Monday, August 31, 2015

What Do Futures Markets Tell Us About Long-term Oil Prices?

  • The tendency to believe that the prices of oil futures contracts are predicting the future price of oil is understandable but not supported by the track record of such bets.
  • The prices of long-dated oil futures merely reflect where buyers and sellers are willing to strike a deal today, for their own, diverse reasons.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of numerous debates about the significance of energy futures prices, when I was a trader and later a trading manager for the former Texaco, Inc.  Do changes in futures contract prices actually predict future oil prices as the Journal's reporter suggests? If so, then it might be reasonable to conclude that today's low oil prices could persist for years. However, from my perspective that over-interprets the market data and ignores some important oil fundamentals.

As tempting as it might be to think so, the futures market for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil isn't a crystal ball, and neither is the market for UK Brent crude. A futures price is simply the price someone is willing to pay or receive now for oil to be delivered (or settled without delivery) later. It is typically based on business needs, rather than deep analysis.  A concrete example might be helpful.

The parties who on August 11th bought or sold oil for $56 or $57 in December 2017 likely did so, not because they were certain what the price would be then, but because they couldn't be sure and either needed to hedge another transaction or activity, or thought it constituted a reasonable bet. Aggregating a modest number of such transactions--long-dated futures trade much less frequently than those for the near months--doesn't improve the accuracy of these bets on an inherently unpredictable commodity over long intervals. Anyone who thinks it does should examine the track record of oil futures as predictions; it is a sobering exercise, especially for those who have traded this market.

Consider that while the September 2015 WTI contract closed at a little over $43 per barrel that afternoon, traders were buying and selling the same contract for more than twice as much during long stretches of 2012--about as far removed from us as the late-2017 contract prices cited in the Journal article as evidence of a persistent oil-price slump. Prices for the September 2015 contract were even higher in the middle of last year, when traders knew nearly as much about the growth of US tight oil production and its rising productivity as we do today, but crucially didn't know that OPEC would choose not to cut output to alleviate an over-supplied market as they had done in the early 1980s and late 1990s. Similar examples abound.

So how else might one explain the fact that long-dated oil contracts are trading for less today than they were this spring, if not as a prediction of a longer period of low prices ahead? Behavior and learning play key roles. With the  first anniversary of this historic price collapse just a few months off, expectations of a quick rebound in prices have faded. The possibility that the US could produce as much tight oil, for now, with fewer than half as many drilling rigs in operation as a year ago has sunk in. So has the reality that as painful as $50 oil is for some of OPEC's members, cartel leaders like Saudi Arabia show little inclination to blink first.

However, others are blinking, and that's why I'm skeptical that oil prices can remain this low indefinitely. The cuts in staff and investment budgets by major oil companies and their national oil company peers have been breathtaking, totaling $180 billion this year according to one analysis. The cuts suggest that the projects in question require significantly higher oil prices to be profitable, even after recent cost reductions, or have become too risky at current prices.

Few of these companies are big players in shale. Their bread and butter is large, conventional onshore oil fields and enormously expensive deepwater oil projects, the collective output of which is inherently subject to annual declines in output. Decline is the "silent killer" of output, to the tune of 5% or so every year. The only way to offset this trend within the portfolios of these producers is to spend large sums every year on new wells and new projects--projects that according to Rystad Energy, as cited by Bloomberg, have been cut more than at any time since 1986.

We must also put the US shale revolution in its proper context. When added to a global market that was balanced between supply and demand at around $100 per barrel, it was a game-changer, not least because no other producer or group of producers was willing to reduce output enough to accommodate this new source. However, even at today's 5.4 million barrels per day US tight oil represents only about 6% of global supply. The combination of shale plus OPEC covers less than half the world's oil demand.

The remainder must come from onshore and offshore oil fields in non-OPEC countries like Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, and Russia. This non-OPEC supply has grown thanks to  a wave of completions of  large projects begun 5-10 years ago, when prices were rising rapidly. However, reduced investment now surely means lower non-OPEC production within a year or two.

