Friday, March 07, 2008

Oil Bubble About to Pop?

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Here's hoping:

The flood of speculative investment into oil markets is inflating a price bubble that could pop and send crude prices sharply lower if U.S. petroleum demand continues to slump, analysts warned yesterday.

Crude prices continued their remarkable rally yesterday, rising 95 cents (U.S.) to close at another record high of $105.47 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

But the boom could be setting the stage for its own undoing, many analysts argue, since it is being fuelled by speculators looking to hedge against a declining U.S. dollar and devalued financial assets. Some analysts are forecasting a sharp correction in the price of crude this spring.

“It's hard to argue that prices should be higher [now] than they were not too long ago,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., who has forecast that crude markets are set for a massive correction that could eventually bring prices as low as $50 a barrel.
Most economists have been saying that it's been speculation, not demand that is driving higher prices. Americans have been using less fuel of late and that alone should have reduced prices by several dollars a barrel.

Hugo Chavez's saber rattling may have something to do with the price rise but not to the extent we've seen. Even OPEC knows the price elevation is a house of cards and has called for maintaining current levels of production--a practice that generally doesn't happen if demand remains high (this after a debate to reduce production). The oil sheiks seem a bit perplexed as to how to proceed; should they reduce production, the price will go higher ensuring a more serious collapse, should they increase production, the price will stay high as speculators continue to bid it up. It's lose-lose for OPEC and any people with money invested in oil futures. When this collapse comes, it will be devastating, especially if the price drops rapidly by more than half as predicted.

Exit questions: If the oil futures market does indeed take a nose dive, what effect would that have on the economy in the US? Could it have the same effect as the cataclysm in the housing market? I'm not an oil expert but it stands to reason that a drastic reduction in oil prices would effect the bottom line of Exxon/Mobil and other oil conglomerates.

On the upside, it may well spur increased business activity in the construction industry, as they've cut back on consumption due to soaring diesel and gasoline costs.

Update: Instapundit linked. Thanks Professor Reynolds.


Anonymous said...

The arguement for a drastic reduction in the price of oil has been circulating since it was $30 per barrel. Your US-centric view that a reduction in consumption in America will cause a collapse in price ignores the fact that supply and demand are almost equal and that any decrease in US consumption is being matched via increases elsewhere on the planet.

Bottom line: get used to higher prices. Saving some non-linear event such as a population reducing pandemic, the competition for remaining oil is going to get more fierce in time further adding to the value of oil (perceived or otherwise).

As well, as long as the US government chooses inflation over being responsible for the value of your currency you are going to pay more for all commodities. Checked the price of bread or milk lately?


Anonymous said...

I am not an oil expert either , but many people are spending huge amounts on gas for there cars and it has impacted the prices of food and utilities for heating and electricity.

Between gas and food I am having $1,000 credit card bills each month and I do not have gas guzzlers.

Anonymous said...

If you google up oil and speculators you'll see this argument has been around since at least 2004. It quaint to see $75 per barrel in old articles. Adjusted for the weak dollar, the $105 range isn't too far off recent prices.

Far as being "US centric" I'll refer the writer to the US Baby Boomers. I've heard retailers say they are "tired" of hearing about the Baby Boomers. That may be but that huge bubble of consumers exists.

You may be tired of "US centric" thinking but compare the US market to any other...say all the European countries.


Mike said...

The oil companies enjoy profitability based more upon volume than on price per barrel. The source countries take or lose any changes in prices while the oil companies take a relatively stable (based upon contracts) percentage of the price of a barrel.

Additionally, the demand for oil worldwide makes a +/-10% difference in US demand fairly insignificant to worldwide demand. That is one indicator of a rising level of industrialization worldwide (not just US & Europe anymore - think BRIC - Brazil India Russia China)

Anonymous said...

While a bit patronizing, Anonymous is correct. These prices are here to stay because demand in Asia is growing and consumers there pay less than market prices because their governments subsidize diesel and kerosene. Prices aren't impacted by U.S. demand any more, and you could have baby boomers selling their bodies on the streets of Laredo and it won't cut prices much.

Citizen Grim said...

I suspect lower oil prices (and in turn, gasoline prices) would give an enormous psychological boost to consumers. After all, when the average person is driving to work or school, and they see those prices getting better at gas stations, it's like their own personal economic stock ticker.

