Just 10 years ago, then BP (NYSE:BP) CEO John Browne shocked the oil industry by suggesting that oil prices might "temporarily" rise to $40/bbl due to an imbalance of supply and demand, before falling back below $35/bbl again.
Of course, prices in fact moved much higher, as policymaker stimulus in first the US and then the G20 countries created artificially high levels of demand. But now the Great Unwinding of this stimulus is well underway.
So is John Browne's forecast finally about to come true, that prices will retreat again below $35/bbl?
The key issue is that the world now has an energy glut. The stimulus programs temporarily boosted demand, but this was not sustainable. Their lasting legacy has instead been to create a major increase in supply, as the chart above shows for the US:
- US natural gas production peaked in 1973 at 62 Bcf/day, and then fell by a quarter to 46 Bcf/day in 1986 (NASDAQ:BLUE)
- Since 2008, it has rebounded strongly and the US Energy Information Agency (NYSEMKT:EIA) expects it to reach 75 Bcf/day in 2015
- US oil production peaked in 1970 at 9.6 mbd, and then virtually halved to 5mbd in 2008 (green line)
- The EIA reports output was 8.7mbd in September, and expects it to set a new monthly record in 2015, and to average 9.5mbd
There are also clear risks that supply will remain in excess of demand for years to come:
- Major economies such as India and Indonesia have ended their $bns of fuel subsidies on cost grounds
- Indonesia has wasted $132bn over 5 years, more than total spend on social welfare and infrastructure combined
- India wasted $23bn in just its last financial year - money which could instead have provided millions of toilets
- China is planning a massive increase in distributed solar power networks to reduce current pollution levels
- CO2 conservation efforts, and increasing fuel efficiency, are also both creating permanent loss of demand
And all the time, gas has been gaining market share due to its price advantage:
- US natural gas prices peaked around $14/MMBtu in 2006 and then rose again to $13/MMBtu in early 2008
- But since then, they have fallen sharply and are already back within their historical range around $4/MMBtu
Now oil prices are following the same course, having been far above historical levels for a decade as the chart shows:
- Prices have averaged $22/bbl between 1946 - 2014 in money of the day (green line)
- Adjusted for inflation, they have averaged $45/bbl in $2014 (blue line)
Many of the new US oilfields could already live with prices of $50/bbl. And if some producers and/or pipeline owners did go bankrupt, then new owners could buy up the assets at fire-sale prices and restart with a zero-cost basis.
In this context, it is therefore very significant that Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has made no mention of any production cuts. Instead, he told a conference yesterday, "Saudi Arabia does not set the oil price, the market sets the price," adding "oil . . . for us, it's a question of supply and demand, it's purely business."
OIL PRODUCERS RISK PERMANENT LOSS OF MARKET SHARE TO GAS
Of course, many "experts" still find it hard to understand why prices have been falling since the summer. Their consensus view suggested oil prices could never fall below $100/bbl, just as the consensus had earlier argued that natural gas prices would be at least $6/MMBtu. But as often happens, the consensus has been proved wrong.
The issue, as Bloomberg reported Tuesday, is that OPEC producers now have a simple choice. If they try to maintain current price levels, they risk permanent loss of market share to US and other producers, and to gas. They could end up with little or no revenue in future years. Instead their oil, like coal, would simply end up being left in the ground.
Logic suggests the real question is simply whether oil will hold the $45/bbl price level? Or will, in the end, John Browne be proved right? Will supply and demand rebalance nearer nominal price levels of $22/bbl?
The picture may well be clearer within a few months, unless geopolitics intervenes. But in the meantime, many companies and investors have lost a great deal of money during recent price falls by simply following the consensus. Had they done their own analysis, the likely impact of the Great Unwinding would have been immediately obvious.
The good news, however, is that it is not too late for them for them to avoid making the same mistake in 2015.
Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: The author holds the SOIL.L ETF and a number of put options on WTI crude