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?
Many Chinese people have taken to investing on the Chinese stock market, seeing it as a way of making a lot of money quickly. From October 2014 to June this year the market soared, rising by 126% from 2290 to 5166.
More and more people used their savings to buy stocks and China now has over 90 million individual investors. And it was not just savings that were invested. Increasingly people have been borrowing money to invest, seeing it as an easy way of making money. Unlike stock markets in developed countries, where the majority of shares are held by financial organisations, such as pension funds, holdings by individuals account for about 80% of stocks on the Chinese market.
But since mid-June, share prices have plummeted by 32% (see chart). People have thus seen a huge fall in the value of their savings, while many others have found their shareholdings worth less than their debts. The fall, like the rise that preceded it, has been driven by speculation, fuelled by first optimism and then pessimism.
The Chinese government is worried that the fall might dampen investment and economic growth. It has thus has been supplying liquidity to various institutions to buy shares, but this has had little effect and is dismissed by many as meddling. What is more it could expose companies which take advantage of the liquidity to greater risk.
So serious has been the rout, that over 50% of listed companies have halted trading on the mainland Chinese stock exchanges.
So just why has there been this bubble and why has it burst? What implications will it have for (a) China and (b) the rest of the world? The following articles explore the issues.
China’s stock market fall hits small investors BBC News Magazine, John Sudworth (7/7/15)
China Stocks Plunge as State Support Fails to Revive Confidence Bloomberg (8/7/15)
Chinese stocks are crashing Business Insider UK, Myles Udland, David Scutt (8/7/15)
Shanghai stocks plunge, over 1,200 Chinese companies halt trading Economic Times of India (8/7/15)
Everyone freaking out about China’s stock-market crash is missing one thing Business Insider UK, Elena Holodny (7/7/15)
China’s stock market has lost nearly a third of its value in a month Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/15)
Chinese leaders may be undermined as investors suffer stock market slide The Guardian, Emma Graham-Harrison (8/7/15)
Opinion: China’s stock-market crash is just beginning MarketWatch, Howard Gold (8/7/15)
What does China’s stock market crash tell us? BBC News (22/7/15)
- What is meant by a ‘bubble’? Has the recent performance of the Shanghai Stock Market been an example of a bubble?
- Is the current fall in share prices in China an example of overshooting? Explain how you would decide.
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. Why does destabilising speculation not go on for ever?
- What is meant by the ‘stock market wealth effect’? How is the fall in the Chinese stock market likely to affect consumption and investment in China? How does the proportion of assets held in the form of shares affect the magnitude of the effect?
- What are the likely implications of the fall in the Chinese stock market for the rest of the world?
- Why has the Hong Kong stock market not behaved in the same way as the Shanghai market?
- What have the Chinese authorities been doing to arrest the fall in share prices? How likely are they to succeed?
The recent low price of oil has been partly the result of faltering global demand but mainly the result of increased supply from shale oil deposits. The increased supply of shale oil has not been offset by a reduction in OPEC production. Quite the opposite: OPEC has declared that it will not cut back production even if the price of oil were to fall to $30 per barrel.
We looked at the implications for the global economy in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2). We also looked at the likely effect on oil prices over the longer term and considered what the long-run supply curve might look like. Here we examine the long-run effect on prices in more detail. In particular, we look at the arguments of two well-known commentators, Jim O’Neill and Anatole Kaletsky, both of whom have articles on the Project Syndicate site. They disagree about what will happen to oil prices and to energy markets more generally in 2015 and beyond.
Jim O’Neill argues that with shale oil production becoming unprofitable at the low prices of late 2014/early 2015, the oil price will rise. He argues that a good indicator of the long-term equilibrium price of oil is the five-year forward price, which is much less subject to speculation and is more reflective of the fundamentals of demand and supply. The five-year forward price is around $80 per barrel – a level to which O’Neill thinks oil prices are heading.
Anatole Kaletsky disagrees. He sees $50 per barrel as a more likely long-term equilibrium price. He argues that new sources of oil have made the oil market much more competitive. The OPEC cartel no longer has the market power it had from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s and from the mid 2000s, when surging Chinese demand temporarily created a global oil shortage and strengthened OPEC’s control of prices. Instead, the current situation is more like the period from 1986 to 2004 when North Sea and Alaskan oil development undermined OPEC’s power and made the oil market much more competitive.
Kaletsky argues that in a competitive market, price will equal the marginal cost of the highest cost producer necessary to balance demand and supply. The highest cost producers in this case are the shale oil producers in the USA. As he says:
Under this competitive logic, the marginal cost of US shale oil would become a ceiling for global oil prices, whereas the costs of relatively remote and marginal conventional oilfields in OPEC and Russia would set a floor. As it happens, estimates of shale-oil production costs are mostly around $50, while marginal conventional oilfields generally break even at around $20. Thus, the trading range in the brave new world of competitive oil should be roughly $20 to $50.
