Oil prices will remain below $60 per barrel for the foreseeable future. At least this is what is being assumed by most oil producing companies. In the more distant future, prices may rise as investment in fracking, tar sands and new wells dries up. In meantime, however, marginal costs are sufficiently low as to make it economically viable to continue extracting oil from most sources at current prices.
The low prices are partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years and increased output by OPEC. They are also partly the result of falling demand from China.
But are low prices all bad news for the oil industry? It depends on the sector of the industry. Extraction and exploration may be having a hard time; but downstream, the refining, petrochemicals, distribution and retail sectors are benefiting from the lower costs of crude oil. For the big integrated oil companies, such as BP, the overall effect may not be as detrimental as the profits from oil production suggest.
BP – low oil price isn’t all bad new BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (27/10/15)
Want to See Who’s Happy About Low Oil Prices? Look at Refiners Bloomberg, Dan Murtaugh (31/10/15)
Low prices are crushing Canada’s oil sands industry. Shell’s the latest casualty. Vox, Brad Plumer (28/10/15)
Brent spot crude oil prices US Energy Information Administration
BP Quarterly results and webcast BP
- Why have oil prices fallen?
- What is likely to happen to the supply of oil (a) over the next three years; (b) in the longer term?
- Draw a diagram with average and marginal costs and revenue to show why it may be profitable to continue producing oil in the short run at $50 per barrel. Why may it not be profitable to invest in new sources of supply if the price remains at current levels?
- Find out in what downstream sectors BP is involved and what has happened to its profits in these sectors.
- Draw a diagram with average and marginal costs and revenue to show why profits may be increasing from the wholesaling of petrol and diesel to filling stations.
- How is price elasticity of demand relevant to the profitablity of downstream sectors in the context of falling costs?
As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, oil prices have fallen by some 46% in the past five months. In that blog we looked at the implications for fuel prices. Here we look at the broader implications for the global economy? Is it good or bad news – or both?
First we’ll look at the oil-importing countries. To some extent the lower oil price is a reflection of weak global demand as many countries still struggle to recover from recession. If the lower price boosts demand, this may then cause the oil price to rise again. At first sight, this might seem merely to return the world economy to the position before the oil price started falling: a leftward shift in the demand for oil curve, followed by a rightward shift back to where it was. However, the boost to demand in the short term may act as a ‘pump primer’. The higher aggregate demand may result in a multiplier effect and cause a sustained increase in output, especially if it stimulates a rise in investment through rising confidence and the accelerator, and thereby increases capacity and hence potential GDP.
But the fall in the oil price is only partly the result of weak demand. It is mainly the result of increased supply as new sources of oil come on stream, and especially shale oil from the USA. Given that OPEC has stated that it will not cut its production, even if the crude price falls to $40 per barrel, the effect has been a shift in the oil supply curve to the right that will remain for some time.
So even if the leftward shift in demand is soon reversed so that there is then some rise in oil prices again, it is unlikely that prices will rise back to where they were. Perhaps, as the diagram illustrates, the price will rise to around $70 per barrel. It could be higher if world demand grows very rapidly, or if some sources of supply go off stream because at such prices they are unprofitable.
The effect on oil exporting countries has been negative. The most extreme case is Russia, where for each $10 fall in the price of oil, its growth rate falls by around 1.4 percentage points (see). Although the overall effect on global growth is still likely to be positive, the lower oil price could lead to a significant cut in investment in new oil wells. North sea producers are predicting a substantial cut in investment. Even shale oil producers in the USA, where the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel, need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable. What is more, typical shale wells have a life of only two or three years and so lack of investment would relatively quickly lead to shale oil production drying up.
The implication of this is that although there has been a rightward shift in the short-run supply curve, if price remains low the curve could shift back again, meaning that the long-run supply curve is much more elastic. This could push prices back up towards $100 if global demand continues to expand.
This can be illustrated in the diagram. The starting point is mid-2014. Global demand and supply are D1 and S1; price is $112 per barrel and output is Q1. Demand now shifts to the left and supply to the right to D2 and S2 respectively. Price falls to $60 per barrel and, given the bigger shift in supply than demand, output rises to Q2. At $60 per barrel, however, output of Q2 cannot be sustained. Thus at $60, long-run supply (shown by SL) is only Q4.
But assuming the global economy grows over the coming months, demand shifts to the right: say, to D3. Assume that it pushes price up to $100 per barrel. This gives a short-run output of Q3, but at that price it is likely that supply will be sustainable in the long run as it makes investment sufficiently profitable. Thus curve D3 intersects with both S2 and SL at this price and quantity.
The articles below look at the gainers and losers and at the longer-term effects.
