I wrote last week about applying some logic to the oil crash, which as of January 20th had taken prices below $27.
It seems like ever since the very day I wrote the article (January 20th), a lot more "logic" has seeped into energy markets, as oil has quickly rebounded to around $34 (I'm sure my article had something to do with that; ha ha).
Could things possibly be stabilizing somewhat?
I know oil prices can always be volatile, but surely the crash that's taken prices from $107 to $27 can't continue forever. So what's next?
At one point in last week's article, I made a not-very-helpful statement that with today's highly sentiment-driven daily price swings, "I wouldn't be surprised to see $15 and/or $45 in the next 30-60 days."
The important question, of course, for long-term investors and indeed, for the economy, is what will oil's new range become, once today's short-term volatility shakes out? What will become the "new normal" range for oil prices, over the next couple years?
Should oil really be in the low $30s? In the 2 months after OPEC's game-changing Thanksgiving 2014 announcement, WTI crude – which had already fallen about 30% from its June 2014 highs of $107, fell an additional 39% – all the way to $45 – by January 28, 2015 (almost exactly 1 year ago).
So in the last 12 months, we've seen $45 (last January), $60 (June), $37 (at year-end) and $27 (less than 2 weeks ago, at the bottom of the recent spike downward). And today the commodity is trading back around $34 again.
Is $30-60 the new range, as energy markets consultant Rusty Braziel believes (as I quoted last week)? Has oil put in its lows, and finally beginning to stabilize?
Or do prices have farther to fall, based on some combination of sentiment, weakening demand, and a global supply system that's ready to pounce on any dead-cat bounce in oil prices by opening up the spigots?
Or (final scenario), will prices come roaring back to a range above $50-60 during 2016, based on having overshot the mark? Not many people expect that; which is precisely the thing that makes $60+ oil worth considering, in my view. Forecasters are most often wrong, keep in mind. Surely the oversupply has been the primary factor in oil's rout from $107 to $27. But based on oversupply alone, is the rout overdone? How much of the last leg down, from around $40-45 to around $27-33, has been driven by traders' souring sentiment alone? Maybe all the panic-selling is over. Maybe the "weak hands" are now finally shaken out. After all, the fundamentals such as oversupply, slowing demand from China, OPEC's pump-baby-pump strategy, etc., have been known for months if not years – and, therefore, must have been "priced in" long ago. So maybe sentiment has simply taken us way too far.
I wrote last week about some of the more "logical"-sounding analysis I'd heard recently. Let's continue in that vein.
I don't buy that anything surprising has happened on the China front. We've known for years that China's government central planners would begin shifting their economy towards services, that they'd slow down their massive infrastructure build, and that the transition would involve a slowdown in growth. That situation has played out pretty much as expected, with maybe a little extra volatility in Shanghai stocks (which, by the way, are neither a good indicator of China's economic health nor an influential factor in the global economy or markets outside of a few days' worth of market ups and downs.
According to a recent MarketWatch article, China's oil imports grew by 8.8% from 2014 – when measured (properly) in volume terms (barrels, not dollars or yuan). Of course, Chinese oil imports are down in price terms, because oil prices have crashed 70%. According to Fisher Investments, many experts expect Chinese oil demand to continue growing by 6% in 2016 (in terms of volume). Barclays expects only 3% growth. Either way, China continues to consume and continues to fill its strategic reserves. And investors by now surely must have already priced in somewhere between 3-6% volume growth from China.
Demand continues rising. Not at a large pace, but rising nevertheless. Don Luskin, in his January 7th WSJ opinion piece, noted this:
"Oil prices have fallen more than 70% since mid-2014 while demand has been rising. The drop is entirely the result of America's supply-side technology breakthrough with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—fracking."
I agree. Data shows demand has continued growing in the midst of all this! Remarkably, the principal reason for this crash has been supply.