So who is right? Well, we will know in twelve months or more! But, in the meantime, try to use economic analysis to judge the arguments by answering the questions below.
The Price of Oil in 2015 Project Syndicate, Jim O’Neill (7/1/15)
A New Ceiling for Oil Prices Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (14/1/15)
- For what reasons might the five-year forward price of oil be (a) a good indicator and (b) a poor indicator of the long-term price of oil?
- Under O’Neill’s analysis, what would the long-term supply curve of oil look like?
- Are shale oil producers price takers? Explain.
- Draw a diagram showing the marginal and average cost curves of a swing shale oil producer. Put values on the vertical axis to demonstrate Kaletsky’s arguments. Also put average and marginal revenue on the diagram and show the amount of profit at the maximum-profit point.
- Why are shale oil producers likely to have much higher long-run average costs than short-run variable costs? How does this affect Kaletsky’s arguments?
- Under Kaletsky’s analysis, what would the long-term supply curve of oil look like?
- Criticise Kaletsky’s arguments from O’Neill’s point of view.
- Criticise O’Neill’s arguments from Kaletsky’s point of view.
- Will OPEC’s policy of not cutting back production help to restore its position of market power?
- Why might the fall in the oil price below $50 in early 2015 represent ‘overshooting’? Why does overshooting often occur in volatile markets?
Each day many investors anxiously watch the stock market to see if their shares have gone up or down. They may also speculate: buying if they think share prices are likely to go up; selling if they think their shares will fall. But what drives these expectations?
To some extent, people will look at real factors, such as company sales and profits or macroeconomic indicators, such as the rate of economic growth or changes in public-sector borrowing. But to a large extent people are trying to predict what other people will do: how other people will react to changes in various indicators.
John Maynard Keynes observed this phenomenon in Chapter 12 of his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money of 1936. He likened this process of anticipating what other people will do to a newspaper beauty contest, popular at the time. In fact, behaviour of this kind has become known as a Keynesian beauty contest (see also). Keynes wrote that:
professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.
When investors focus on people’s likely reactions, it can make markets very unstable. A relatively minor piece of news can cause people to buy or sell in anticipation that others will do the same and that others will realise this and do the same themselves. Markets can overshoot, until, when prices have got out of line with fundamentals, buying can turn into selling, or vice versa. Prices can then move rapidly in the other direction, again driven by what people think other people will do. Sometimes, markets can react to very trivial news indeed. As the New York Times article below states:
On days without much news, the market is simply reacting to itself. And because anxiety is running high, investors make quick, sometimes impulsive, responses to relatively minor events.
The rise of the machine
In recent years there is a new factor to account for growing stock market volatility. The Keynesian beauty contest is increasingly being played by computers. They are programmed to buy and sell when certain conditions are met. The hundreds of human traders of the past who packed trading floors of stock markets, have been largely replaced by just a few programmers, trained to adjust the algorithms of the computers their finance companies use as trading conditions change.
And these computers react in milliseconds to what other computers are doing, which in turn react to what others are doing. Markets can, as a result, suddenly soar or plummet, until the algorithms kick the market into reverse as computers sell over-priced stock or buy under-priced stock, which triggers other computers to do the same.
Robot trading is here to stay. The articles and podcast consider the implications of the ‘games’ they are playing – for savers, companies and the economy.
The Beauty Contest That’s Shaking Wall St. New York Times, Robert J. Schiller (3/9/11)
Speculative bubbles don’t just pop – they may deflate and reflate The Guardian, Robert Shiller (19/7/13)
A dark magic: The rise of the robot traders BBC News, Laurence Knight (8/7/13)
Stock markets under computer control BBC News, Robert Peston
Eunuchs of the Universe: Wall Street Today The Daily Beast, Tom Wolfe (4/1/13)
- 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?
- Does robot trading do anything other than simply increase the speed at which markets adjust?
- Can destabilising speculation continue indefinitely? Explain.
- Explain what is meant by ‘overshooting’? Why is overshooting likely to occur in stock markets and foreign exchange markets?
- In what ways does robot trading (a) benefit and (b) damage the interests of savers?
Since the beginning of 2009, central banks around the world have operated an extremely loose monetary policy. Their interest rates have been close to zero (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart) and more than $20 trillion of extra money has been injected into the world economy through various programmes of quantitative easing.
