OPEC, for some time, was struggling to control oil prices. Faced with competition from the fracking of shale oil in the USA, from oil sands in Canada and from deep water and conventional production by non-OPEC producers, its market power had diminished. OPEC now accounts for only around 40% of world oil production. How could a ‘cartel’ operate under such conditions?
One solution was attempted in 2014 and 2015. Faced with plunging oil prices which resulted largely from the huge increase in the supply of shale oil, OPEC refused to cut its output and even increased it slightly. The aim was to keep prices low and to drive down investment in alternative sources, especially in shale oil wells, many of which would not be profitable in the long term at such prices.
In late 2016, OPEC changed tack. It introduced its first cut in production since 2008. In September it introduced a new quota for its members that would cut OPEC production by 1.2 million barrels per day. At the time, Brent crude oil price was around $46 per barrel.
In December 2016, it also negotiated an agreement with non-OPEC producers, and most significantly Russia, that they would also cut production, giving a total cut of 1.8 million barrels per day. This amounted to around 2% of global production. In March 2017, it was agreed to extend the cuts for the rest of the year and in November 2017 it was agreed to extend them until the end of 2018.
With stronger global economic growth in 2017 and into 2018 resulting in a growth in demand for oil, and with OPEC and Russia cutting back production, oil prices rose rapidly again (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint). By January 2018, the Brent crude price had risen to around $70 per barrel.
Low oil prices had had the effect of cutting investment in shale oil wells and other sources and reducing production from those existing ones which were now unprofitable. The question being asked today is to what extent oil production from the USA, Canada, the North Sea, etc. will increase now that oil is trading at around $70 per barrel – a price, if sustained, that would make investment in many shale and other sources profitable again, especially as costs of extracting shale oil is falling as fracking technology improves. US production since mid-2016 has already risen by 16% to nearly 10 million barrels per day. Costs are also falling for oil sand and deep water extraction.
In late January 2018, Saudi Arabia claimed that co-operation between oil producers to limit production would continue beyond 2018. Shale oil producers in the USA are likely to be cheered by this news – unless, that is, Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC and non-OPEC countries party to the agreement change their minds.
OPEC’s Control of the Oil Market Is Running on Fumes Bloomberg (21/12/17)
Oil Reaches $70 a Barrel for First Time in Three Years Bloomberg, Stuart Wallace (11/1/18)
Banks Increasingly Think OPEC Will End Supply Cuts as Oil Hits $70 Bloomberg, Grant Smith (15/1/18)
Oil prices rise to hit four-year high of $70 a barrel BBC News (11/1/18)
Overshooting? Oil hits highest level in almost three years, with Brent nearing $70 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/1/18)
Can The Oil Price Rally Continue? OilPrice, Nick Cunningham (14/1/18)
Will This Cause An Oil Price Reversal? OilPrice, Olgu Okumus (22/1/18)
The world is not awash in oil yet
Arab News, Wael Mahdi (14/1/15)
‘Explosive’ U.S. oil output growth seen outpacing Saudis, Russia CBC News (19/1/18)
Oil’s Big Two seeking smooth exit from cuts The Business Times (23/1/18)
Saudi comments push oil prices higher BusinessDay, Henning Gloystein (22/1/18)
Short-term Energy Outlook U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (9/1/18)
- Using supply and demand diagrams, illustrate what has happened to oil prices and production over the past five years. What assumptions have you made about the price elasticity of supply and demand in your analysis?
- If the oil price is above the level at which it is profitable to invest in new shale oil wells, would it be in the long-term interests of shale oil companies to make such investments?
- Is the structure of the oil industry likely to result in long-term cycles in oil prices? Explain why or why not.
- Investigate the level of output from, and investment in, shale oil wells over the past three years. Explain what has happened.
- Would it be in the interests of US producers to make an agreement with OPEC on production quotas? What would prevent them from doing so?
