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?
The transition towards clean energy in combination with a shortfall in supply has seen the price of raw uranium, also known as ‘yellowcake’, rise almost 60 per cent in recent weeks. It is now trading at over $50 a pound – a nine-year high. The market has been described as being at a ‘tipping point’. Given the recent boom in the market, the current conditions could tip the balance towards an era of rising uranium prices.
What is uranium?
Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as a source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Uranium ore can be mined from underground, milled, and then sold. It is then used in a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. About 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. There are some 445 nuclear reactors operating in 32 countries. It is the most energy-dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.
In March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record triggered a tsunami, which then caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It forced residents from their homes as radiation leaked from the plant. Since the Fukushima accident, uranium prices had been on a downtrend trend – enough to force several miners to suspend or scale back operations.
However, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the price of the metal in the first nine months of 2021 alone.
Demand for uranium
Since launching in July, a new investment trust, run by Canadian asset manager Sprott, has snapped up about 6m pounds of physical uranium, worth about $240m. This aggressive buying has helped push prices of uranium to more than $40 per pound, up from $30 at the start of the year. In the first part of September alone, prices surged by around 40%, outperforming all other major commodities. In just a few weeks, millions of pounds of supply were scooped up by the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust. This puts pressure on utilities that need to secure supplies of the commodity for electricity generation.
This increased demand is occurring at precisely the same time as countries and companies around the world are committing to net-zero carbon targets. As a result, nuclear power companies are now facing competition for supplies of uranium from financial investors, who are betting on sharply higher prices and demand for the radioactive material used to fuel reactors. This boost in demand is said to be due to uranium being used as a low-carbon energy source, despite the radioactive waste problem that comes with it. Investors are betting that nuclear power will be a key part of the move away from fossil fuels.
Production from world uranium mines has in recent years supplied 90% of the requirements of power utilities for uranium, with the current global mine supply expected to be about 125m pounds for 2021. In addition, there are secondary sources such as commercial and military stockpiles. However, according to the World Nuclear Association, demand for uranium is expected to climb from about 162m pounds this year to 206m pounds in 2030, and to 292m pounds by 2040. This is largely driven by increased power generation in China. China is planning a big increase in its nuclear power capacity over the next decade as the country seeks to cut its emissions.
Supply of uranium
Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium and in 2019 produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.
The big issue is that supply to the market is falling significantly. For deliveries that would start in 2022, Kazakh producer, Kazatomprom, is now discussing the possibility of supplying the metal directly to Sprott. However, it also warned of the risk that its mines would not reach their output target for 2021, and it said earlier this year that it would keep its production at reduced levels through 2023. In addition to this, the recent surge in buying is also reducing the inventories that accumulated after the Fukushima accident.
The supply of uranium is set to fall 15 per cent by 2025 and by 50 per cent by 2030. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in new mines. The lack of new uranium mines will mean the price has to move higher. Namibian mines, accounting for 8 per cent of world supply, are approaching the end of their lives. Cameco of Canada, another important source, has shut one large pit because of uneconomic prices. According to BMO Capital, a mine supply deficit since 2019 will continue.
Supply has also been affected by the pandemic. The boom in demand has coincided with historically low prices and pandemic-driven mine disruptions, prompting uranium producers to buy from the spot market to fulfil long-term contracts with consumers. Some of the largest mining operations in Canada and Kazakhstan had to suspend production temporarily due to a shortage of workers.
Adding to the security of supply concerns is the role of commercial and state-owned entities in the uranium market. Uranium is a highly trade-dependent commodity with international trade policies highlighting the disconnect between where uranium is produced and where it is consumed. About 80% of primary production comes from countries that consume little-to-no uranium, and nearly 90% of uranium consumption occurs in countries that have little-to-no primary production. As a result, government-driven trade policies can be particularly disruptive for the uranium market. It is argued that the risk to uranium supply may create a renewed focus on ensuring availability of long-term supply to fuel nuclear reactors.
The role of financial players
Financial players have been accelerating the recent recovery in the price of uranium, with large-scale speculative buying and withholding of supply. But it can be argued that this would not have occurred if there were not a fundamental and substantial shortage.
If investors keep buying uranium, analysts expect utility companies will come under pressure to replace long-term supply agreements before they expire. At the moment, long-term contracts cover 98 per cent of the uranium needed by US utility companies. But that figure drops to 84 per cent next year, and 55 per cent by 2025, according to uranium investment company, Yellow Cake.
As annual supply declines, demand for uranium from producers and financial players increases, and with trade policy potentially restricting access to some markets, it is believed the pounds available in the spot market will not be adequate to satisfy the growing backlog of long-term demand. As a result, companies expect there will be increased competition to secure uranium under long-term contracts on terms that will ensure the availability of reliable primary supply to meet growing demand.
What will the future look like?
Many countries are turning their attention to nuclear power in order to become net-zero economies. Even in Japan, nuclear generation has slowly been returning. It is argued that nuclear power is needed to some degree for the country to achieve its pollution-curbing goals. However, not all nations are re-embracing nuclear. Germany, for example, is set to shut its last reactor next year.
The concern is whether the recent gains in investor demand is enough to underpin the market. It can be argued that even before the recent price rally started, demand for uranium from the investment sector was already growing. However, observers of the market have suggested that just as quickly as uranium skyrocketed, prices may now be hitting the brakes. Producer stocks that got swept up in the frenzy seem to have peaked. In addition, the world’s top uranium miner Kazatomprom has warned that the recent price action was being fuelled by financial investors rather than the utilities that use the radioactive metal as fuel in their reactors. On the other hand, it is argued that this pickup in the spot market will be the catalyst to push more utilities to get involved in term contracting.