Also, wouldnt cheaper oil prices be a good thing for Exxon/Mobile/etc, because they have to buy it to refine into gasoline?

Fred Fry said...

I love comment #1 which in other words sounds like he is proclaiming that "Oil prices only go up!"

I agree that the prices are going to pop and would not be surprised seeing them back down to $60 within two years. Part of this does depend on a strengthing dollar which might very well happen as Iraq becomes less expensive. It very well could be a strengthening dollar that starts the oil price tumbling as margin calls get issued......

Gold is the other bubble

Citizen Grim said...

Checked the price of bread or milk lately?

People keep saying this, but I haven't seen the price of bread or milk (or groceries in general) increase in any meaningful way over the past several years. I got a loaf of sliced whole wheat for $1.00 yesterday, and 2 gallons of milk for $3.15 each. That's hardly breaking the bank.

I'm not saying inflation isn't a problem, and I do think we should pursue a strong-dollar policy, but I also don't think these are things to panic about, either.

Rich said...

What props up the price is very valid risks. Global War is possible at any day due to instability in the Middle East. Iran issues daily threats to nuke Israel or tauts the USN in the Gulf. Chavez acts the clown. No doubt some OPEC countries do this just to scare the market for higher prices.

Long term price decline is a given in my view. The reason is car makers have gotten religion on auto efficiency. Governments know they lose sovereignty when they fully depend upon Arabs for their energy.
But it will be years before that long term decline bites.

Anonymous said...

Underlying economic value still drives long run prices. The Chinese economy has issues that will affect its demand, jus as US consumption is also moderated.

The speculator effect is likely not as great as 100%, but it is certainly a major factor. You simply can't pump a bubble forever- at some point the futures contracts have to be made good.

But I have a hard time believing that some price adjustments won't be beneficial, because the economy is more sensitive to the prices of plastics and fuels, etc. than to the paper margins of Exxon-Mobil.

The other issue is that the longer spot prices are inflated, the more investors are willing to look at capitalizing other technologies.

The first "Anonymous" commentator is assuming the flat earth and the usual peak oil nonsense. Bunk. As soon as oil prices are assuredly locked above $60 to $70, every non-light-sweet-crude alternative becomes economical. The only reason this hasn't happened yet is that investors are terrified that as soon as they commit the oil price will collapse again. When they are as confident of high prices as Anonymous1, oil will flood again.

Jacflash said...

It's a bubble. It will pop. It will pop at the moment when the last skeptics throw in the towel and climb aboard the "it's different now, we have to live with $100/bbl" train of thought, just as the dot-com bubble started to pop in early 2000 when the last skeptics gave up and started overweighting tech.

That's how market bubbles work. People can't see this one because they're too excited and/or frightened over the environmental and greater economic effects. But a rule of thumb in the markets is that when an ahistorical distortion is happening and all the voices are saying, "It's different now!", go short.

john said...

I tend to agree with Mr. Fry. The cost run up in oil has a lot to do with the devaluation of the dollar here in the US. Where I disagree is that Bernake seems intent on driving the value of the dollar on inflation fears.

I don't think oil over the long haul will stay a precious commodity. By 2020 it could be down to $50/bbl. We humans burn about 2/3rds of the oil to make electricity NOT to power transportation. The Chinese are preparing to go big on nuclear pebble bed fusion reactors. The US may follow as well. When that happens the demand for crude will tumble.

Included in that assessment is that a God awful amount of money is going into energy research of late. Cheap solar is on the near horizon and catalytic photosynthesis is about 10 years out. Nanotechnology may make supercapacitors viable so that a practical electric car will be a reality.

Anonymous said...

The assertion in #1 the "arguement" [sic] forwarded is "US-Centric" ignores the fact that the US is the largest consumer of petroleum, followed by China.

Much of the Chinese consumption is driven by export activity to the US.

It is realistic (as it has proven in the past) to expect oil prices to dip when the US economy slows. It is also realistic to expect developing, export driven economies to slow when the US economy slows.

It isn't US-Centric - it is reality. Lecturing Americans on being "US-Centric" may feel good but contributes little.