- What is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming 12 months? What assumptions have you made and how have they affected your answer?
- If the short-term marginal costs of operating shale oil wells is relatively low (say, below $35 per barrel) but the long-term marginal cost (taking into account the costs of investing in new wells) is relatively high (say, over $65 per barrel) and if the life of a well is, say, 5 years, how is this likely to affect the pattern of prices and output over a ten-year period? What assumptions have you made and how do they affect your answer?
- If oil production from countries not party to the agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members increases rapidly and if, as a result, oil prices start to fall again, what would it be in OPEC’s best interests to do?
Oil prices are determined by demand and supply. Changes in oil prices are the result of shifts in demand and/or supply, with the size of the price change depending on the size of the shift and the price elasticity of demand and supply.
Some of the shifts are long term, with the price of oil varying from year to year or even moving in a particular direction for longer periods of time. Thus the opening up of new supplies, such as from fracking wells, can lead to a long-term fall in oil prices, while agreements by, say, OPEC to curb output can lead to a long-term rise in prices (see the blogs The oil see-saw, OPEC deal pushes up oil prices and An oil glut).
Medium and long-term price movements can also reflect medium and long-term changes in demand, such as a recession – oil prices fell dramatically as the world economy slid into recession in 2008/9 and then recovered as the global economy recovered.
Another long-term factor is the development of substitutes, such as renewable energy, which can reduce the demand for oil; another is developments that economise on power, such as more fuel-efficient vehicles and machines.
But oil prices do not just reflect these long-term movements in demand and supply. They also reflect daily and weekly movements as demand and supply respond to global and national events.
Two such events occurred at the end of August/beginning of September this year. The first was Hurricane Harvey. Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped massive amounts of rain on southern Texas and Louisiana. This disrupted oil drilling and refining, shutting down a quarter of the entire US refining capacity. The initial effect was a surge in US oil prices in late August as oil production in much of Texas shut down and a rise in petrol prices as supplies from refineries fell.
Then prices fell back again in early September as production and refining resumed and as it became apparent that there had been less damage to oil infrastructure than initially feared. Also the USA tapped into some of its strategic oil reserves to make up for the shortfall in supply.
Then in early September, the North Koreans tested a hydrogen bomb – much larger than the previous atom bombs it had tested. This prompted fears of US retaliation and heightened tensions in the region. As the Reuters article states:
That put downward pressure on crude as traders moved money out of oil – seen as high-risk markets – into gold futures, traditionally viewed as a safe haven for investors. Spot gold prices rose for a third day, gaining 0.9 per cent on Monday
Quite large daily movements in oil prices are not uncommon as traders respond to such events. A major determinant of short-term demand is expectations, and nervousness about events can put substantial downward pressure on oil prices if it is felt that there could be a downward effect on the global economy – or substantial upward pressure if it is felt that supplies might be disrupted. Often markets over-correct, with prices moving back again as the situation becomes clearer and as nervousness subsides.
U.S. crude edges higher, gasoline tumbles after Harvey Reuters, Libby George (4/9/17)
Global oil prices fall after North Korea nuclear weapon test Independent, Henning Gloystein (4/9/17)
Brent crude oil falls after North Korea nuclear test The Indian Express (4/9/17)
Oil prices remain volatile AzerNews, Sara Israfilbayova (4/7/17)
- What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for oil?
- Search news articles to find some other examples of short-term movements in oil prices as markets responded to some political or natural event.
- Why do markets often over-correct?
- Explain the long-term oil price movements over the past 10 years.
- Why is gold seen as a ‘safe haven’?
- If refineries buy oil from oil producers, what would determine the net effect on oil prices of a decline in oil production and a decline in demand for oil by the refineries?
- What role does speculation play in determining oil prices? Explain how such speculation could (a) reduce price volatility; (b) increase price volatility. Under what circumstances is (b) more likely than (a)?
