It is not that long ago that the price of crude oil approached $150 a barrel (a barrel of oil equates to around 35 imperial gallons) and the airwaves were full of discussions on ‘peak oil’ and the possibility of $200 as a realistic price forecast. In the event prices collapsed in the wake of the financial crisis , declining to around €35, before recovering and stabilising at over $100 from 2011 to mid 2014. Prices then fell precipitously, to around $50, before rallying briefly in the early months of 2015 but then the slide resumed, with the downward momentum increasing in recent months, taking Brent crude,the European benchmark, below $30 for the first time in over a decade.
The demand for oil is very unresponsive to price changes in the short term (in economic terms the price elasticity is close to zero) so any change in supply will have a large impact on price, be it on the upside or the downside, but it is useful to distinguish some medium term factors affecting the market from some shorter term developments.
The demand for oil will rise with economic activity and so it is not surprising that global demand in 2015 , averaging 94.5 million barrels a day (mbd ) according to the IEA, is considerably higher than it was before the crash in 2007 (86.5mbd). What is surprising though is that demand in the developed world (OECD countries) is actually 3mbd lower now than it was eight years ago, leaving emerging markets as the driver of the increase in world demand for crude, with China being particularly important (it now accounts for 12% of global oil demand from 8% in 2007).
There have also been some fundamental changes on the supply side of the market. Non-OPEC supply has risen by 7.5mbd since 2007, from 50.9mbd to 58.4mbd, driven by a surge in production from North America, where output has risen to 19,8mbd from 14.3mbd. Consequently , the implied call on OPEC supply has not greatly changed and the cartel’s market share has fallen. In the past Saudi Arabia has acted as ‘swing’ producer in OPEC, cutting output in order to stabiise prices at times of excess supply, but it changed policy in 2014, seeking to maintain market share, Iraq’s output has also risen substantially , and the resultant increase in OPEC output has contributed to persistent excess supply in the market; supply exceeded demand by 1mbd in 2014 and by a further 1.8mbd in 2015. Stocks have therefore risen sharply and the scale of the overhang has clearly put huge downward pressure on crude prices.
In terms of shorter term factors, global growth has consistently disappointed (the IMF has again reduced its forecast for 2016) and China is slowing, so the market has scaled back estimates of oil demand growth for this year (the IEA expects 1.2mbd). Non-OPEC supply may actually fall a little but this is likely to be more than offset by higher Iranian output (now that sanctions have been lifted)and from other OPEC members, so the consensus is that excess supply will grow in 2016, albeit at a slower pace than of late. In addition, global demand fell unexpectedly in the final quarter of 2015, back to 95mbd from 95.5mbd, as a result of an unusually mild early winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but supply was broadly unchanged at 97mbd, exacerbating the excess supply issue.
The plunge in oil prices obviously benefits oil importers and hurts oil producers so the global impact is difficult to disentangle. The IMF believes that the boost to real consumer incomes (via lower retail fuel prices) and the reduction in energy costs for firms offsets the loss of spending power from oil producers and investment in oil production,; global growth may be boosted by over 1% as a result of the recent price falls, according to the Fund. Others disagree, arguing that the cut in investment spending in the US on oil production, for example, is offsetting the impact of lower fuel prices for consumers. The positive correlation between equity markets and the oil price of late implies investors believe the latter or see the price decline as demand driven rather than from the supply side, That does not fit the facts, however, and although it is anyone’s guess how low prices will go in the short term one doubts if the marginal cost of oil production is $30 or below so prices at that level or lower are not sustainable.