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?
The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.
In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.
There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.
Demand and supply
The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.
There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.
Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.
Importation of gas
A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.
However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.
The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.
Impact on consumers and industry
Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.
Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.
The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.
Government intervention – maximum pricing
If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.
The energy price cap
Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.
The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.
- Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
- People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
- Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.
Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.
Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.
The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
- Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
- Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.