In the blog OPEC deal pushes up oil prices John discussed the agreement made by OPEC members to reduce total oil output from the start of 2017, with Saudi Arabia making the biggest cut in output. The amount of oil being provided is a key determinant of the oil price and this agreement to reduce oil output contributed to rising prices. However, now oil prices have begun to fall (see chart below) with Saudi Arabia in particular recording an increase in output but all OPEC nations noting that global crude stocks had risen.
Supply and demand are key here and over the past few years, it has been a problem of excess supply that has led to low prices. OPEC nations have been aiming to achieve greater stability in global oil markets. Given the excess supply, it has been output of oil that the cartel member have been trying to cut. That was the point of the agreement that came into effect from the start of 2017. However, even with the recent increase in production Saudi Arabia notes that its output is still in line with its output target. The 10 percent fall in crude prices over such a short period of time has led to renewed concerns that pledges to reduce production will not be met. However Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry stated:
“Saudi Arabia assures the market that it is committed and determined to stabilising the global oil market by working closely with all other participating Opec and non-Opec producers.”
There were already concerns about the oil market relating to a potential increase in US shale oil output. Oil producers include OPEC and non-OPEC members and so while the cartel has agreed to cut production, it has little control over production from non-cartel members. This was one of the main factors that contributed to the oil price lows that we previously saw. OPEC’s forecast for oil production from non-OPEC member has been raised for 2017 and overall production from all oil producing nations looks set to increase for the year, despite OPEC curbing output by 1.2 million barrels per day. However, despite the 10% drop, the price of crude oil ($50) still remains well above its low of $28 in January 2016.
Oil prices are one of the key factors that affect inflation and with UK inflation expected to rise, this fall in oil prices may provide a small and temporary pause in the rise in the rate of inflation. There are many inter-related factors that affect oil prices and it really is a supply and demand market. If US shale oil production continues to rise, then total oil output will rise too and this will push down prices. If OPEC members undertake further production curbs, then this will push supply back down. Then we have demand to consider! Watch this space.
OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report OPEC (14/3/17)
Saudis stand by commitment to oil production cuts Financial Times, Anjli Raval and David Sheppard (15/3/17)
Oil prices fall after Opec stocks rise BBC News (14/3/17)
Crude oil price slumps to new three-month low after OPEC supply warning Independent, Alex Lawler (14/3/17)
Opinion: Saudi Arabis has a big motivating interest in keeping oil prices high MarketWatch, Thomas H Kee Jr. (14/3/17)
Why oil prices may come under even more pressure next month Investor’s Business Daily, Gillian Rich (13/3/17)
Oil price crashes back towards $50 as Opec raises US oil forecasts The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (14/3/17)
Data and Information
Brent Crude Prices Daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC Homepage Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
- What are the demand and supply-side factors that affect oil prices? Do you think demand and supply are relatively elastic or inelastic? Explain your answer.
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate how OPEC production curbs will affect oil prices.
- If we now take into account US shale production rising, how will this affect oil prices?
- Why have OPEC members agreed to curb oil production? Is it a rational decision?
- What are the key points from the oil market report?
- How do oil prices affect a country’s rate of inflation?
- What, do you think, are oil prices likely to be at the end of the year? What about in ten years? Explain your answer.
- Should the USA continue to invest in new shale oil production?
OPEC members agreed on 30 November 2016 to reduce their total oil output by 1.2m barrels per day (b/d) from January 2017 – the first OPEC cut since 2008. The biggest cut (0.49m b/d) is to be made by Saudi Arabia.
Russia has indicated that it too might cut output – by 0.3m b/d. If it carries through with this, it will be the first deal for 15 years to include Russia. OPEC members hope that non-OPEC countries will also cut output by 0.3m b/d. There will be a meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC members on 9 December in Doha to hammer out a deal. If all this goes ahead, the total cut would represent nearly 2% of world output.