UcATDJ5qzJVXx6nqzITFTI0F8u1Zgw-- said...

In the late 1970's I moved to Houston and was there for the oil boom and the subsequent oil bust. We had a saying, "When the doctors and lawyers are investing in oil properties, the party is over and it is time to get out." A lot of the same symptoms from 1980's exist today. All of the "smart people" were predicting an ever increasing price for oil. They had statistics, charts, and historical trends but it did not help.

The effect of the oil bust was brutal on the oil industry since they believed the pundits. The oil market proved to be remarkably fragile and the price of oil broke through many "support levels". It was not until the pundits started predicted $6 a barrel did the market bottom out. I had several friends who ended working for the post office because they could not get a job in the oil industry. On the other hand the drop in oil prices was generally helpful to the overall economy.

al fin said...

The war against Iran is still on the table. No one knows how much of Iran's oil infrastructure will be destroyed with the anti-proliferation forces finally strike.

The uncertainty of the coming Iran bombing, and a possible war in South America against narco-terrorist supporter Chavez, combined with low dollar value, keeps oil prices high.

Growth in China and India are secondary to more significant concerns.

The natural price of oil at this time would be between US $60 and US $70, without these uncertainties, but with continued rapid growth in China and India.

Anonymous said...

Not only is the bubble psychological, so is the "pain at the pump." If you have a 20-mpg car and commute 40 miles round trip per day, you were paying $10 per week for gas. At $3.00, you're paying $30. That's $80 more per month. It's not helpful, but it comes out to a cup of coffee and a couple donuts a day. Double or triple that for ancillary effects (heating oil, shipping costs, etc) and it's a bigger bite, but still one that should be fairly easily absorbed by anyone not living above their means. Especially when conservation behavior is stimulated. My bicycle will be getting a workout this summer.

SourAaron said...

I hope it does NOT pop.

$200 oil will give us something our politicians simply can't - an economic justification for green energy, investment in solar, and other alternatives that are in both our economic and national security interests.

If that means poor people in Ohio have to find their bike and use it, sounds good to me. After my trip there, a lot of poor people could really use the exercise.

M. Simon said...

An announcement of the viability of this technology:

WB-7 First Plasma

Could make a big difference in the psychology.

jeff said...

I'm still trying to figure out why we have oil markets... they serve no purpose but to increase the price.

Make oil like bread - it's price isn't fixed by a bunch of people scared that it might become scarce, it's price is fixed by a baker who knows how much it costs him to make it, with profit. If he charges too much profit... he loses business.

Kill off the commodities markets and it would be interesting to see the results.

johnnycwest said...

Free markets with a strong military posture to defend our interests is all that is required to supply us with more than enough energy at affordable prices. Oil replaced whale oil and in time it will be replaced with technological advances, if markets are allowed to operate to unleash human genius and productivity.

Of course this would not allow the social engineering of those helpless chubby dolts across the world and in Ohio in particular. I suspect we would all benefit from being left alone by those who are so much "wiser".

Anonymous said...

Oil prices will stay high as long as we feel entitled to lock up our coal, ban oil drilling anywhere a bird might get dirty and litigate new refineries and nuclear generating plants off the drawing board.

Anonymous said...

"Not only is the bubble psychological, so is the 'pain at the pump.'"

What if you have a 15 mpg average car, commute 100 miles a day and like to have a coffee and donut every day? Is the pain at the pump still just psychological?


Keith said...

What most people, including commenters here, don't understand is that oil companies are required by accounting laws to re-value all their oil holdings on a quarterly basis to current market prices. This is called "mark to market" accounting. It used to be optional but after Enron/Sarbanes-Oxley it became mandatory.

Oil companies report their "reserves" of known oil they have rights to, which is where most of the gloomy forecasts of when we're "running out of oil" come from. So Exxon has X billion barrels of oil in their known reserves, which is an asset on their books. If the price of oil goes up by $1, then because of the quarterly mark to market, Exxon just made $X billion. If the market price goes up $10/bbl, then Exxon just made $10X billion.

This is why Exxon "made" $171 billion last year. If/when the market goes down, they will "lose" the same $171 billion. In the late 70's, Carter imposed "windfall profits taxes" on the up market, took the money, and then the oil companies were left high and dry when they lost all that money again as the market went back down. They paid real taxes on virtual profits and it took them a decade to get out of the toilet again.

