$4.25 Gasoline by Memorial Day

 |  Includes: DBO, OIL, OLO, STO, SZO, USL, USO
by: Bob van der Valk

While living in The Hague as a young boy I often wondered what was on the other side of that vast expanse of water known as the North Sea. How could I have known about the vast crude oil reserves lying underneath the angry waters of the North Sea and its eventual exploration by the countries surrounding it?

Brent geese would fly over my province of South Holland much like Canadian geese fly over Montana on their way south. I now live in Terry, Montana, which is a long distance from Holland and the North Sea, but the word "Brent" once again has once again become part of my every day vocabulary while discussing the reasons for the fuel price increases.

The word Brent was originally derived from the naming policy of Shell U.K. Exploration and Production (NYSE:RDS.A), operating on behalf of ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell, which names all of its fields after birds. In the case of their North Sea operations the field was called Brent Goose, which was later shortened by the market to Brent encompassing similar type crude oils being produced in the area.

Brent Crude, Brent Sweet Light Crude, Oseberg, Ekofisk, and Forties are all part of the Brent crude oil sourced from the North Sea and traded on the Intercontinental Exchange (NYSE:ICE) in London. The Brent crude oil marker is also known as Brent Blend, London Brent and Brent Petroleum and is used to price two thirds of the world's internationally traded crude oil supplies.

Why has the Brent crude oil benchmark price become so important to consumers of gasoline and diesel? The answer: It just recently replaced the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) as the reference price for other "crude oil baskets" such as OPEC, Dubai, Russian and even Alaska North Slope crude oils.

The problem lies with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) not having the power to regulate commodity transactions on the ICE. The big money is being moved into Brent and ICE, thereby bypassing the Nymex and putting the WTI crude oil secondary to Brent. Even the Alaska North Slope crude oil posting is now tracking the Brent crude oil posting.

Bank of America/Merrill Lynch recently increased its forecast for benchmark Brent crude for 2011 to $122 a barrel, and said that Brent could "briefly" surge above $140 a barrel in the second quarter of 2011. For WTI crude oil, the bank forecasted an average of $101 a barrel for this year, up from $87.

Bank of America also forecasted a 30% chance the price of Brent crude oil would reach $160 per barrel in 2011 with global demand for oil increasing and Libya supplying about 1 million barrels per day less than it did before the NATO coalition bombing started on March 19, 2011.

Each dollar differential in the price a barrel of crude oil represents 2.4 cents per gallon change for gasoline and diesel. When the price reaches the $140 level, it will add another 40 cent per gallon to today's $3.856 per gallon national average price for unleaded gasoline per AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. That means $4.25 per gallon for regular gasoline by the end of May, which is right at the beginning of the summer driving season.

The average gasoline price in the U.S. could reach $4.75 per gallon if the Brent crude oil reaches the predicted $160 a barrel sometime this year.

Crude oil prices now are determined not so much by supply and demand but by financial markets like the Nymex and ICE. Most oil is traded using derivative financial instruments that are not based on the physical exchange of crude oil (wet barrels in the trade) between seller and buyer. In the 1990s, physical transactions accounted for about 30% of oil traded, but they now number less than 1% of contracts traded on the various exchanges.

Crude oil prices soared to new highs in 2005 when U.S. pension funds were permitted to invest their members' retirement monies in oil futures. U.S. Congress convened a special hearing in 2008 after prices soared to $147 a barrel for WTI crude oil to consider the influence that speculation has on crude oil prices. Analysts calculated for each $100 million pumped into the oil market the price per barrel was pushed up by 1.6%.

In effect, oil has become a speculative commodity whose price is determined by how investors anticipate its value will increase or decrease at a given point in the future.

No sooner had Bank of America Merrill Lynch given its bullish prediction than the commodities market rallied and the price of Brent oil surpassed $120 per barrel. Nonetheless, do analysts have at least some idea of an upper limit to prices?

The two dominant theories of the 1970s and 1980s held that oil prices were limited by the prices for alternative energy sources to crude oil or, by contrast, that the price ceiling was determined by the purchasing power of oil consumers who are also unable to reduce demand. This is just partly true today.

In the end, the main "energy resource" of the past 40 years was not oil but energy efficiency, and consumers' ability to save money by reducing consumption and using alternative energy sources as prices increased.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.