What’s Next for World Oil as Lower Prices Extend Into ‘15

Updated on
Balancing Act

The oil price decline of 2014 upended the geopolitical chessboard. Worth watching in 2015 will be who can recover and dominate play -- OPEC, Vladimir Putin or U.S. shale drillers.

Oil’s international benchmark price dropped as much as 49 percent in 2014. Those looking for a quick rebound may be disappointed, as world consumption growth slowed to the least since 2009, U.S. companies pumped more than they have since the 1980s and a price war broke out among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“It’s a turning point in the way people perceive OPEC, that this so-called cartel is not really driving prices,” said Jeff Colgan, a professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies who researches the geopolitics of energy. “The real story is going to be about the fracking industry. How much pain can North American producers take?”

Here are five concerns about oil markets for 2015:

Will OPEC Hold Together?

The group that controls about 40 percent of the market has showed signs of fraying.

Since January 2012, members have exceeded the daily production ceiling of 30 million barrels by an average of 886,000 barrels, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Following OPEC’s decision not to trim output at its November meeting in Vienna, some countries have even less incentive to comply. OPEC’s own demand forecast is the lowest in 12 years and more than 1 million barrels a day below its current production target.

Prices are lower than what all OPEC members except Kuwait and Qatar need to balance their budgets, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Still, Saudi Arabia, the group’s largest member, has led the opposition to reducing output and continues to question the need. The kingdom has enough reserves to win a price war, but at great cost to itself and other OPEC members, according to Citigroup Inc.

“OPEC has a very hard time maintaining the cartel,” Jeffrey Rosenberg, chief investment strategist for BlackRock Advisors Inc., said in a Nov. 21 interview on Bloomberg Television. “Everybody has an incentive to boost up their quantity to maintain their revenue.”

Will The Shale Boom Suffer?

Traders and analysts interpreted Saudi Arabia’s decision to let prices fall as a challenge to higher-cost U.S. shale producers. At least a dozen “tight oil” companies have cut spending plans, executives said on conference calls. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reduced its production forecast. Genscape Inc. expects a more severe impact, with output slipping from its three-decade high.

Energy companies have led losses among U.S. equities and bonds, with some investors raising concerns that the damage could spread. Others are preparing to take advantage of distress and consolidation.

“We’re all fascinated to see what the real economics of tight oil are as prices go down,” said Paul Horsnell, head of commodities research at Standard Chartered Plc in London.

Will Global Demand Recover?

Sagging demand from weak economic growth in Europe and Asia helped push oil into a bear market. Lower prices could help stimulate the market, according to Citigroup and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

The International Energy Agency expects oil consumption to rise by 900,000 barrels a day in 2015, up from a 700,000-barrel-a-day increase in 2014. Still, gasoline demand is flat in the U.S., where cars are getting more fuel-efficient and young urbanites are riding public transportation.

“Efficiencies are permanent demand reductions that are not going to come back because prices are lower,” said Tamar Essner, an energy analyst at Nasdaq. “The big driver of demand-related headlines has been Chinese growth and Europe slowing, all of which is true, but I don’t foresee enough of an uptick to alter the price dynamic.”

Will The U.S. Allow More Exports?

Lower prices are fueling the debate over the 40-year-old ban on most exports of unrefined U.S. oil. Producers want access to higher overseas prices, while refiners want to keep their cost advantage.

Those shipments that are permitted are already surging, and the U.S. would probably export as much as 1.5 million barrels a day if the law changed, EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski told a House subcommittee on Dec. 11. The issue could gain prominence in the new Republican-led Congress, especially as Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ban’s most outspoken opponent, takes over the upper chamber’s natural resources committee.

Will Political Instability Disrupt Supply?

In June, with violence spreading in Ukraine and Islamic State warriors threatening Baghdad, analysts were wondering how much higher the international benchmark price would rise past $114 a barrel. Let’s just say those people have adjusted their thinking. Now the question is how much $60 a barrel will strain already unstable countries.

Venezuela, struggling with inflation and capital flight, faces soaring borrowing costs as investors weigh the risk of default. Libyan output almost quadrupled between April and October as fighting eased, only to drop 32 percent in November. Iraq’s production is close to a 13-year high as the country struck a deal with its semi-autonomous Kurdish region to sell more oil as they wage war against Islamic State insurgents.

If Iran agrees to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for relief from Western sanctions, the Persian Gulf country said it aims to almost double output to 4.8 million barrels a day, an oil ministry official said Dec. 9. In Russia, the combined force of U.S. and European sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and the plunging value of its biggest export have triggered a recession, a currency crisis and runaway inflation.

“Geopolitical risk is definitely one of the downsides of low oil prices,” said Brian Youngberg, an energy analyst at Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis.

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