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Oil's Rise and Fall .... and Rise

|Includes: COP, CVX, DBO, NE, OIL, RIG, The United States Oil ETF, LP (USO), XOM


The world consumes 30 billion barrels of oil a year. Without it, our food doesn’t make it to the supermarket and our flights to Hawaii are grounded.  Too bad the price is set by such a moody bunch.

Crude gained a moderate 3.2% in futures trading last week, but prices seesawed along the way. Again, bulls won the tussle. An $85-a-barrel yearend forecast from Goldman Sachs and hints of economic recovery -- including surprising strength in Chinese manufacturing -- overshadowed  flush oil stockpiles and other dismal data indicating a weak appetite in the United States, which still devours almost a quarter of global output. Even before the encouraging signs started flashing, oil was sizzling. Prices have more than doubled since crude visited the low $30s in February.

Clearly, instability is in the DNA of our primary energy source. Only a year ago, oil was on an epic ascent, driven by exuberant traders to a peak of $147 a barrel in July. The industry was vilified. Priuses were sold out. Analysts set targets of $200 a barrel. Yet in short order, the recession and credit crunch rewrote the script for the rest of 2008. Those traders turned morose, vaporizing almost 80% of the commodity’s value in five chaotic months.

Demand for crude, however, is considerably less volatile than the price. Even as the rally unfolded this spring, commentators were heard to repeat that the use of the fuel had collapsed. Indeed, the big oil companies and the  petrostates of the world are grappling with a surplus and paring production to shore up the price.

Yet “collapsed” doesn’t describe a world market that will shrink a measly 3% this year to 83.2 million barrels a day, according to the International Energy Agency. True, fewer Americans took long car trips during Memorial Day weekend, but China’s 8-million-barrel-a-day habit will see a dent of only 70,000 a day this year, the IEA says. In fact, the Asian giant burned more oil this April than last April. And all those tankers filled with surplus crude that bearish observers point to? Combined, these floating warehouses hold just over a single day’s worth of global use.

By the time the year is out, we may look at the first half as the worse half for the U.S. economy. That’s what both bullish oil traders and the Obama administration are banking on. In its mid-May report, the Energy Department assumes the beginnings of a recovery. It forecasts only a slight pullback in oil use this year, to 18.9 mbd from 19.4 mbd in 2008, and an uptick in 2010.

Even if U.S. oil demand doesn’t rebound -- and greener cars, biofuels and conservation measures boost the chance that it won’t  – the action is in the developing world. Masses continue to leave the land for the cities, becoming bona fide fossil fuel consumers. Fortunately or unfortunately, entrepreneurs and governments are trying to make that status affordable for them. Tata Motors, for its part, intends to put India’s Everyman behind the wheel of its $2,000 Nano.

An internal-combustion engine in every Asian garage? To put it mildly, that would more than make up for the gas Americans didn’t use over Memorial Day.

Where the crude will come from to satisfy these new wants is a riddle. Most of the cheap and easy  sources have been mined. For much of this decade, when demand was already pushing the supply envelope, drillers ventured into fields and waters that required high expense and high technology to yield their riches. Now, many of those projects have shut down.

OPEC has taken oil off the market, and some analysts believe worldwide drilling has dwindled more than 30% since the price slide took hold. On the face of it, that seems out of whack with the scale of the current oversupply, and could worsen a squeeze in the years ahead.

Even a glut doesn’t change the nature of a finite resource, of course, just how fast it’s depleted. One reason oil companies journeyed to second-tier sources is that formerly prolific fields are drying up. The most spectacular example: Mexico’s relatively young Cantarell. Only a few years ago, it provided more than 2 million barrels a day, but 2009 estimates have tumbled into the 600,000 range. If the realities of geology are disturbing, geopolitics presents another kind of risk. In Nigeria, a guerrilla war poses a chronic threat to exports, and saber rattling in the direction of Iran dependably hikes the price of crude.

Thinking about the future brings a new view of the price swings on the futures exchange. Few commodities are as vital as oil, and none are as problematic. (Does that make it priceless, or worthless?) To investors seeking a natural or “fair” value for the stuff, wake up and smell the exhaust. As a practical matter, there is none, largely because of the immense uncertainties in the outlook. And if there were, the momentum players who rule this murky market would pay it no mind.

But back to this year’s spring fling. The 100% advance during a time of mounting surpluses offers just a whiff of what will happen when supply tightens up. If the recession passes and scarcity sets in, you can bet that the return of energy angst will make for giddy prices in the oil market.