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.
Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks. 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. But what has caused the price to increase?
On the demand side, the world economy has been growing relatively strongly. Over the past three years, global growth has averaged 3.5%. This has helped to offset the effects of more energy efficient technologies and the gradual shift away from oil to alternative sources of energy.
On the supply side, there have been growing constraints.
The predicted resurgence of shale oil production, after falls in both output and investment when oil prices were low in 2016, has failed to materialise as much as expected. The reason is that pipeline capacity is limited and there is very little scope for transporting more oil from the major US producing area – the Permian basin in West Texas and SE New Mexico. There are similar pipeline capacity constraints from Canadian shale fields. The problem is compounded by shortages of labour and various inputs.
But perhaps the most serious supply-side issue is the renewed sanctions on Iranian oil exports imposed by the Trump administration, due to come into force on 4 November. The USA is also putting pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Iran is the world’s third largest oil exporter.
Also, there has been continuing turmoil in the Venezuelan economy, where inflation is currently around 500 000 per cent and is expected to reach 1 million per cent by the end of the year. Consequently, the country’s oil output is down. Production has fallen by more than a third since 2016. Venezuela was the world’s third largest oil producer.
Winners and losers from high oil prices
The main gainers from high oil prices are the oil producing countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. It will also encourage investment in oil exploration and new oil wells, and could help countries, such as Colombia, with potential that is considered underexploited. However, given that the main problem is a lack of supply, rather than a surge in demand, the gains will be more limited for those countries, such as the USA and Canada, suffering from supply constraints. Clearly there will be no gain for Iran.
In terms of losers, higher oil prices are likely to dampen global growth. If the oil price reaches $100 per barrel, global growth could be around 0.2 percentage points lower than had previously been forecast. In its latest World Economic Outlook, published on 8 October, the IMF has already downgraded its forecast growth for 2018 and 2019 to 3.7% from the 3.9% it forecast six months ago – and this forecast is based on the assumption that oil prices will be $69.38 a barrel in 2018 and $68.76 a barrel in 2019.
Clearly, the negative effect will be greater, the larger a country’s imports are as a percentage of its GDP. Countries that are particularly vulnerable to higher oil prices are the eurozone, Japan, China, India and most other Asian economies. Lower growth in these countries could have significant knock-on effects on other countries.
Consumers in advanced oil-importing countries would face higher fuel costs, accounting for an additional 0.3 per cent of household spending. Inflation could rise by as much as 1 percentage point.
The size of the effects depends on just how much oil prices rise and for how long. This depends on various demand- and supply-side factors, not least of which in the short term is speculation. Crucially, global political events, and especially US policies, will be the major driving factor in what happens.
Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an unknown person, or people, using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a digital currency in the form of a line of computer code. Bitcoins are like ‘electronic cash’ which can be held or used for transactions, with holdings and transactions heavily encrypted for security – hence it is a form of ‘crytocurrency’. People can buy and sell bitcoins for normal currencies as well as using them for transactions. People’s holdings are held in electronic ‘wallets’ and can be accessed on their computers or phones via the Internet. Transfers of bitcoins from one person or organisation to another are recorded in a public electronic ledger in the form of a ‘blockchain‘.
The supply of bitcoins is not controlled by central banks; rather, it is determined by a process known as ‘mining’. This involves individuals or groups solving complex and time-consuming mathematical problems and being rewarded with a new block of bitcoins.
The supply of bitcoins is currently growing at around 150 per hour and the current supply is around ₿16.7 million. However, the number of new bitcoins in a block is halved for every 210,000 blocks. This means that the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins is slowing – the number generated being halved roughly every four years. The supply will eventually reach a maximum of ₿21 million, probably sometime in the next century, but around 99% will have been mined by around 2032.
The bitcoin bubble
The price of bitcoins has soared in recent months and especially in the past two. On 4 October, the price of a bitcoin was $4226; by 7 December it was nearly four times higher, at $16,858 – a rise of 399% in just nine weeks. Many people have claimed that this is a bubble, which will soon burst. Already there have been severe fluctuations. By December 10, for example, the price had fallen at one point to $13,152 – a fall of nearly 22% in just two days – only to recover to over $15,500 within a few hours.
