oil prices

The Brent oil price fell by more than six dollars last week and at $ 104 is now 20 per cent below its recent peak in the spring of 2012. No particular events have triggered the fall. There has been no deal with Iran which would end sanctions. Economic activity levels are hardly exciting but they haven’t suddenly collapsed. Uncertainties around North Korea might normally have been expected to push prices up. 

The death of Hugo Chávez and the prospect of a regime change in Venezuela will cause no more than a momentary blip in the oil market. This is a remarkable change from the situation a few years ago, when developments in Carcacas would have destabilised prices across the world.

In reality, Chávez diminished Venezuela’s potential role in the international oil business by undermining the status of the state company Petróleos de Venezuela SA and excluding major international investment. Production and exports from Venezuela are now well below their potential levels.

To restore PDVSA to its former glory will take time. Many of the people best able to build the company and the country now live comfortably in London or New York and will take some persuading to go back home. Oil industry investors will be circling the airport in their private jets, but there is no new consensus as yet as to the terms on which they might be allowed to return. That too will take time. 

Oil refinery. Getty Images

The energy market is moving on two very different tracks. Oil prices are stubbornly high and gas prices are low, especially in the US, and look set to fall further across the world. The question is when, if ever, will these two tracks meet?

Let’s start with why the oil price at $114 a barrel for Brent remains so high. There is no physical shortage and demand growth worldwide is minimal. The answer lies in fear of what might happen next. The threat of an open conflict between Israel and Iran may have receded but there are enough uncertainties in the market to keep people nervous. Libya is out of control because of the limited international support for the new government following last year’s military intervention by France and Britain. There is continued nervousness about events in Algeria after the terrorist attack last month and concern about the negative effect on investment of the renewed outbreaks of violence in Iraq. 

Tel Aviv, Israel's financial centre. Getty Images

There is much talk in Davos of black swans, grey swans and white swans. But what about a kosher swan?

For the uninitiated, black swans are unexpected events that have a dramatic impact and sweep away previous certainties and plans.

Tel Aviv is a long way from Davos and not many Israeli politicians find their way up the Magic Mountain, but Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, is a very rare exception. 

Oil fields in Iraq. Image by Getty

The International Monetary Fund is not well known for its expertise on the energy sector and the oil market. A new paper just published by the organisation on the possible future for oil and the world economy is not likely to correct that impression. Ignoring much of the evidence, the authors try to breathe life into the old theory of “peak oil”.