Despite the impact of the pandemic on global energy demand, it is now growing again. Gas and other energy shortages are being seen and the price of gas has been rising rapidly. This rise in energy prices plus a focus on carbon-free generation is likely to continue driving demand for nuclear power and hence for uranium. In addition, producers have warned of supply shortages in the long term as investors scoop up physical inventory and new mines are not starting quickly enough. Thus nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.
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.
Share prices are determined by demand and supply. The same applies to stock market indices, such as the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 in the UK and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in the USA. After all, the indices are the weighted average prices of the shares included in the index. Generally, when economies are performing well, or are expected to do so, share prices will rise. They are likely to fall in a recession or if a recession is anticipated. A main reason for this is that the dividends paid on shares will reflect the profitability of firms, which tends to rise in times of a buoyant economy.
When it first became clear that Covid-19 would become a pandemic and as countries began locking down, so stock markets plummeted. People anticipated that many businesses would fail and that the likely recession would cause profits of many other surviving firms to decline rapidly. People sold shares.
The first chart shows how the FTSE 100 fell from 7466 in early February 2020 to 5190 in late March, a fall of 30.5%. The Dow Jones fell by 34% over the same period. In both cases the fall was driven not only by the decline in the respective economy over the period, but by speculation that further declines were to come (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But then stock markets started rising again, especially the Dow Jones, despite the fact that the recessions in the UK, the USA and other countries were gathering pace. In the second quarter of 2020, the Dow Jones rose by 23% and yet the US economy declined by 33% – the biggest quarterly decline on record. How could this be explained by supply and demand?
In order to boost aggregate demand and reduce the size of the recession, central banks around the world engaged in large-scale quantitative easing. This involves central banks buying government bonds and possibly corporate bonds too with newly created money. The extra money is then used to purchase other assets, such as stocks and shares and property, or physical capital or goods and services. The second chart shows that quantitative easing by the Bank of England increased the Bank’s asset holding from April to July 2020 by 50%, from £469bn to £705bn (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But given the general pessimism about the state of the global economy, employment and personal finances, there was little feed-through into consumption and investment. Instead, most of the extra money was used to buy assets. This gave a huge boost to stock markets. Stock market movements were thus out of line with movements in GDP.
Stock market prices do not just reflect the current economic and financial situation, but also what people anticipate the situation to be in the future. As infection and death rates from Covid-19 waned around Europe and in many other countries, so consumer and business confidence rose. This is illustrated in the third chart, which shows industrial, consumer and construction confidence indicators in the EU. As you can see, after falling sharply as the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and countries were locked down, confidence then rose (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But, as infection rates have risen somewhat in many countries and continue to soar in the USA, Brazil, India and some other countries, this confidence may well start to fall again and this could impact on stock markets.
A final, but related, cause of recent stock market movements is speculation. If people see share prices falling and believe that they are likely to fall further, then they will sell shares and hold cash or safer assets instead. This will amplify the fall and encourage further speculation. If, however, they see share prices rising and believe that they will continue to do so, they are likely to want to buy shares, hoping to make a gain by buying them relatively cheaply. This will amplify the rise and, again, encourage further speculation.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, then stock markets could well fall again, as they could if speculators think that share prices have overshot the levels that reflect the economic and financial situation. But then there may be even further quantitative easing.
There are many uncertainties, both with the pandemic and with governments’ policy responses. These make forecasting stock market movements very difficult. Large gains or large losses could await people speculating on what will happen to share prices.
Back in October, we examined the rise in oil prices. We said that, ‘With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26.’ In that blog we looked at the causes on both the demand and supply sides of the oil market. On the demand side, the world economy had been growing relatively strongly. On the supply side there had been increasing constraints, such as sanctions on Iran, the turmoil in Venezuela and the failure of shale oil output to expand as much as had been anticipated.
But what a difference a few weeks can make!
Brent crude prices have fallen from $86 per barrel in early October to just over $50 by the end of the year – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Explanations can again be found on both the demand and supply sides.
On the demand side, global growth is falling and there is concern about a possible recession (see the blog: Is the USA heading for recession?). The Bloomberg article below reports that all three main agencies concerned with the oil market – the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Paris-based International Energy Agency and OPEC – have trimmed their oil demand growth forecasts for 2019. With lower expected demand, oil companies are beginning to run down stocks and thus require to purchase less crude oil.
On the supply side, US shale output has grown rapidly in recent weeks and US output has now reached a record level of 11.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), up from 10.0 mbpd in January 2018, 8.8 mbpd in January 2017 and 5.4 mbpd in January 2010. The USA is now the world’s biggest oil producer, with Russia producing around 11.4 mpbd and Saudi Arabia around 11.1 mpbd.
Total world supply by the end of 2018 of around 102 mbpd is some 2.5 mbpd higher than expected at the beginning of 2018 and around 0.5 mbpd greater than consumption at current prices (the remainder going into storage).
So will oil prices continue to fall? Most analysts expect them to rise somewhat in the near future. Markets may have overcorrected to the gloomy news about global growth. On the supply side, global oil production fell in December by 0.53 mbpd. In addition OPEC and Russia have signed an accord to reduce their joint production by 1.2 mbpd starting this month (January). What is more, US sanctions on Iran have continued to curb its oil exports.
But whatever happens to global growth and oil production, the future price will continue to reflect demand and supply. The difficulty for forecasters is in predicting just what the levels of demand and supply will be in these uncertain times.