The OPEC agreement took many commentators by surprise, who had expected that Iran’s unwillingness to cut its output would prevent any deal being reached. As it turned out, Iran agreed to freeze its output at current levels.
Although some doubted that the overall deal would stick, there was general confidence that it would do so. Markets responded with a huge surge in oil prices. The price of Brent crude rose from $46.48 per barrel on 29 November to $54.25 on 2 December, a rise of nearly 17% (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart)..
The deal represented a U-turn by Saudi Arabia, which had previously pursued the policy of not cutting output, so as to keep oil prices down and drive many shale oil producers out of business (see the blog, Will there be an oil price rebound?)
But if oil prices persist above $54 for some time, many shale oil fields in the USA will become profitable again and some offshore oil fields too. At prices above $50, the supply of oil becomes relatively elastic, preventing prices from rising significantly. As The Observer article states:
It is more likely that a $60 cap will emerge as the Americans, who stand outside the 13-member OPEC grouping, unplug the spigots that have kept their shale oil fields from producing in the last year or two.
… The return to action of once-idle derricks on the Texas and Dakota plains is the result of efficiency savings that have seen large jobs losses and a more streamlined approach to drilling from the US industry, after the post-2014 price tumble rendered many operators unprofitable. Only a few years ago, many firms struggled to make a profit at $70 a barrel. Now they can be competitive at much lower prices, with many expecting $50 for West Texas Intermediate – a lighter crude that typically earns $5 a barrel less than Brent.
OPEC as a cartel is much weaker than it used to be. It produces only around 40% of global oil output. Cheating from its members and increased production from non-OPEC countries, let alone huge oil stocks after two years when production has massively exceeded consumption, are likely to combine to keep prices below $60 for the foreseeable future.
OPEC Cuts Daily Production by 1.2 Million Barrels MarketWatch, Sarah Kent (30/11/16)
How Putin, Khamenei and Saudi prince got OPEC deal done Reuters, Rania El Gamal, Parisa Hafezi and Dmitry Zhdannikov (2/12/16)
Fuel price fears as OPEC agrees to cut supply Sky News, Colin Smith (30/11/16)
OPEC Confounds Skeptics, Agrees to First Oil Cuts in 8 Years Bloomberg, Jamie Webster (30/11/16)
Game of oil: Behind the OPEC deal Aljazeera, Giacomo Luciani (3/12/16) (first 10½ minutes)
Russia won’t stick with its side of the OPEC cut bargain CNBC, Silvia Amaro (1/12/16)
Oil soars, Brent hits 16-month high after OPEC output deal Reuters, Devika Krishna Kumar (1/12/16)
OPEC reaches a deal to cut production The Economist (3/12/16)
Opec doesn’t hold all the cards, even after its oil price agreement The Observer, Phillip Inman (4/12/16)
Saudi Arabia discussed oil output cut with traders ahead of Opec Financial Times, David Sheppard and Anjli Raval (4/12/16)
The return of OPEC Reuters, Jason Bordoff (2/12/16)
‘Unfortunately, We Tend To Cheat,’ Ex-Saudi Oil Chief Says Of OPEC Forbes, Tim Daiss (4/12/16)
After OPEC – What’s Next For Oil Prices? OilPrice.com (2/12/16)
The OPEC Oil Deal Sells Fake News for Real Money Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (1/12/16)
Data and information
Brent crude prices, daily US Energy Information Administration
OPEC home page Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
OPEC 171st Meeting concludes OPEC Press Release (30/11/16)
- What determines the price elasticity of supply of oil at different prices?
- Why is the long-term demand for oil more elastic than the short-term demand?
- What determines the likelihood that the OPEC agreement will be honoured by its members?
- Is it in Russia’s interests to cut its production as part of the agreement?
- Are higher oil prices ‘good news’ for the global economy and a boost to economic growth – a claim made by Saudi Arabia?
- What role does oil storage play in determining the effect on the oil price of a cut in output?
- What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time? Explain your reasoning.
