Thursday, September 29, 2016

OPEC Agrees to Agree

  • Yesterday's reported OPEC deal left many details unresolved, so oil prices remain under $50, at least for now.
  • Time has given OPEC greater leverage to make effective production cuts, and ample incentive to do so. Will that be enough to close the deal come November?
Yesterday's news that OPEC's members have agreed on the outlines of a deal to reduce output is a fine reason to end my long, unplanned hiatus between blog posts. This morning's news commentary seems focused mainly on the difficulties OPEC faces in sorting out the details by its next official meeting at the end of November. Fair enough, but we shouldn't miss the fact that what came out of the informal meeting in Algiers is qualitatively different from anything OPEC has announced since their meeting in October 2014, which pushed the oil price collapse into high gear.

It's worth taking a moment to review how we got to this point. After oil prices recovered from their last big dive during the financial crisis of 2008-9, the global oil market--best represented during this period by the price of UK Brent crude--settled into a range of roughly $70-90 per barrel. The events of the "Arab Spring" in 2011, including the revolution in Libya, pushed prices well over $100, where they remained until fall 2014.

By early 2010 US shale, or more accurately "tight oil", production was beginning to ramp up. Total US crude oil output (excluding gas liquids) had fallen steadily from 9 million barrels per day (MBD) in 1985 to a plateau around 5 MBD in the mid-to-late 2000s. Most experts thought we would be lucky if it stayed that high in the long term. So the 4 MBD of production from tight oil that came onstream by late 2014, pushing total US production back to 9 MBD, was largely unexpected.

The market impact of the first couple of million barrels per day from US shale was muted by events in the Middle East. In addition to the ongoing instability from the Arab Spring, tighter sanctions on Iran had taken another million-plus barrels per day out of exports. Prices remained high, providing a strong incentive for more tight oil drilling, which from 2013 to 2015 yielded the biggest increase in the history of US oil production.

In thinking about what OPEC might achieve with the modest cuts they are apparently discussing, it's crucial to understand that while US tight oil at its peak in 2015 was no more than 5% of the global oil market, it had a massive effect on prices, because the price of oil is set by the last barrels in or out of the market. Inventories matter, too, but less from the standpoint of their absolute levels, than how fast they are growing or shrinking.

Simply put, the unanticipated growth of US shale swamped the market but is now an established part of supply. In late 2014 OPEC's members likely concluded that, given the upward path shale was then on, they couldn't cut their output by enough to keep prices high without simply making more room for shale, so they were better off keeping things uncomfortable for the competition by standing pat. In fact, they doubled down on that by increasing output after October 2014, mainly from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf producers.

Two years of low oil prices have changed the landscape in ways that I doubt OPEC's members expected. US shale contracted but didn't die. If anything, the efficiencies that shale producers found have made many of them competitive at current prices and big beneficiaries of any future price increase. The latest rig counts from Baker Hughes show a small but steady increase in drilling activity over the last several months. However, what has collapsed with little indication of revival is investment in large-scale, non-shale oil projects from non-OPEC countries.

According to analysis from Wood Mackenzie, global oil investment--actual and planned--is down by over $1 trillion for the period 2015-20. Because of the development time lag for big oil projects, that means that a potentially serious supply gap is being created a few years down the road. Remember that non-OPEC, non-shale production makes up over half of global oil output. French oil company Total has estimated the potential shortfall at 5-10 MBD by 2020, or 5-10% of global supply.

This outcome is a mixed bag for OPEC. To whatever extent its decision to increase, rather than cut output in late 2014 was a "war on shale", that has failed at the cost of many hundreds of billions of dollars of foregone revenue. The collateral damage to the global industry, particularly in places like the North Sea, has been dramatic, even if it won't become obvious until the pipeline of projects started in the $100 years dries up sometime soon. OPEC will surely be blamed for any future price spike, but the likelihood that any cut they make now would be back-filled by non-OPEC production is much less than it was in 2014 or '15.

OPEC faces a conundrum. The market remains over-supplied in the near term, and inventories are at historic levels. Failing to reach agreement in November would not greatly hamper US shale. However, it would prolong their own pain and continue to enlarge the potential supply gap and price spike that is being stored up for an uncertain future that now also includes electric vehicles and possible carbon taxes, the incentive for both of which will expand significantly if oil prices spike again.

What's a cartel to do? We will see much speculation about that during the next two months. My guess is that the need to shore up the national budgets of OPEC's member countries, which are going deeper into debt by the day, along with a desire to avoid a price spike that would merely hasten the transition to non-hyrocarbon energy, will lead to an agreement in November to make at least cosmetic cuts in production. Stay tuned.

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