Archive for January, 2011

Crude Oil Prices, Market Fundamentals and the Global Economy

Crude oil prices have over the past three years shown great volatility. Prices for the Brent grade for example began the year 2008 at about US$99 per barrel but by the end of that year they had tumbled by about two thirds to just under US$40 per barrel.  For 2009, prices almost doubled between January and December. The recent surge in crude oil prices, breaching the US$100 per barrel mark (Bonny Light US$100.12 per barrel on January 17, Tapis US$103.36 and Minas US$102.21 on January 21), has generated some concern about the rather precarious rebound of the global economy. Many financial analysts hold that another great surge in prices may wipe away a modest recovery.

Calls for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, to increase production (in order to stem prices) however do seem unnecessary; first because the group has been producing significantly above its official ceiling  – compliance estimates are between 60% and 65% – and secondly, global stocks are still relatively high albeit falling. The group currently boasts a spare capacity of about 6 million barrels per day even as the market is adequately supplied.

That said, several of the major price spikes during the past three years have been in spite of adequate market supply. The spikes were characterized by massive supply overhang and weak demand; even when oil prices surged to more than US$145 per barrel in 2008, the markets were well-supplied.

Figure 1 below for example, shows that in 2009, spot prices for Brent were in the main, on an upward trend even when total OECD stocks were rising. The year 2010 was not much different.

During the last few months, the prices of oil have had less to do with its levels of supply and demand than with financial markets. Newly-released U.S. Energy Department data, for example show that U.S. crude oil stockpiles increased by higher-than-expected (nearly 5 million barrels) values last week, further increasing supply for a second week, while total fuel demand slipped. The immediate effect, contrary to expectations was a spike in crude oil prices (following a firmer Wall Street instead): Brent for March settlement jumped US$2.46 to US$97.71 per barrel on the ICE Futures Europe, while crude oil for March delivery rose US$1.30 to US$87.49 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Figure 2 below shows a roughly reciprocal relationship between the strength of the U.S. dollar (with respect to the euro) and crude oil prices for the last 12 months. This is not altogether unexpected for such a dollar-denominated commodity. 

In 2009, several market analysts joined the International Energy Agency, IEA, to project an oil price shock by the year 2012 (next year) citing severe supply shortfalls; in my analysis then, l held that even in the event of a price shock by that time, such shock would most probably show no fundamental support and so far that has generally been the case. Yes, to the extent that its global rate of extraction exceeds its natural rate of formation, crude oil is technically a finite resource and now even prone to exploitation constraints set by geology, technology and finance; but before arguments about “peak oil” are let loose, l’d like to add that global oil supplies will most likely not dry out in 2012.

One upside to the recent oil price levels however, is that capital expenditure (capex) is set to rise. (Some of the analysts that projected a short-term oil supply crunch based their conclusions in the main, on low capital expenditure values.) According to Financial Times, the five largest publicly-listed oil companies are expected to spend a record US$128 billion on capital projects during the next 12 months to boost production. It reports that Chevron is expected to boost capex by about 20% to US$26 billion while for Exxon, the value is between US$25 billion and US$35 billion. Major National Oil Companies, NOCs are also expected to increase their capex.

Finally, so much attention has been focused on certain oil “marker” prices such as US$100 per barrel and their effects on the global economy. What matters more to the global economy however, is the average oil price over a given year rather than a particular peak price for that year; for example, according to Energy Information Administration, the average Brent spot price for the year 2008 was US$96.94 per barrel (about the same as current prices) even with the much-reviled peak price of US$145.66 per barrel for that year. In addition, the rate of increase between years may also be a factor.

Some analysts have proffered oil price “inflexion points” (ranging from US$120 per barrel to US$130 per barrel) that may prompt a reverse of the current global economic recovery. When prices for global energy – of which petroleum is a significant proportion – are very high, economies may be negatively impacted and where the currencies of such economies have been devalued against the U.S. dollar (oil’s denominated currency), the situation is even compounded. In addition, several aspects of global food production processes are energy-dependent and for many economies, the current food crises only compound spiraling inflation; but the impact of energy subsidies on the global economy could also be just as negative.


Energy Subsidies and the Global Economy

The government of Bolivia last week issued a decree revoking consumption subsidies on some petroleum products. The action sparked a wave of strikes by trade unions as well as civil groups. Prices of diesel in the country increased by 83% while those of low- and high-octane gasolines increased by 73% and 57% respectively. Following meetings with various union and civil society groups, Eva Morales, the country’s president reportedly reversed that enabling decree .

The International Energy Agency, IEA, in a recent report estimated the total fossil-fuel subsidy for the year 2009 at US$312 billion compared with US$57 billion for renewable energy. It also estimated that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies by the year 2020 would reduce carbon emissions by almost 6% while reducing energy demand by about 5% at that time.

Many countries – developed and developing – retain subsidies for various products in sectors such as energy and agriculture. According to the Energy Information Administration, EIA, for example, total fuel-specific energy subsidies in the United States for financial year 2007 was US$7.435 billion; and fossil-fuels accounted for most of that.  For many of these countries then, the issue of eliminating both production and consumption subsidies constitutes a political minefield. Lobbyists and interests groups wield formidable influence in developed countries while for developing countries, the prospects of a “Bolivia” response are daunting; in Pakistan, a vote of confidence in parliament looms large as an ally in a tenuous coalition bolted citing the 9% increase in gasoline price just a few days ago.