The most recent example of loose monetary policy has been in Japan, where substantial quantitative easing has been the first of Japan’s three arrows to revive the economy (the other two being fiscal policy and supply-side policy).
One consequence of a rise in money supply has been the purchase of a range of financial assets, including shares, bonds and commodities. As a result, despite the sluggish or negative growth in most developed countries, stock markets have soared (see chart). From March 2009 to May 2013, the FTSE 100 rose by 91% and both the USA’s Dow Jones Industrial average and Germany’s DAX rose by 129%. Japan’s NIKKEI 225, while changing little from 2009 to 2012, rose by 78% from November 2012 to May 2013 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
The US economy has been showing stronger growth in recent months and, as a result, the Fed has indicated that it may soon have to begin tightening monetary policy. It is not doing so yet, nor are other central banks, but the concern that this may happen in the medium term has been enough to persuade many investors that stock markets are likely to fall as money eventually becomes tighter. Given the high degree of speculation on stock markets, this has led to a large-scale selling of shares as investors try to ‘get ahead of the curve’.
From mid-May to mid-June, the FTSE 100 fell by 6.2%, the Dow Jones by 2.6%, the DAX by 4.5% and the NIKKEI by 15%. In some developing countries, the falls have been steeper as the cheap money that entered their economies in search of higher returns has been leaving. The falls in their stock markets have been accompanied by falls in their exchange rates.
The core of the problem is that most of the extra money that was created by central banks has been used for asset purchase, rather than in financing extra consumer expenditure or capital investment. If money is tightened, it is possible that not only will stock and bond markets fall, but the fragile recovery may be stifled. In other words, tighter money and higher interest rates may indeed affect the real economy, even though loose monetary policy and record low interest rates had only a very modest effect on the real economy.
This poses a very difficult question for central banks. If even the possibility of monetary tightening some time in the future has spooked markets and may rebound on the real economy, does that compel central banks to maintain their loose policy? If it does, will this create an even bigger adjustment problem in the future? Or could there be a ‘soft landing’, whereby real growth absorbs the extra money and gradually eases the inflationary pressure on asset markets?
How the Fed bosses all BBC News, Robert Peston (12/6/13)
The great reversal? Is the era of cheap money ending? BBC News, Linda Yueh (12/6/13)
The Great Reversal: Part II (volatility and the real economy) BBC News, Linda Yueh (14/6/13)
The end of the affair The Economist (15/6/13)
Out of favour The Economist, Buttonwood (8/6/13)
The Federal Reserve: Clearer, but less cuddly The Economist (22/6/13)
Global financial markets anxious to avoid many pitfalls of ‘political risk’ The Guardian, Heather Stewart (13/6/13)
Dow Falls Below 15,000; Retailers Add to Slump New York Times, (12/6/13)
Global market sell-off over stimulus fears The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper (13/6/13)
Nikkei sinks over 800 points, falls into bear market Globe and Mail (Canada), Lisa Twaronite (13/6/13)
Global shares drop, dollar slumps as rout gathers pace Reuters, Marc Jones (13/6/13)
The G8, the bond bubble and emerging threats BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (17/6/13)
Global monetary policy and the Fed: vive la difference BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (20/6/13)
The Federal Reserve’s dysfunctional relationship with the markets The Guardian, Heidi Moore (19/6/13)
Global stock markets in steep falls after Fed comment BBC News (20/6/13)
Federal Reserve’s QE withdrawal could signal real trouble ahead The Guardian, Nils Pratley (20/6/13)
Central banks told to head for exit Financial Times, Claire Jones (23/6/13)
Stimulating growth threatens stability, central banks warn The Guardian (23/6/13)
BIS Press Release and Report
Making the most of borrowed time: repair and reform the only way to growth, says BIS in 83rd Annual Report BIS Press Release (23/6/13)
83rd BIS Annual Report 2012/2013 Bank for International Settlements (23/6/13)
Yahoo! Finance: see links for FTSE 100, DAX, Dow Jones, NIKKEI 225
Link to central bank websites Bank for International Settlements
Statistical Interactive Database – Interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
- Why have stock markets soared in recent years despite the lack of economic growth?
- What is meant by ‘overshooting’? Has overshooting taken place in stock markets (a) up to mid-May this year; (b) since mid-May? How would you establish whether overshooting has taken place?
- What role is speculation currently playing in stock markets? Would you describe this speculation as destabilising?
- What has been the impact of quantitative easing on (a) bond prices; (b) bond yields?
- Argue the case for and against central banks continuing with the policy of quantitative easing for the time being.
- Find out how much the Indian rupee and the Brazilian real have fallen in recent weeks. Explain your findings.