Oil Price Slide – No Good Way Out

The world is in a dangerous place now. A large share of oil sellers need the revenue from oil sales. They have to continue producing, regardless of how low oil prices go unless they are stopped by bankruptcy, revolution, or something else that gives them a very clear signal to stop. Producers of oil from US shale are in this category, as are most oil exporters, including many of the OPEC countries and Russia.

Some large oil companies, such as Shell and ExxonMobil, decided even before the recent drop in prices that they couldn’t make money by developing available producible resources at then-available prices, likely around $100 barrel. See my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. These large companies are in the process of trying to sell off acreage, if they can find someone to buy it. Their actions will eventually lead to a drop in oil production, but not very quickly–maybe in a couple of years.

So there is a definite time lag in slowing production–even with very low prices. In fact, if US shale production keeps rising, and Libya and Iraq keep work at getting oil production on line, we may even see an increase in world oil production, at a time when world oil production needs to decline.

A Decrease in Oil Prices May Not Fix Oil Demand

At the same time, demand doesn’t pick up quickly as prices drop. We are dealing with a world that has a huge amount of debt. China in particular has been on a debt binge that cannot continue at the same pace. A reduction in China’s debt, or even slower growth in its debt, reduces growth in the demand for oil, and thus its price. The same situation holds for other countries that are now saturated with debt, and trying to come closer to balancing their budgets.

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve’s discontinuation of quantitative easing has cut off a major flow of funds to emerging markets. Because of this change, emerging market demand for oil has dropped. This has happened partly because of the lower investment funds available, and partly because the value of emerging market currencies relative to the dollar has fallen. Again, a decrease in oil price is not likely to fix this problem to a significant extent.

Europe and Japan are having difficulty being competitive in today’s world. A drop in oil prices will help a bit, but their problems will mostly remain because to a significant extent they relate to high wages, taxes, and electricity prices compared to other producers. The reduction in oil prices will not fix these issues, unless it leads to lower wages (ouch). The reduction in oil prices is instead likely to lead to a different problem–deflation–that is hard to deal with. Deflation may indirectly lead to debt defaults and a further drop in oil demand and oil prices.

Thus, oil prices are likely to continue their slide for some time, until real damage is done, perhaps to several economies simultaneously.

The United States’ Role in the Oil Over-Production / Under-Demand Clash 

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Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

A person might think that oil prices would be fairly stable. Prices would set themselves at a level that would be high enough for the majority of producers, so that in total producers would provide enough–but not too much–oil for the world economy. The prices would be fairly affordable for consumers. And economies around the world would grow robustly with these oil supplies, plus other energy supplies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way recently. Let me explain at least a few of the issues involved.

1. Oil prices are set by our networked economy.

As I have explained previously, we have a networked economy that is made up of businesses, governments, and consumers. It has grown up over time. It includes such things as laws and our international trade system. It continually re-optimizes itself, given the changing rules that we give it. In some ways, it is similar to the interconnected network that a person can build with a child’s toy.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Thus, these oil prices are not something that individuals consciously set. Instead, oil prices reflect a balance between available supply and the amount purchasers can afford to pay, assuming such a balance actually exists. If such a balance doesn’t exist, the lack of such a balance has the possibility of tearing apart the system.

If the compromise oil price is too high for consumers, it will cause the economy to contract, leading to economic recession, because consumers will be forced to cut back on discretionary expenditures in order to afford oil products. This will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. See my post Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.

If the compromise price is too low for producers, a disproportionate share of oil producers will stop producing oil. This decline in production will not happen immediately; instead it will happen over a period of years. Without enough oil, many consumers will not be able to commute to work, businesses won’t be able to transport goods, farmers won’t be able to produce food, and governments won’t be able to repair roads. The danger is that some kind of discontinuity will occur–riots, overthrown governments, or even collapse.

2. We think of inadequate supply being the number one problem with oil, and at times it may be. But at other times inadequate demand (really “inadequate affordability”) may be the number one issue. 
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Our Investment Sinkhole Problem

We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.

Figure 1. Comparison of 2005 to 2011 percent change in real GDP vs percent change in oil consumption, both on a per capita basis. (GDP per capita on a PPP basis from World bank, oil consumption from BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Comparison of 2005 to 2011 percent change in real GDP vs percent change in oil consumption, both on a per capita basis. (GDP per capita on a PPP basis from World Bank, oil consumption from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.)

In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.

The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.

Figure 2. Total primary energy consumed per capita, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data and population data from EIA.

Figure 2. Total primary energy consumed per capita, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data and population data from EIA.

At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers.

To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.

The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.

These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.

Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.   Continue reading

What the new 2011 EIA oil supply data shows

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released full-year 2011 world oil production data. In this post, I would like show some graphs of recent data, and provide some views as to where this leads with respect to future production.

World oil supply is not growing very much

Figure 1. World crude oil and other "liquids" supply has dropped below the 1983-2005 trend line in recent years. Actual data is from EIA International Petroleum Monthly, through December 2011.

The fitted line in Figure 1 suggests a “normal” growth in oil supplies (including substitutes) of 1.6% a year, based on the 1983 to 2005 pattern, or total growth of 10.2% between 2005 and 20011. Instead of 10.2%, actual growth between 2005 and 2010 amounted to only 3.0% including crude oil and substitutes.

The shortfall in oil production relative to what would  have been expected based on the 1983-2005 growth pattern amounted to 4.7 million barrels in 2011. This is far more than any country claims as spare capacity. This is no doubt one of the reasons why oil prices are as high they are now. These high oil prices tend to interfere with economic growth of oil importing nations.

The shortfall in growth especially occurred in crude oil. Figure 2, below, shows crude oil production separately from substitutes.

Figure 2. World oil and other liquids supply, broken out into crude and condensate, natural gas plant liquids, other liquids (mostly ethanol), and processing gain (increase in volume from refining heavy oil), based on EIA data.

Between 2005 and 2011, crude oil production rose only 0.5%. It was mostly the substitutes that grew.

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OPEC says, ‘Don’t Count on Us’ for More Oil Supply

The results of OPEC’s latest meeting to set oil production quotas were announced this morning. Instead of production targets for individual countries, a group production ceiling of 30 million barrels a day was set. This amount is a bit less than OPEC produced in November 2011 (actual 30.367 mbd), according to its reckoning, and less than it would have produced most of 2011, if Libyan production had stayed on line, based on the amounts shown in its November Oil Market Report.

A recent history of oil production from the November Oil Market Report, both for OPEC and in total, is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Recent oil production for World and for OPEC, according to OPEC November Oil Market Report.

According to a Platts report of the meeting, Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told reporters, “We are going to reduce the level of production of each country to make space for Libya.” That is not what people want to hear–Brent oil price is still over $100 barrel, even with what seems to be record production for both the world and OPEC, based on Figure 1.

The same Platts report also says, “OPEC on Tuesday said it expected demand for OPEC crude next year to average 30.09 million b/d.” Thus, the new production cap is slightly less than what OPEC sees as demand going forward.

It should be noted that the new limit includes Iraq in addition to the “regular” OPEC countries. Thus, the agreement says that if Iraq increases its production, other OPEC countries will reduce their production to keep total production to 30 million barrels a day.  Continue reading