That said, there are in the main, three energy subsidy issues that impact the global economy:

First, international crude oil prices. Energy demand by developing countries has been on the increase; for many of the oil-exporting countries among them, the hike in demand has been boosted by significant levels of consumption subsidy, according to the Center for Global Energy Studies, CGES in London. The CGES reports that during the period 1998-2010, while global crude oil demand grew by 1.2% per year, the demand growth for members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, was 3% per year. The import then is that the increasing domestic demand would place constraints on export quotas, a possible driver for higher international crude oil prices. The head of Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, last year warned that domestic energy demand could rise from 2009’s 3.4 million barrels per day of oil equivalent to 8.3 million barrels per day of oil equivalent by 2028, citing inefficiencies; oil and natural gas are used for generation of heavily-subsidized electricity in Saudi Arabia.

Many of these producer-nations have also embarked on very capital-intensive, medium-term national development programs which require crude oil prices of between US$59 and US$76 per barrel for break-even. It is therefore unlikely that they would be averse to higher, international crude oil prices.  One frightful aspect of resource-driven boom is that for unprepared countries, price-collapse is usually devastating.

Secondly, the issue of inadequate energy prices among many oil and gas producer-nations, has stifled capital investment and therefore supply. In resource provinces where natural gas is associated with oil, operators elect to flare the gas and exploit the oil rather than invest in gas infrastructure which would not provide adequate returns. For mostly natural gas provinces, investment is almost non-existent for the same reason. According to Oil and Gas Journal, Nigeria for example held 185 trillion cubic feet, Tcf, of natural gas as at January 2010, giving her the world’s eighth-largest natural gas reserves. The country, however flares a significant proportion of her natural gas production. The amount of natural gas flared in one year could easily meet some countries’ total energy needs for the same period. According to EIA, the country flared 532 billion cubic feet, Bcf, of natural gas in 2008. The country herself consumed only a total of 430 Bcf of natural gas (about 65% of which was used for electricity generation) in the same year. Of the country’s gross natural gas production in 2008, only about 50% was marketed.

The result is that in Nigeria, only about 47% of the people have access to electricity; those manufacturing companies that are still standing – many have fallen away – have had to invest in private power generation and that has increased operation costs by as much as 20% to 40%. However, the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, has instituted a complete overhaul of the country’s power sector with a new investor-friendly gas roadmap; but the country’s poorly regulated oil and gas sector has also led to an acutely  notorious lack of transparency as well as gas flare problems and oil spills more severe than the April 20, 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Finally, the sustainability of excessive energy subsidies. The steeply rising proportion of energy subsidies in national expenditure for highly subsidized economies has challenged their economic viability. In Iran, for example, inherent energy problems associated with high subsidies – until just December last year, gasoline prices were only ten cents a liter – have been accentuated by the recent series of asphyxiating economic sanctions spearheaded by the United States. According to TheNational, energy subsidies cost the country a third of her GDP. The degree of infrastructural decay is such that the country, which has the second-largest natural gas reserves is a net importer and the third-largest consumer behind United States and Russia despite having a smaller population. The situation with her crude oil is not much better. The lack of capital investment means that the country with one of the highest reserves could soon become a net importer. Even with the new US$0.40/liter price, the allowable monthly gasoline ration for each motorist would be meaningless in many countries.

Venezuela, with the world’s sixth-largest crude oil reserves is also an unenviable paradigm. A grossly mismanaged energy sector which has witnessed nationalization of assets and gasoline prices as low as US$0.07/liter has left little revenue for President Hugo Chávez to finance his ambitious 21st Century Socialism program. The result has been spates of food and power rationing and an inflation rate which the country’s own central bank put at 26.9% for 2010. The devaluation last week, of the country’s currency – one of several in the past and the second in the last twelve months – would probably add to her woes.

In Nigeria (the fifth-highest foreign supplier of crude oil to the U.S in 2009), the Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency, PPPRA, has reported that in the period between January 2006 and June 2010, about US$13 billion was expended to subsidize petroleum products. In comparison, provisions for total capital expenditure in the country’s 2011 budget amount to about US$6.4 billion. In that 2011 budget, recurrent expenditure takes about 59% of total outlay, boosted by politicians’ salaries and expenses. As reported, each Senator in the country’s legislature takes home about US$1.34 million per annum while a Representative takes home about US$848,000 per annum (not so sure how that stacks up with the U.S. Congress); and that in a country where about 7 in 10 people live on less than US$2 per day. The country’s central bank governor has at different fora inveighed against such massive fraud associated with her petroleum product subsidies and which make the exercise both meaningless and unsustainable. A Petroleum Industry Bill which was supposed to sanitize the country’s oil and gas sector has been languishing in the legislature; the Freedom of Information Bill, FOI, which is needed to enshrine transparency and good governance is also buried there in ten years of the chamber’s dust. One of the sponsors of that FOI bill has pointed out that the books of the country’s National Oil Company, are not subject to any legislative audit.

In countries such as India, China and even Pakistan, subsidy withdrawal processes have gained currency in bids to ease the rising burden on public purses.

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