Global oil prices (Brent crude) reached $128 per barrel on 9 March, a level not seen for 10 years and surpassed only in the run up to the financial crisis in 2008. Oil prices are determined by global demand and supply, and the current surge in prices is no exception.
A rise in demand and/or a fall in supply will lead to a rise in the price. Given that both demand and supply are relatively price inelastic, such shifts can cause large rises in oil prices. Similarly, a fall in demand or rise in supply can lead to a large fall in oil prices.
These changes are then amplified by speculation. Traders try to get ahead of price changes. If people anticipate that oil prices will rise, they will buy now, or make a contract to buy more in the future at prices quoted today by buying on the oil futures market. This then pushes up both spot (current) prices and futures prices. If demand or supply conditions change, speculation will amplify the reaction to such a change.
What has happened since 2019?
In 2019, oil was typically trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. It then fell dramatically in early 2020 as the onset of COVID-19 led to a collapse in demand, for both transport and industry. The price fell below $20 in late April (see charts: click here for a PowerPoint).
Oil prices then rose rapidly as demand recovered somewhat but supply chains, especially shipping, were suffering disruptions. By mid-2021, oil was once more trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. But then demand grew more strongly as economic recovery from COVID accelerated. But supply could not grow so quickly. By January 2022, Brent crude had risen above $80 per barrel.
Then worries began to grow about Russian intentions over Ukraine as Russia embarked on large-scale military exercises close to the border with Ukraine. People increasingly disbelieved Russia’s declarations that it had no intention to invade. Russia is the world’s second biggest producer of oil and people feared that deliberate disruptions to supply by Russia or other countries banning imports of Russian oil would cause supply shortages. Speculation thus drove up the oil price. By 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brent crude had risen to $95.
With the Russian invasion, moves were made by the EU the USA and other countries to ban or limit the purchase of Russian oil. This increased the demand for non-Russian oil.
On 8 March, the USA announced that it was banning the import of Russian oil with immediate effect. The same day, the UK announced that it would phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.
The EU is much more dependent on Russian oil imports, which account for around 27% of EU oil consumption and 2/3 of extra-EU oil imports. Nevertheless, it announced that it would accelerate the move away from Russian oil and gas and towards green alternatives. By 8 March, Brent crude had risen to $128 per barrel.
The question was then whether other sources of supply would help to fill the gap. Initially it seemed that OPEC+ (excluding Russia) would not increase production beyond the quotas previously agreed by the cartel to meet recovery in world demand. But then, on 9 March, the UAE Ambassador to Washington announced that the county favoured production increases and would encourage other OPEC members to follow suit. With the announcement, the oil price fell by 11% to £111. But the next day, it rose again somewhat as the UAE seemed to backtrack, but then fell back slightly as OPEC said there was no shortage of oil.
This is obviously an unfolding story with the suffering of the Ukrainian people at its heart. But the concepts of supply and demand and their price elasticity and the role of speculation are central to understanding what will happen to oil prices in the coming months with all the consequences for poverty and economic hardship.
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has happened to oil prices over the past two years. How has the size of the effects been dependent on the price elasticity of demand for oil and the price elasticity of supply of oil?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to show what has been happening to the price of natural gas over the past two years. Are the determinants similar to those in the oil market? How do they differ (if at all)?
- What policy options are open to governments to deal with soaring energy prices?
- What are the distributional consequences of the rise in energy prices? (see the blog: Rise in the cost of living.)
- Under what circumstances are oil prices over the next six months likely (a) fall; (b) continue rising?
In its latest Commodity Special Feature (pages 43 to 53 of the October 2020 World Economic Outlook), the IMF examines the future of oil and other commodity prices. With the collapse in oil demand during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, oil prices plummeted. Brent crude fell from around $60 per barrel in late January to below $20 in April.
However, oil prices then rose somewhat and have typically been between $40 and $45 per barrel since June 2020 – still more than 35% lower than at the beginning of the year (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). This rise was caused by a slight recovery in demand but largely by supply reductions. These were the result partly of limits agreed by OPEC+ (OPEC, Russia and some other non-OPEC oil producing countries) and partly of reduced drilling in the USA and the closure of many shale oil wells which the lower prices had made unprofitable.
The IMF considers the future for oil prices and concludes that prices will remain subdued. It forecasts that petroleum spot prices will average $47 per barrel in 2021, up only slightly from the $42 average it predicts for 2020.
On the supply side it predicts that ‘stronger oil production growth in several non-OPEC+ countries, a faster normalization of Libya’s oil production, and a breakdown of the OPEC+ agreement’ will push up supply and push down prices. Even if the OPEC+ agreement holds, the members are set to ease their production cut by nearly 25% at the start of 2021. This rise in supply will be offset to some extent by possibly ‘excessive cuts in oil and gas upstream investments and further bankruptcies in the energy sector’.
On the demand side, the speed of the recovery from the pandemic will be a major determinant. If the second wave is long-lasting and deep, with a vaccine available to all still some way off, oil demand could remain subdued for many months. This will be compounded by the accelerating shift to renewable energy and electric vehicles and by government policies to reduce CO2 emissions.
Oil price data
- Describe a scenario in which oil prices rebound significantly over the coming months. Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
- Describe a scenario in which oil prices fall over the coming months. Again, illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
- How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant to the size of any oil price change?
- Project forward 10 years and predict whether oil prices will be higher or lower than now. What are the major determinants of supply and demand in your prediction?
- What are oil futures? What determines oil future prices?
- How does speculation affect oil prices?
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?
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?