Opec

Sampling crude oil at well operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA

Sampling crude oil at well operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA  © Getty Images

In strong contrast to the previous downturns in the energy market the sharp falls in prices seen over the last two years have not triggered a wave of restructuring in the industry. Merger and acquisitions activity has been minimal. But is that about to change? Could a wave of privatisation now reshape the business landscape?

Cyclical downturns in the oil and gas sector are relatively common and have occurred roughly once a decade since the 1980s. The response has traditionally followed a well-trodden path. Companies cut costs and postpone projects. They push for tax concessions and improved terms, while trying to maintain dividends. When that fails, heads roll and the stronger brethren take over the weak. Read more

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange  © Getty Images

Why did the oil price fall 70 per cent during the two years from the spring of 2014? And why, after falling from $115 a barrel to $30, has it now risen to something around $45 over the last two months? What has changed to explain these big shifts ? I was asked these questions by a friend last week and they are worth an answer.

One thing is clear. Oil demand did not fall by 60 or 70 per cent in that period and has not risen by 50 per cent in the last two months. Demand has continued to grow modestly by about 1m barrels a day each year. Oil supply has increased — by a little more than the growth in demand but certainly not 60 or 70 per cent. In the real energy economy things change much more slowly.

At one level, the imbalance between the growth of demand and the growth of demand explains the fall in prices. Led by extra supplies from Saudi Arabia and Russia and lower than expected demand from China, it explains the context of the fall, but not the scale or duration. Read more

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The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi   © Getty Images

The kingdom’s not for turning. There will be no production cuts. Oil will continue to be produced at unwanted levels until other suppliers are forced out of the market.

That was the unequivocal message delivered at the IHS Cera conference in Houston two weeks ago by the Saudi oil minister, the 81-year-old Ali al-Naimi. Mr al-Naimi tried to claim that the US shale industry was not his particular target but that did not seem to convince those involved in a sector which is beginning to feel the real pain of $30 oil.

For the Saudis such pain, along with the even greater suffering being felt by their former allies such as Algeria and Venezuela, may appear to be a necessary cost in securing the kingdom’s goal — a secure oil market share for itself whatever happens to anyone else. On this view, all the others just have to learn the harsh realities of life. Think of it as the application of sharia law to the oil industry. Read more

IRAQ-OIL

Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq  © Getty Images

Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?

The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.

What then drives the cycle ? Read more

  © Getty Images

For investors who thought the situation in the oil sector could not get worse, the last few weeks have come as a bad surprise. In the US, West Texas Intermediate prices have slipped below $40 a barrel and on Monday Brent crude fell below $44. There is no obvious sign yet that the bottom of the cycle has been reached and the latest negative data from China adds further downward pressure. The next casualty of the falling price will be corporate dividends.

Much attention has been paid to the implications of lower oil prices on countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria which depend for the bulk of their national income on oil. For them, the economic and political implications are serious. As we saw at the end of the 1980s, not just in the former Soviet Union but also in Opec states such as Algeria, a heavy fall in prices undermines the social contract between governing elites and the wider population. Both those countries look vulnerable now, as do a range of others including Angola, Brazil and Nigeria. In all those cases the impact of a price fall compounds existing problems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one or more of these nations will see a regime change before the end of the year. Read more

Last week’s Opec meeting in Vienna confirmed that power has drifted away from the cartel that shaped the oil market for so long. The organisation was unable, as some wanted, to cut production which across Opec is running at about 1.4m barrels a day in excess of the official target. Equally, it was unable to increase production, as others favoured, in order to drive US producers of so-called “tight oil” – that is oil from shale rocks extracted through fracking – out of the market. The conclusion of the meeting was to do nothing. This means that prices will continue to be set by supply and demand. Over the last few weeks prices which had sunk in the spring appeared to be stabilising at around $ 65 a barrel for Brent with WTI five or 6 dollars lower. But such prices were not secure and now, short of a very dramatic development such as an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Saudi Arabia, all the odds are that prices will now fall back again.

Brent Crude Oil Future twelve month chart Read more

 

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Getty Images

The provisional agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to another fall in oil prices on Friday as the market anticipated the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of full scale Iranian exports. The fall is now overdone and for a series of reasons we are likely to see prices rise — modestly — before the summer.

First, the Iranian agreement is provisional and depends on negotiation of crucial details before the next deadline in June. A number of concerned parties — from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who do not want to see the lucrative business interests they have built on the back of sanctions eliminated, to the Israeli government in Jerusalem, which does not believe that any promises from Iran can be trusted —have no interest in seeing the deal completed. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

  © Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

There were two contenders for this year’s award. The most obvious, and certainly the man who has won the most coverage in this (and every other) publication, is Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has certainly been highly visible, but he has actually changed very little in the energy market. Russian gas still flows to Europe and to Ukraine, helped by western payments of outstanding debts. Europe may be rethinking its energy mix and opening new and more diverse sources of supply, but any change will be very gradual. Russia will trade more with China and India, but that was coming anyway and is a natural and logical balancing of supply and demand. Read more

The fate of proposals to reform the Mexican oil and gas industry, now being considered by the country’s lawmakers, matters well beyond Mexico itself. The outcome could reshape the energy sector in a number of important countries. Read more

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. Read more

The World Economic forum is getting underway in Davos, Switzerland. Getty Images

Fashions come and go and the agenda for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos is usually a pretty good guide as to whether skirts are long or short this year. This year’s title for the meeting is “Resilient Dynamism”, which is very cool. But the issues that have slipped down the agenda are energy security and climate change.

There are a few odd sessions, but the focus has shifted and apart from one brief reference to natural resources, neither energy nor climate are mentioned on the web page setting out this year’s themes. This is a very big change from only four or five years ago, when both were prominent topics at every meeting. Read more

The new paper from the Belfer Center at Harvard on the prospect of sharply rising oil production over the next decade is a substantial and interesting piece of work.   The headlines, however, oversell the content.  America isn’t about to be self-sufficient in oil or to start exporting a surplus.  Around the world there is indeed plenty of oil but politics are likely to keep production well below the physical potential.

The report “Oil: The Next Revolution” by Leonardo Maugeri, is based on a detailed field by field analysis of the world’s oil resources. Read more