Because the paper profits happen at the same time as the rising markets, it makes it seem like Exxon is making these profits on the backs of consumers filling minivans up, but that isn't where the big money is. I believe that Congress damn well knows this, but the populism plays well against the "big corporation" narrative, so they keep the charade going.

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

People, think long-term, not short-term.

I WANT oil to hit $120/barrel, and stay above that level. That is good for America in the long run. It will force technological innovation and also force the petrodictators to overextend themselves and burn the candle at both ends. Chavez, Iran, Putin, etc. will be in a similar situation as Americans who bought houses on zero-down adjustable ARMs. Overextended and screwed.

Detailed article with graphs and charts here.

Anonymous said...

Re: Keith at 1:30pm.

Concerning the revaluation of reserves about which he wrote - A crucial fact to remember is that 'estimated reserves' is an economic calculation, not a physical calculation. Estimated reserves increase as the price increases. Greatly simplified, estimated reserves are calculated based upon what amounts of petroleum can be produced profitably at a given price. Increase the price and you increase the estimated reserves available upon which the new and higher price is applied. Thus, you generate a multiplier effect in calculating values. It is for this reason why I answer the question, 'When will we run out?' by saying 'Never'. We will someday substitute away from petroleum, but we will never run out.

Anonymous said...

It is simple supply and demand. Supply is not keeping up with demand.

Face it people, oil supplies are finite. Is there more in the ground? Of course, but its harder and harder to get.....and demand from China and India will continue to grow. Oil Prices should stabilize at $120 per barrel for the short term...then expect the price to go farther north.

We better begin bringing coal and nuke plants online soon and fast...or we will be in a world of hurt!

Lyn said...

I disagree with the article. Speculators have very little influence in this market.

Overall demand is still strong. The US recession may dampen demand in the US, but worldwide demand continues to rise. Also, the US is about to enter into its prolonged summer driving season. Hurricane season will be here soon, too, and that will potentially threaten oil supplied from the Gulf of Mexico.

I don't see anything on the horizon that would permanently reduce the price of oil. As one or two of your smarter readers commented, get used to higher prices.

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend Dan Yergin's "The Prize" to anyone who would venture an opinion on the price of oil.

World demand will not continue to increase in the face of rising prices and it certainly does make sense to consider the 'cost' of the specs in this market.

And to the anonymous writer who penned "The arguement [sic] for a drastic reduction in the price of oil has been circulating since it was $30 per barrel..." I would refer you to the cover article of the September 2001 issue of Forbes magazine forcasting the (long overdue) collapse of the U.S. housing bubble. Because of speculators' access to easy credit, that bubble continued to expand until recently. The additional time until the housing market corrected itself and the ultimate bubble 'pop' doesn't negate the efficacy of Forbes opinion. Easy credit simply prolonged the time it took to correct.

Commodity markets and specifically oil, are absolutely price elastic, opec notwithstanding, and the price of oil will indeed be coming back down; it's only a question of time.

And a hearty "cheers" to you too.

Anonymous said...

First, let's throw some data into the article's claim that "Americans have been using less fuel of late and that alone should have reduced prices by several dollars a barrel." According to the EIA the 4 week moving avg ending of gasoline demand is down a whopping .85% YoY. However, national gasoline prices are up 26% (using the March 3 price report.).

So, we see it takes large price increases to make even the smallest changes. Also note that the crude oil (domestic production + import) total (on a 4 week average) is UP over a year ago. Remember, oil is used for more than just gasoline for automobiles.

Now on to the idea that it is only the falling dollar that is causing the price of oil to raise - look at a chart of the price of oil in EUROs, not dollars, over the last 5 years or so. While you can see the fluctuations due to the currency exchange, what should be positively clear is that the price or oil is rising regardless of currency.

Is it too difficult for people to accept that the longterm worldwide oil demand is growing faster than the ability to produce?

Do you have to always look for the boogeyman?

Certainly commodities can serve as a hedge for some investors, and as a game for other investors, and that will cause fluctuations in oil price.