Where will the oil price settle? BBC News, Robert Peston (22/12/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (16/12/14)
Why the oil price is falling The Economist (8/12/14)
The new economics of oil: Sheikhs v shale The Economist (6/12/14)
Shale oil: In a bind The Economist (6/12/14)
Falling Oil Price slows US Fracking Oil-price.net, Steve Austin (8/12/14)
Oil Price Drop Highlights Need for Diversity in Gulf Economies IMF Survey (23/12/14)
Lower oil prices boosting global economy: IMF Argus Media (23/12/14)
Collapse in oil prices: producers howl, consumers cheer, economists fret The Guardian (16/12/14)
North Sea oilfields ‘near collapse’ after price nosedive The Telegraph, Andrew Critchlow (18/12/14)
How oil price fall will affect crude exporters – and the rest of us The Observer, Phillip Inman (21/12/14)
Cheaper oil could damage renewable energies, says Richard Branson The Guardian,
Richard Branson: ‘Governments are going to have to think hard how to adapt to low oil prices.’ John Vidal (16/12/14)
Brent crude prices U.S. Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual data and then download to Excel)
Brent Oil Historical Data Investing.com (select daily, weekly, or monthly data and time period)
- What would determine the size of the global multiplier effect from the cut in oil prices?
- Where is the oil price likely to settle in (a) six months’ time; (b) two years’ time? What factors are you taking into account in deciding your answer?
- Why, if the average cost of producing oil from a given well is $70, might it still be worth pumping oil and selling it at a price of $30?
- How does speculation affect oil prices?
- Why has OPEC decided not to cut oil production even though this is likely to drive the price lower?
- With Brent crude at around $60 per barrel, what should North Sea oil producers do?
- If falling oil prices lead some oil-importing countries into deflation, what will be the likely macroeconomic impacts?
Induced hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, is a technique used to make fractures in shale beds, normally deep underground, through the injection of liquids under high pressure. The idea is to release oil or gas. Fracking has transformed the oil industry by allowing vast reserves to be tapped.
Although the main ingredient of the fracking liquid is water, it is also necessary to include sand and a gelling agent to increase the viscosity of the liquid and bind in the sand. The commonest gelling agent is guar gum, a gel made from powdered guar seeds, which are grown in the semi-desert regions of India and Pakistan. Guar gum is also widely used in the food industry as a binding, thickening, texturising and moisture control agent.
With the rapid growth in fracking, especially in the USA, the demand for guar gum has rocketed – and so has its price. In just one year the price of guar beans, from which the seeds are extracted, has risen ten fold from about 30 rupees (about 34 pence) to around 300 rupees per kilo. This has transformed the lives of many poor farmers. Across the desert belt of north-west India, fields are being planted with guar.
But will it last? What will the oil and gas extraction companies do in response to the higher price? What will the food industry do? What will happen to the demand and supply of guar gum over the longer term? Is it risky for farmers in India and Pakistan to rely on a single crop, or should they take advantage of the high prices while they last? These types of questions are central to many mono-crop economies.
The little green bean in big fracking demand CNN, Mallika Kapur (10/9/12)
Frackers in frantic search for guar bean substitutes Reuters, Braden Reddall (13/8/12)
After first-half surge, US drillers find respite in guar wars Reuters (20/7/12)
Guar Gum Exports From India to Drop on Halliburton Stocks BloombergBusinessweek, Prabhudatta Mishra (3/9/12)
Frackers Seek Guar Bean Substitutes The Ithaca Independent, Ed Sutherland (13/8/12)
Synthetic Fracking Ingredient to Replace Guar Bean Greener Ideas, Madison E. Rowe (15/8/12)
From emu farms to guar crops: Why the desert is fertile for Ponzi schemes The Economic Times of India, Vikram Doctor (10/9/12)
Guar gum replacer cuts cost by up to 40% Food Manufacture, Lorraine Mullaney (4/9/12)
Less Guar Needed: TIC Gums Introduces Ticaloid Lite Powder TIC Gums (27/8/12)
Immediate Supply of Guar Gum Available in the US PRLog (1/9/12)
- Why have guar bean, powder and gum prices risen so rapidly? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.
- How is the price elasticity of supply of guar likely to differ between the short term and the long term? What will be the implications of this for guar prices and the livelihood of guar growers?
- How is the price elasticity of demand for guar likely to differ between the short term and the long term? What will be the implications of this for guar prices and the livelihood of guar growers?
- What would you advise guar growers to do and why?
- What is the role of speculation in determining the price of guar?
- What is a ‘ponzi scheme’? Why is the ‘desert so fertile for ponzi schemes’? (Note that the symbol for a rupee is Rs or ₹, that 100,000 rupees are referred to as 1 Lakh and that 100 Lakh are referred to as 1 Crore.)