commonly believed.

Certainly, the country is radially dependent on oil   …and has become accustomed to the revenue from  $100+ per barrel prices.  So it is now running a large government budget deficit.  My guess is that it is also having a much harder time than expected in borrowing to bridge the gap between revenue and spending, and that efforts to develop other facets of the economy are not moving forward smoothly.  Saudi Arabia has just announced a salary cut for government workers, which can’t imply greater political stability.

If there is a valid reason for oil to have risen on the OPEC announcement–and I don’t think there is–it would be worries of political developments in Saudia Arabia that disrupt oil production there.

Personally, not owning any oil stocks at present, I’m thinking that the seasonal low point for demand, that is, January/February, would be a better entry time than right now.