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Anomalies, like some difficult people and risky jokes, are where you find information. This is why we like them. One of the biggest anomalies out there can be found in the global energy markets. The economic crisis that began in the second half of 2008 triggered a sharp decline in energy prices and consumption. By the end of that year the price of oil had fallen by 75%, traded coal was down by 62%, and the price of natural gas sold in the US had fallen by 58%. The economic slowdown continued into 2009, and then something strange happened.

While prices for coal and gas continued to fall, the oil price stabilized and then staged a sharp recovery. From a low of $34 in December 2008, the price of oil rose to $71 in June 2009. In the wake of economic recovery the oil price has continued rising and is now over $80. Week in, week out pundits attempt to call the oil price and most of the time they seem to call it wrong. The reason it is so difficult is that the energy markets are going through a change and change is always difficult to forecast.

Demand for oil in the OECD countries had started to fall in late 2005, long before the economic crisis broke. It continued dropping through 2006 and into 2007. Since 2007, oil consumption in OECD countries was down by 8%. Yet, in the five years to 2008, the price of oil rose by 370%, traded coal was up 460% and natural gas rose by 120%. For the answer to this anomaly we can largely ignore the machinations of hedge funds and other speculators, instead we should look at what is happening in emerging markets.

The only other time since World War II that prices rose by as much as they have during this decade was in the 1970s. Then demand for oil was driven by growth in the developed world. This time round 90% of the growth in demand for oil is coming from the developing economies.

Emerging inefficiency

Emerging economies, like China and India, are not efficient consumers of energy. Therefore, demand for energy exceeds the growth in GDP. At market exchange rates it takes 3.4 barrels of oil equivalent to produce $1000 of GDP in the non-OECD countries, compared to 1.1 barrels of oil equivalent in the OECD. One reason for this inefficiency is that many emerging markets subsidize the price of energy. There is a direct correlation between energy efficiency and energy prices so subsidies are not a helpful distortion if you are worried about carbon emissions. Besides, green house gas distortions have other implications for global economic growth.

The American consumer represents about $11 trillion of global GDP, compared to about $2 trillion for both China and India. In the US, fuel taxes are low and as a result the price of oil has a more direct impact on the prices that consumers pay at the pump. With demand rocketing in the non OECD, both because of stronger growth and inefficiencies, American consumers are likely to suffer, even as growth in their own country stagnates. Fuel subsidies, therefore, are a distortion that are being felt all around the world.

Fuel subsidies make the world a more unpredictable place. The other reason that unpredictability is rising is due to the different nature of growth in mature and developing markets. As Christof Ruhl, the chief economist of BP, explains:

in developed markets economic growth only gradually reshapes the sectoral composition of the GDP and employment; its principal affect is to expand the service sector, which is less energy intensive. In emerging market, growth is radically reshaping economies, making predictions about energy consumption harder to nail down successfully. Hundreds of millions of people have left low-energy-intensive activities, such as agriculture, for energy-intensive activities, such as construction and industry. In the West, industry is becoming less energy intensive, whereas in emerging markets the drift is the other way.

As discretionary incomes rise in the developing world due to urbanisation, lifestyles change. Mobility and the need for transportation increases, as we can see by the explosion of car sales in countries such as China. These changes have shifted the growth in demand outside of the OECD. Ruhl says that the entire net increase in global oil consumption since 1999 has come from outside of the OECD countries.

This rebalancing of consumption in favor of the emerging economies carries a heavy environmental cost. In the 1990s the growth in carbon emissions slowed, but since the turn of the century it has picked up on the back of emerging market demand. The carbon intensity of energy itself has increased. From 1970 until the late 1990s, global emissions per unit of energy consumed fell steadily. But then, in 1999, reflecting the increasing share of coal in energy portfolios of the non-OECD countries, carbon emissions per unit of energy began to rise. Since the turn of the century they have increased by two per cent globally and by 3 per cent in the emerging world.

The Role of OPEC

As we have just seen, the rise of the emerging markets is making it more difficult to predict energy consumption. However, as we saw above, the price of oil rose sharply while other energy sources, such as gas and coal, were more directly correlated to the overall economic growth. The rise for the divergence is due to OPEC. The oil price is supported by a cartel, whereas coal and gas are not.

By 2008, the average annual price of crude had increased for 7 consecutive years. This had never happened before. One reason for this rally can be laid at the door of price fall, when the price for crude began to retreat from $80 a barrel, which was then a record high. To stop the decline OPEC stepped in and cut production twice, in late 2006 and early 2007, by almost one million barrels a day. Crude oil then rallied from $50 to $147 in July 2008, their highest level ever, in both real and nominal terms.

What is extraordinary about this rise is that production was only cut by 1m barrels a day, whereas daily consumption is 81m a day. Ruhl explains that like any complex system, the global oil market needs a degree of redundancy to operate smoothly. In the short term, inventories can provide this safety cushion; in the longer term, it is provided by spare production capacity. Following strong demand growth in 2003 and 2004, spare capacity in the global oil market was hovering around record lows, at little more than two percent of global production. Even after the OPEC cuts of 2006 and 2007, the global oil market was running at above 97 percent of capacity. At such a high level it is impossible to guarantee any meaningful stability in prices.