The key question for future oil prices is therefore when demand, which according to the International Energy Agency is growing rapidly under low prices, and supply, for which new investment has suddenly shifted from the accelerator to the brake pedal, will cross over, erasing today's glut. It's hard to infer the answer from the thinly traded market for long-dated oil futures contracts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Return of Iran's Oil

  • If approved by all parties the negotiated nuclear agreement with Iraq could affect energy markets both directly and indirectly.
  • By adding to the current global oil glut, it would make big oil projects elsewhere riskier, while undermining outdated restrictions on US oil exports.
The signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany represents more than a geopolitical milestone. In the context of today's lower oil prices it puts additional pressure on near-term prices, but perhaps more importantly creates the potential for significant shifts within the oil industry. Iran's expanded exports--once the conditions of the deal are met--will arrive in a market quite different from the one that prevailed when they were restricted in early 2012.

These differences include an OPEC that is now engaged in a contest for global market share, rather than one focused on maintaining oil prices at around $100 per barrel. This is the cartel's response to the rapid growth of non-OPEC production, mainly from US shale, or "tight oil" formations. Based on data from the International Energy Agency, non-OPEC production has increased by 5 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2012, while global demand has grown by just 3 million bpd.  The return of anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million bpd of Iranian exports would expand a global oil surplus and intensify competition.

 Iran's oil traders may find that placing additional volumes with refiners will not be as easy as it would have been just a few years ago. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the likeliest home for most of this incremental supply is in Asia, where competition between Saudi, Iraqi and Russian barrels is already keen. China and India have been the largest purchasers of Iranian oil during the sanctions (see chart below) but Iran is not the only producer seeking to expand its output of similar crude oil.  

Oil prices have two main dimensions, only one of which is widely understood outside the industry. Media reports focus on the absolute price level, particularly for benchmark grades such as Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). However, differentials--the gaps in price for oils of different quality, or of similar quality in different regions--are nearly as important for producers and often more so for refiners.

Iranian oil is mainly sour (high in sulfur) and so competes principally with other sour grades, including those from Saudi Arabia, which is already at record output, and Iraq, where production is approaching 4 million bpd, compared with just under 3 million in 2012. OPEC's other big producers seem no more inclined to cut output to make room for extra Iranian oil than they were to accommodate surging US tight oil. Meanwhile, refineries in Europe, where sanctions on Iranian oil had the largest impact, are also "spoiled for choice" with various crude streams displaced from US refineries by the shale revolution.

If Iran's restored exports keep oil prices lower for longer, they are also likely to widen the "sweet/sour spread", or premium for light sweet crudes like those produced in the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, over sour crudes like Saudi medium or Iranian heavy. That would lend greater urgency to calls for an end to 1970s-vintage restrictions on exporting US crude oil, because it would expand the potential economic opportunity for US exports.

As a result of opening the taps in Iran, we could also see deeper shifts in the structure of the global oil industry. OPEC's current production policy may be targeted at US shale, but shale producers have proven themselves much more adaptable than expected to prices in the $50-60 range. The same cannot necessarily be said for new conventional oil projects with price tags in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. 

Barring another shift as dramatic as the one that rippled through oil markets last fall, we may have witnessed the end of an era in which low-cost producers in OPEC held back production to drive up prices and, in the process, made room for much higher-cost production elsewhere. Iran appears poised to go beyond its pre-sanctions exports by inviting international investment in new developments that would be profitable at current prices.  If Iran's terms are attractive, the losers won't be shale producers that operate at dramatically lower scales of investment and risk per well, but big projects in places like the North Sea, which has already seen a wave of project cancellations. The recent lackluster Mexican bid round might be another signpost.

Could we end up in a few years with a global oil industry in which prices would be determined mainly by a new balance between a resurgent OPEC and US shale producers? That would be a very different world than we have experienced recently, and probably one with more price volatility.

Of course before any of this could happen, the nuclear agreement with Iran would have to go into effect and be widely seen to be holding. For anyone who recalls the periodic inspection crises with Iraq in the late 1990s, that can't be a foregone conclusion, even if the agreement survives review by a US Congress that asserted its right to scrutinize the deal's provisions and includes some surprising skeptics.
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation