We have seen strong moves higher in the key crude oil benchmarks-WTI, and Brent, in the last several months. This was initiated by the advent of positive news on the Covid front that the vaccines in development were extremely efficacious, promising an endpoint to the spread of the virus. This upward trend in crude was boosted by the gradual decline in U.S. shale production and inventories over the same period.
Data-EIA, Chart by Author
Finally, the move in early January, by OPEC+ to restrain output into mid-2021, and an extra “gift” from Saudi Arabia to remove another 1-million BOPD from the market, provided the impetus for WTI to rise firmly into the $50s. In this article, we will discuss key reasons that we think the upward trend for crude will continue this year. Why?
Demand will return
In spite of the current lockdowns which inhibit demand, the trend is higher. As implementation of the vaccines increases the pool of the virus-immune population, business activity will resume creating demand for refined petroleum products. The graph below shows the EIA’s, Energy Information Agency, forecast of the trend for refined products over the next couple of years. For gasoline, the primary motor fuel used in the U.S. moves gradually higher in the second half of 2021, and then moderates in 2022, just below the levels of 2019. The EIA makes some assumptions about work from home and reduced commuting in this forecast. The forecast is not so robust for jet fuels, showing slight growth in 2021, but a return to near 2019 levels in 2022. Total demand increases to and slightly exceeds 2019 levels by 2022.
This is bullish for oil prices.
The political and macro environment will push supplies lower
Elections have consequences. The concentration of power over the next couple of years, with Democrats controlling all three branches of government, will make increases in U.S. production very unlikely. From recent 2020 highs where the U.S. produced over 13 mm BOPD, production in response to low prices has fallen to 11.0 mm BOPD. We will see an enhanced and stricter regulatory environment in the coming years. The U.S. will be put firmly on a path where renewable fuels are increased at the expense of petroleum-based fuels. The anticipated re-entry of the U.S. into the Paris climate accords will only exacerbate this trend. Fossil fuels will become scarcer, and that is bullish for prices.
OPEC+ has surprised the world with its resolve to finally push prices higher. Using its might as one of the world’s top three crude oil producers, and its unchallenged position as the world’s lowest-cost producer, Saudi Arabia unilaterally chose to withdraw another 1-million BOPD from global markets beyond its OPEC+ commitments. It was this action that moved the oil markets above $50 for the first time since early March 2020. What this suggests strongly is that the cartel is resuming its traditional role of setting crude prices for the world.
The decline of U.S. supplies will return pricing power firmly to OPEC+. The recently obtained $50 handle is likely to be a floor price going forward. The glut we’ve had to deal with over the last few years will continue to dissipate as capital restraint by U.S. shale producers keeps the overall trend down. OPEC+ really has only one mission-providing the maximum return for its members by balancing supply and demand. The western economies’ current infatuation with climate change, is less of a motivator for the key countries that make up OPEC+. Their economies are driven primarily by the export of crude oil, and they all want higher prices.
OPEC+ resuming the swing producer role is bullish for oil prices.
Commodity prices will boom
Last fall I wrote an Oilprice article where I posited that there might be a commodity boom on the horizon. There is no commodity that is more fundamental to the world economy than crude oil. Among the things that drive crude oil other than scarcity is the fact it’s priced in dollars, which makes it very susceptible to inflationary pressures.
The dollar index has declined over the last year but has recently seen support with a weeklong trend higher. A stronger dollar is bullish for oil prices because you get less oil for the dollar which means you need to spend more of them to get the same amount. This is inflationary and as noted above crude is very susceptible to this pressure.
Nor can we ignore the amount of stimulus that the global economy has unleashed in response to the virus. We think as the infection rate begins to decline governments will begin to address the historically low interest rates that have helped to provide liquidity in the pandemic. There is a price to be paid for the tidal wave of cash distributed thus far, and the further stimulus to come as the Biden administration assumes control of the economy. Classic monetary theory tells us that part of the price is likely to be inflation.
There is a temptation to compare this crisis to the financial crisis of 2008. There the Treasury borrowed about $500 bn to provide the liquidity that staved off a collapse of the financial system. So far in the U.S. alone, nearly 4-trillion dollars-worth of stimulus have been authorized, with other actions taken by the Federal Reserve to ensure that institutions, corporations, and small businesses had the funds they needed to operate. As noted previously the Biden administration is just getting started and has discussed trillions more in financial stimulus for the economy.
Commodity prices rose sharply between, 2008-2011 in the face of the stimulus provided in response to the Financial Crisis of 2008. The same index below shows that over the last six months the index has risen sharply. This increase is certainly related to the amount of stimulus provided and expected to be provided by the global economy.
As noted earlier in this article, crude oil is the most fundamental and volatile of the commodities.
A rising or sharply rising price environment for commodities is strongly bullish for higher oil prices.
Brevity keeps us from discussing all the factors that might impact oil prices over the short term. With the information provided in this article, we think a strong case is made for a continued moderate rise in oil prices for the rest of this year.
Longer-term we are expecting a spike in crude prices as shrinking supplies fail to meet rising demand. We view this as being inevitable, as I noted in a prior Oilprice article. Under-investment by the key international oil companies over the last six years will create a scenario where the industry simply will be unable to respond to increased demand in a timely fashion.