Price Volatility Logic
Oil prices were falling like a knife until January 20th. On January 16th, in the midst of the freefall, Larry Kudlow hosted John Kilduff, founding partner at Again Capital Partners, on his radio show. Said Kilduff:
"The folks who trade based on what the chart is telling them can only do one thing and that's sell."
That was patently true at the time. Now, of course, depending on how short-term the indicators you use, oil prices may be gaining technical strength thanks to a fantastic 7-day, 25% rebound from $27 to $34. Powerful. But could it be just a head fake?
Let's carry that logical one step further, to say this: Just as all trees don't grow to the sky, oil’s not going to zero. On the other hand, is last week's bounce back up to $34 enough to bring out the shadow inventory that producers have been standing ready to bring online? Already, Friday, Iran said it "won't consider a cut" until its exports have increased by 1.5 million bbl/day (compared to its current level of about 1.1 million. Russia and Saudi Arabia had said last week they're considering production cuts, but Iran's Friday statement makes any coordinated cut appear unlikely. Then there're the fragmented US producers. Predicting their response is impossible, given that there are still so many disparate players in so many unique positions.
Human Behavior Logic
Back to Kudlow's Jan. 16th radio show for some more logic. Kudlow's other guest was Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Forbes columnist. Kudlow asked Mills if the well-managed US shale companies can make money on their wells at, say $30 or $35. Mills replied, yes, and added that many of the best can still break even at $20 or even in the high teens. Then Mills said this:
"And the Saudis know this. (The Saudis') marginal wellhead breakeven costs are rising because they're chasing more and more difficult oil in their domain."
Truly, the US shale revolution has given OPEC a run for their money. The Saudis and others still feel compelled to continue pumping to protect market share, even as prices have dropped 75% over the past 19 months.
Watching the behavior of OPEC producers, non-OPEC producers, and North American producers has been a fascinating study – and will continue to be so, because (as Mills said), many shale producers can continue to break even with prices around $20.
All things considered, from my research for these last two articles, I stand by my vanilla-sounding statement that volatility could easily show us both $15 and $45 prices in the near term.
Longer term, if I had to make a bold call, I'd be tempted to go with oil in the $50s or possibly even $60 sometime in 2016 or 2017 – precisely following the logic I laid out earlier in this article (in the 1st section, 2nd-to-last paragraph). In short, I wonder if sentiment has taken prices to extremes that won't last long, now that many of the weak hands have probably been driven away and won’t return for many years.
In my business (managing people's money), I never place too much emphasis on one bold call. So I won't be betting the farm on it. In fact, the reason I never go "all in" on anything is I've learned to always humbly recognize I could be wrong. Markets have a way of humbling you if you don't humble yourself first.
So I ask myself things like: How could I be wrong about oil going back to the $50s within the next 18-24 months? Well, the answer to that is easy. And manifold. Oil could stay in the $30s or below due to persistent oversupply alone. And/or due to a sudden global recession (which doesn't look imminent now, but could happen down the road). And/or due to the fact that perhaps too many people are still too optimistic about oil prices. Remember, a market that has too many bottom-fishers can have a hard time finding that "capitulation" moment. And so on, and so on.
Finally, a few thoughts on a broader topic. The carnage in oil and energy has been dramatic – a fact no one would deny. But here's a couple more points on whether oil and the energy sector's carnage are likely to derail the broader economy and markets.
Turning again to John Kilduff, founding partner, Again Capital Partners, on Kudlow's show:
"It's not a big enough sector to take down the economy. It's not even a big enough junk-bond sector to take down the banks. They're all well reserved and protected against any fallout from bankruptcies or defaults."
Having studied the issue, I have to agree with Kilduff, and I just wanted to pass along that one last, important bit of logic. Next week, we'll dive back into some more specific energy company issues.
INO.com Contributor - Energies
Disclosure: This article is the opinion of the contributor themselves. The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. This contributor is not receiving compensation (other than from INO.com) for their opinion.