However, can't we just accept the most basic of economics, that as demand grows and supply doesn't the resolution will be higher prices?

lewy14 said...

re: anonymous, you wrote:
the 4 week moving avg ending of gasoline demand is down a whopping .85% YoY. However, national gasoline prices are up 26% (using the March 3 price report.).

Interesting data - thanks. But I read something totally different.

Demand destruction isn't linear.

I'm sure you didn't mean to imply that it takes a 26% increase in price to create a .85% drop in gasoline demand.

If we take the current price of a gallon of gasoline to be $3, then five more such 26% increases would result in a price of $9.50 or so, with a reduction of gas consumption of 5%.

Do you really believe gas would push $10 a gallon and people would use only 5% less?

No, demand destruction is non-linear - and your data show that we are on the cusp of demand destruction.

Excellent news....

...except they won't feel it in China, because they're still subsidized, as other commenters have pointed out.

Anonymous said...

Dear friends.....Hubbert's peak is real and it is here. We are now in a time of resource procurment and protection. China is actively seeking and securing oil fields. They are building their militay to protect their interests.

We invaded Iraq for the oil (and I agree with the decision!)....and we will not leave in spite of what that fool Obama says. We have no choice. No choice.....period!

Accept will sleep better!

Don P said...

Two points:
1. China is experiencing a recession. A strong Yuan is making their products less competitive on the world market, and manufacturers are looking to places like Indonesia and Viet Nam for cheaper goods. Because of this, their demand for oil is moderating.
2. We invaded Iraq for oil? Do you have any clue how stupid that statement is? If it was all about oil, THEN WHY ARE WE PAYING OVER $100 A BARREL FOR IT? If it was about oil, all The President would have had to do was send someone like Karl Rove on a little secret negotiation- The US says Sadam's not such a bad guy, gets the sanctions lifted, and we get all the oil we want below market price. No 3,000 plus troops killed, no billions out of taxpayer pockets rebuilding Iraq, no $105 a barrel oil. No, We did not invade Iraq for the oil.

Anonymous said...

$100/barrel oil is cheap. It will go much higher. What the US and our allies want is access to oil. Thanks to the Sanctions,Iraq's oil fields were virtually untapped. It is the second largest supply in the world because of the embargos. China was making strong overtures to Sadam. The US could not allow China to secure rights to the oil. We cannot defeat China in a War, Nor can they defeat the US. We moved first!

You are forgetting "the" fundamental point. World oil supply has peaked! Old economic models will no longer apply as this "strategic" resource dwindles! We must have oil.

Now our armies set on top of and control whats under Iraq. A very smart move. The cost in lives and dollars was/is necessary.

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Anonymous said...

Just a though to all those in the peak oil crowd. Historically, demand has fallen in the face of higher prices (circa 1976-85) but it typically comes with a lag effect of 4-5 years. Based upon the massive price increases in 2005, expect significant demand destruction to begin between 2010-2015 for the next 5-10 or more years. Large price increases take time to filter to the consumer (hence the increase in oil prices and simultaneous increase in demand)

New research brings on new technology which brings on less demand. DO NOT DISCOUNT THE LAG EFFECT.

The demand destruction will occur, but it will be a delayed reaction to higher prices. Research in alternative energy will eventually have an impact on fossil fuel demand. To say that demand for anything will go up infinitely is a stupid stupid argument. We ran out of tulips during the tulip craze, houses during the housing bubble,and commodities during the commodity bubble.

Anonymous said...

After Oil
By David Fleming
(C) Prospect Magazine, November 2000

"Only one country has the potential for a serious increase in output, on a scale which could make a difference. The bad news is: that country is Iraq. Iraq's oil geology is not fully explored, but there are some well-informed guesses. One estimate is that there are 110 billion barrels there--equal to more than three British North Seas, or more than one third of the total resource once possessed by Saudi Arabia. This oil could not be made immediately available, but it is on a scale to keep world oil production rising for a few more years. It lies, however, in a country which is armed to the teeth, consumed by loathing of the west, and just waiting for a US armed intervention to make its day. Iraq was prevented from selling off its oil during the 1990s, when prices were lower than they will ever be again; it will soon be well placed to apply its own sanctions to the rest of the world by fine-tuning its output and naming its price."