- Is it in US producers’ interests to invest in new shale oil production? Explain.
People are beginning to get used to low oil prices and acting as if they are going to remain low. Oil is trading at only a little over $30 per barrel and Saudi Arabia is unwilling to backtrack on its policy of maintaining its level of production and not seeking to prevent oil prices from falling. Currently, there is still a position of over supply and hence in the short term the price could continue falling – perhaps to $20 per barrel.
But what of the future? What will happen in the medium term (6 to 12 months) and the longer term? Investment in new oil wells, both conventional and shale oil, have declined substantially. The position of over supply could rapidly come to an end. The Telegraph article below quotes the International Energy Agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, as saying:
“Investment in oil exploration and production across the world has been cut to the bone, falling 24% last year and an estimated 17% this year. This is… far below the minimum levels needed to keep up with future demand. …
It is easy for consumers to be lulled into complacency by ample stocks and low prices today, but they should heed the writing on the wall: the historic investment cuts raise the odds of unpleasant oil security surprises in the not too distant future.”
And in the Overview of the IEA’s 2016 Medium-Term Oil Market Report, it is stated that
In today’s oil market there is hardly any spare production capacity other than in Saudi Arabia and Iran and significant investment is required just to maintain existing production before we move on to provide the new capacity needed to meet rising oil demand. The risk of a sharp oil price rise towards the later part of our forecast arising from insufficient investment is as potentially de-stabilising as the sharp oil price fall has proved to be.
The higher-cost conventional producers, such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Russia and off-shore producers, could take a long time to rebuild capacity as investment in conventional wells is costly, especially off-shore.
As far as shale oil producers is concerned – the prime target of Saudi Arabia’s policy of not cutting back supply – production could well bounce back after a relatively short time as wells are re-opened and investment in new wells is resumed.
But, price rises in the medium term could then be followed by lower prices again a year or two thereafter as oil from new investment comes on stream: or they could continue rising if investment is insufficient. It depends on the overall balance of demand and supply. The table shows the IEA’s forecast of production and consumption and the effect on oil stocks. From 2018, it is predicting that consumption will exceed production and that, therefore, stocks will fall – and at an accelerating rate.
But just what happens to the balance of production and consumption will also depend on expectations. If shale oil investors believe that an oil price bounce is temporary, they are likely to hold off investing. But this will, in turn, help to sustain a price bounce, which in turn, could help to encourage investment. So expectations of investors will depend on what other investors expect to happen – a very difficult outcome to predict. It’s a form of Keynesian beauty contest (see the blog post A stock market beauty contest of the machines) where what is important is what other people think will happen, which in turn depends on what they think other people will do, and so on.
At $30 oil price, shale rebound may take much, much longer CNBC, Patti Domm , Bob Iaccino, Helima Croft and Matt Smith (25/2/16)
Opec has failed to stop US shale revolution admits energy watchdog The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (27/2/16)
Medium-term Oil Market Report 2016: Overview International Energy Agency (IEA) (22/2/16)
- Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what happened to oil prices in 2015; (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016; (c) what is likely to happen to them in 2017/18.
- Why have oil prices fallen so much over the past 12 months?
- Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
- What have have been the advantages and disadvantages of lower oil prices? In your answer, distinguish between the effects on different people, countries and the world generally.
- Why is oil supply more price elastic in the long run than in the short run?
- Why does supply elasticity vary between different types of oil fields (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- What determines whether speculation about future oil prices is likely to be stabilising or destabilising?
- What role has OPEC played in determining the oil price over the past few months? What role can it play over the coming years?
- Explain the concept of a ‘Keynesian beauty contest’ in the context of speculation about future oil prices, and why this makes the prediction of future oil prices more difficult.
- Give some other examples of human behaviour which is in the form of a Keynesian beauty contest.
- Why may playing a Keynesian beauty contest lead to an undesirable Nash equilibrium?