So what determines the price of bitcoin? The simple answer is very straightforward – it’s determined by demand and supply. But what has been happening to demand and supply and why? And what will happen in the near and more distant future?
As we have seen, the supply is limited by the process of mining, which allows a relatively stable, but declining, increase. The explanation of the recent price rise and what will happen in the future lies on the demand side. Increasing numbers of people have been buying bitcoin, not because they want to use it for transactions, whether legitimate or illegal over the dark web, but because they want to invest in bitcoin. In other words, they want to hold bitcoin as an asset which is increasing in value. These people are known as ‘hodlers’ – a deliberate misspelling of ‘holders’.
But this speculation is of the destabilising form. The more prices have risen, the more people have bought bitcoin, thus pushing the price up further. This is a classic bubble, whereby the price does not reflect an underlying value, but rather the exuberance of buyers.
The problem with bubbles is that they will burst, but just when is virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. If the price of bitcoins falls, what will happen next depends on how the fall is interpreted. It could be interpreted as a temporary fall, caused by some people cashing in to take advantage of the higher prices. At the same time, other people, believing that it is only a temporary fall, will rush to buy, snapping up bitcoins at the temporary low price. This ‘stabilising speculation’ will move the price back up again.
However, the fall in price may be seen as the bubble bursting, with even bigger falls ahead. In this case, people will rush to sell before it falls further, thereby pushing the price even lower. This destabilising speculation will amplify the fall in prices.
But even if the bubble does burst, people may believe that another bubble will then occur and, once they think the bottom has been reached, will thus start buying again and there will be a second speculative rise in the price.
The crash could be very short-lived. This happened with the second biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. On 21 June this year, the price at the beginning of the day was $360. It then began to fall during the say. Once its price reached $315, it then collapsed by 96% to $13 with massive selling, much of it automatic with computers programmed to sell when the price falls by more than a certain amount. But then, on the same day, it rebounded. Within minutes it had bounced back and was trading at $337 at the end of the day. It is now trading at around $450 – up from around $300 four weeks ago.
Whether the bubble in bitcoin has more to inflate, when it will burst, and when it will rebound and by how much, depends on people’s expectations. But what we are looking at here is people’s expectations of what other people are likely to do – in other words, of other people’s expectations, which in turn depend on their expectations of other people’s expectations. This situation is known as a Keynesian Beauty Contest (see the blog, A stock market beauty contest of the machines). Perhaps we need a crystal ball.
According to the Halifax house price index, house prices fell in the UK in the three months to April. This is the first quarterly fall since 2012. The Nationwide index (see below), shows that prices in April were 0.4% lower than in March (although the 3-month rate was still slightly positive).
The fall in house prices reflects a cooling in demand. This, in turn, reflects a squeeze on household incomes as price rises begin to overtake wage rises. It also reflects buyers becoming more cautious given the uncertainty over the nature of the Brexit deal and its effects on the economy and people’s incomes.
The fall in demand is also driven by recent Bank of England rules which require mortgage lenders to limit the proportion of mortgages with a mortgage/income ratio of 4.5 or above to no more than 15% of their new mortgages. It is also affected by a rise in stamp duty, especially on buy-to-let properties.
Despite the fall in prices, this may understate the fall in demand relative to supply. House price movements often lag behind changes in demand and supply as people are reluctant to adjust to equilibrium prices. In the case of a falling market, sellers may be unwilling to sell at the lower equilibrium price, believing that a lower price ‘undervalues’ their property. Indeed, they may not even put their houses on the market. This makes prices ‘sticky’ downwards. The result is a fall in sales.
Eventually, such people will reluctantly be prepared to accept a lower price and prices will thus fall more. Once people come to expect price falls, supply may increase further as vendors seek to sell before the price falls even more. So we could well see further falls over the coming months.