As oil and natural gas deplete, suppliers will attempt to charge as much as the market will bear. That – in turn – will force demand destruction as higher prices and availability curb consumption. Unfortunately, since American oil demand per household has been relatively inelastic since 1982, demand destruction can only occur if the economy is forced into a recession, and/or Americans make substantial changes to their lifestyle.

Lets further make the assumption that research does not yield a viable alternative to oil? For argument....lets also assume the current administration,who are from the oil industry,know there is no current viable alternative to oil?

What would Rome do??

Soylent said...

"We humans burn about 2/3rds of the oil to make electricity NOT to power transportation."

No. About 25% of oil is used for electricity and process heat and it's already well under way of being phased out(usually in favour of coal).

"The Chinese are preparing to go big on nuclear pebble bed fusion reactors."

Fission, not fusion. Pebble beds are still experimental and the economics undetermined.

I'd rather see them act on CANDU's or LWRs soon-ish to curb exploding use of coal and take pebble beds on line when possible and where economical. (they may not be competitive with regular reactors but they are likely competitive with expensive diesel in some of the larger container ships and possibly passively safe enough to build them inside a densely populated city and us them for district heating and power).

Anonymous said...

some of the earlier posters ridiculing this argument because it's been around since 2004 are missing the point.

Economists started predicting the housing crash back in 2001, but the bubble continued to grow for about 5 years or so until it burst.

If there is an oil bubble, the same thing will happen. The correction may not come this spring, but it will come eventually.

Anonymous said...

The price for a barrel of crude oil should be in euros, not in dollars.
That should ease things down in the financial markets.
The EU already seems to do so at:

Franklin said...

Is it possible to speak about INCREASING FUEL EFFICIENCY?

I really don't understand how we can justify driving vehicles that get 15 MPH - the same as cars from the 70's.

Do we still talk on CB radios in our cars?

If we get off the waste tip we can solve a lot of our problems quite easily - we need to reframe the debate and promote greater efficiency.

Please help me understand why this obvious solution is discussed so little.

Swedish VIking said...

Anyone else notice the irony of how, in his/her petty and condescending bashing of America, "anony mouse" demonstrates how "US centric" he/she is?

Anonymous said...

The "bubble" will burst when China can no longer subsidize their energy markets.

As long as they are willing to lose money on oil to keep the economy bulldozing along we will see the bubble continue to grow.

Anonymous said...

Watch for a 10 to 20% one-day drop in the price of oil. That will be the beginning of the end. here is no justifyiable reason to have higher oil and gas prices than two years ago. Inventories adecuate and demand for gas is even decreasing. Not so long ago, refinery capacity was at 94%. Now it's at 81%. That's a 14% drop in production and subsequently, there should be a drop in oil imports. That's why there's been a recent drop in inventories. I assure you this is the reason why OPEC has not raised production; demand is flat and may be decreasing worlwide. This does not correspond with a bull market in oil.

Anonymous said...

Today I feel is the day that oil prices begin to collapse. The Iranian boat shooting was just another speculative driven overhyped event. Watch for the drop to begin slowly then increase in speed and duration. Goodbye speculators, the day is here!

speculator said...

The smartest thing I have read on this blog is that when everybody is saying the fundamentals have changed, we have reached bubble territory. Fundamentals don't change in the course of a few years, they change over time, and im talking decades of moderate change. Oil didnt evaporate and demand didnt peak in the course of a couple of years.

China and India will begin to moderate oil intake because it is in their best interest to do so; they are already in the process of building reactors. China and India are also looking down the nose of a population shortfalls because of past decisions they have made in regard to childbirth regulation, as well as the fallout of their current "industrial revolution" society (use Europe and the U.S. as your paradigmatic reference for that). Oil will bust as demand starts to wane, mainly due to the beginning of a short global recession. Demand will definitely wane over the long term as third world countries approach first world status and populations decrease.

U.S. inflation is good for the economy because it makes our goods more competitive globally. I wouldn't be surprised if at some level the Fed isn't purposely encouraging inflation (what good does a strong greenback to for the U.S. in global economic terms). What economic growth have we experienced over the past 7 years that wasn't housing or credit driven.

What would be good for the U.S. economy is nuclear reactors, and oil bust and an inflated dollar. Lets start recollecting some of those IOU's from other countries over the next two decades.