As growth picked up, an already tight market became tighter and prices exploded. As crude prices cruised through $120, Saudi Arabia unilaterally decided to increase production in an effort to help out the US, its largest customer. Curiously, oil prices jumped on heels of both announcements; the market believed that Saudi could not deliver the increase. The market was wrong. Not only was production increased in the Kingdom, it rose from other Persian Gulf producers too. The timing could not have been worse because it coincided with the Great Recession. Prices fell from $147 a barrel in the summer to $34 by late December.

Production was cut by 4.2m barrels and by the first quarter of 2009, OPEC’s cuts finally met the fall in global demand.

Where are we today?

Ruhl estimates that the oil market now has 6m barrels a day spare capacity. He calculates that it would take three years to burn through this capacity and wind markets up as tight as they were last year. Now hear this: prices are not expected to spike over the next two or three years.

Stability may be a dream because it assumes that the deep structural changes that affect the oil market comply. Three factors are worth keeping in mind. The first is that OPEC retains inordinate power over the oil market, even though it only controls 40% of crude output. The main reason for this is that there has been barely an increase in supply from non OPEC regions, despite the strong rise in the price between 2002 and 2008.

The second reason, as we have discussed, is that emerging economies now drive the price of oil. The last structural change in the oil market is energy efficiency. The entire increase in global oil consumption this century has come from outside of the OECD, in countries where its price is subsidised. Estimates of future shifts in demand will therefore have to determine how subsidies are likely to affect demand outside the OECD countries, for example, in China or the Middle East.

Coal and Gas

Global coal consumption is led by China, which consumes 43% of global supply and represents 85% of the growth in coal consumption. The market for coal is a lot less concentrated that for oil. Coal trades internationally in smaller but highly competitive markets. During 2008, the price of coal rose and then collapsed as the Great Recession hit demand. It fell longer and further than oil because there is no cartel supporting the price. The market has also become more competitive: in response to higher transport costs, Europe substituted coal from the Indian Ocean with imports from the US.

Another factor is the fact that coal can be substituted by cheaper natural gas, which is what happened in the European Union. Electricity production from gas rose by 8 percent, compared to a 9 percent drop in electricity production from coal.

Natural gas got hit by the same one-two punch that hit oil. Production increased just as economic growth went into a tailspin. The increase in gas production was partly due to technological advances in the US. Chief among these are horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which use water pressure to release gas from hard rocks. Improvements in technology have led to an increase in the production of non-conventional gases.

The share of these gas deposits in total US gas production has reached about 50 percent. Like unconventional opinions, unconventional gas is becoming the new normal.

As the technology that was pioneered in the US spreads, the production of unconventional gases will increase. This is important because deposits of gas are less concentrated than those of oil.

Another change has been the development of an integrated market for LNG. About 8% of all internationally traded gas today is LNG. Traditionally, the relationship between LNG producers and consumers has mirrored that between piped-gas producers and consumers, which are connected by pipelines. This system is now changing. Spot markets have been emerging, thanks to buyers who have tried to secure additional LNG by purchasing single cargoes.

The emergence of a competitive market for LNG has the obvious effect of linking prices between regional gas markets in Asia, Europe, and North America, which have historically been segmented. The second consequence is that with long-term contract pricing under pressure, competition will increase and efficiency will improve. Consumers will benefit if the price of natural gas is increasingly delinked from the price of crude. Finally, the advent of a globally integrated LNG market will improve energy security by fostering diversification.

We can already see the consequences of this: Russian and Central Asian gas deliveries to Europe are being affected by LNG prices. Whether the changes in the natural gas markets will have strategic significance will depend on two factors. The first is whether more unconventional gas resources can be developed and where this occurs. The reason that coal is so popular is that it is available where it is needed - primarily in China and India. By contrast, natural gas is, like oil, geologically concentrated: 60 percent of natural gas is consumed in regions that only control 14 percent of the reserves. Now if unconventional gases can be produced in places such as China, which currently are heavy users of coal, it could become the local fuel of choice, which would benefit carbon emissions. One kilowatt-hour of electricity with natural gas emits a little more than half the amount of carbon that producing the same amount of energy with coal does.

Conclusion

What we have learned is that no matter how severe the current recession, its effects on global energy markets are likely to be dwarfed by the long-term impact of the industrialization of the emerging-market economies. The pressure on energy and commodity markets may have been relieved for the short term, but over the medium and long terms, the need for greater energy efficiency is paramount. Today, oil accounts for 35% of global primary energy consumption, coal for 29% and gas for 24%. Renewable energies, other than hydro and nuclear, are less than one percent. It’s time to wake up and smell the methane, it will be decades before alternative energies ever have a meaningful impact on global energy consumption and carbon emissions. Where we can make an impact is through improved efficiencies.

In the West, industry has led the way in becoming more efficient. As consumers in both the developed and developing world show an increased desire for electronic goods, such as flat screen TVs, lighting, computers, music players, video cameras and digital still cameras, the ability to deliver greater energy efficiency becomes more prized. This is one reason the share prices of companies involved in such technologies as LEDs will continue to outperform solar, wind or any other alternative energy in future.

Disclosure: No stocks or commodity position held.

Source: Energy Anomaly: Look to Emerging Markets