Lower house prices and falling sales is a picture repeated in many parts of the UK. It is particularly marked in central London. There, estate agents have begun to offer free gifts to purchasers. As The Guardian puts it:
London estate agents have begun to offer free cars worth £18,000, stamp duty subsidies of £150,000, plus free iPads and Sonos sound systems to kickstart sales in the capital’s increasingly moribund property market. The once super-hot central London market has turned into a ‘burnt-out core’ according to buying agents Garrington Property Finders, prompting developers to offer ever greater incentives to lure buyers.
… Land Registry figures show that in the heart of the city’s financial district, average property prices plummeted from £861,000 at the time of the EU referendum to £773,000 in February, a decline of 15%, although in London’s outer boroughs prices are still up over the year.
But lower property prices are good news for first-time buyers, although some of the biggest falls have been in the top end of the market.
The fall in property prices may continue for a few months. But population is rising, and with it the number of people who would like to buy their own home. Once real incomes begin to rise again, therefore, demand is likely to resume rising faster than supply. When it does, house prices will continue their upward trend.
In a recent blog, Falling sterling – bad for some; good for others, we looked at the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote. We saw how it will have beneficial effects for some, such as exporters, and adverse effects for others, such as consumers having to pay a higher price for imports and foreign holidays. The article linked below examines these effects in more depth.
Just how much the quantity of exports will increase depends on two main things. The first is the amount by which the foreign currency price falls. This depends on what exporters choose to do. Say the pound falls from €1.30 to €1.18. Do exporters who had previously sold a product selling in the UK for £100 and in the eurozone for €130, now reduce the euro price to €118? Or do they put it down by less – say, to €125, thereby earning £105.93 (£(125/1.18)). Their sales would increase by less, but their profit margin would rise.
The second is the foreign currency price elasticity of demand for exports in the foreign markets. The more elastic it is, the more exports will rise for any given euro price reduction.
It is similar with imports. How much the sales of these fall depends again on two main things. The first is the amount by which the importing companies are prepared to raise sterling prices. Again assume that the pound falls from €1.30 to €1.18 – in other words, the euro rises from 76.92p (£1/1.3) to 84.75p (£1/1.18). What happens to the price of an import to the UK from the eurozone whose euro price is €100? Does the importer raise the price from £76.92 to £84.75, or by less than that, being prepared to accept a smaller profit margin?
The second is the sterling price elasticity of demand for imports in the UK. The more elastic it is, the more imports will fall and, probably, the more the importer will be prepared to limit the sterling price increase.
The article also looks at the effect on aggregate demand. As we saw in the previous blog, a depreciation boosts aggregate demand by increasing exports and curbing imports. The effects of this rise in aggregate demand depends on the degree of slack in the economy and the extent, therefore, that (a) exporters and those producing import substitutes can respond in terms of high production and employment and (b) other sectors can produce more as multiplier effects play out.
Finally, the article looks at the effect of the depreciation of sterling on asset prices. UK assets will be worth less in foreign currency terms; foreign assets will be worth more in sterling. Just how much the prices of internationally traded assets, such as shares and some property, will change depends, again, on their price elasticities of demand. In terms of assets, there has been a gain to UK balance sheets from the depreciation. As Roger Bootle says:
Whereas the overwhelming majority of the UK’s liabilities to foreigners are denominated in sterling, the overwhelming bulk of our assets abroad are denominated in foreign currency. So the lower pound has raised the sterling value of our overseas assets while leaving the sterling value of our liabilities more or less unchanged.
What determines the amount that exporters from the UK adjust the foreign currency price of their exports following a depreciation of sterling?
What determines the amount by which importers to the UK adjust the sterling price of their products following a depreciation of sterling?
What determines the amount by which sterling will depreciate over the coming months?
Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation? How does this apply to exchange rates and what determines the likelihood of there being destabilising speculation against sterling exchange rates?
How is UK inflation likely to be affected by a depreciation of sterling?
Why does Roger Bootle believe that the UK has been living in ‘cloud cuckoo land’ with respect to exchange rates?
Why has the UK managed to sustain a large current account deficit over so many years?