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Oil Update–March 2018

My expectation over the next few weeks for West Texas Intermediate oil prices is that they will be bound between $60 and $70. As compared to my last month’s forecast, I increased the upper end from $67.50 to $70. My reasons for the increase are changes in the Trump administration, namely the announcements of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton for the positions of secretary of state and national security advisor, and the approaching driving season. The changes in the administration suggest a more hawkish stance on foreign affairs. And the driving season increases gasoline demand. Otherwise, there has not much been much change since last month.

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Oil Update–February 2018

Last month, I stated that I expected that West Texas Intermediate oil prices would be bound between $60 to $67.50 for the next few weeks. With a brief exception, WTI prices have been stayed within that range. I am reiterating that same expectation for the next few weeks because nothing has changed.

The ongoing geopolitical uncertainties remain. And the ongoing debate whether the increase in shale oil production will cause oil prices to recede again has yet to be resolved. Many believe that increasing demand is too great for shale to overcome, while others believe that current high prices will encourage too much production.

Today’s Wall Street Journal article “Forecasts for Oil Prices Rise for Fifth-Straight Month” states that investment banks have raised their price forecasts yet again (subscription might be required).

LONDON—Banks raised their forecasts for oil prices for the fifth month in a row in February, signaling continued confidence that prices will continue to recover as the global supply glut drains due to production cuts.

Brent crude—the global benchmark—is now expected to average $62 a barrel this year, while West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. standard, should average $58 a barrel, according to a poll of 15 investment banks surveyed by The Wall Street Journal toward the end of February. Both predictions are up roughly $1 from the January survey.

Even investment banks are having a difficult time trying to forecast oil prices.

On an investment site, one person commented that my forecasts were effectively useless because they stated the obvious. It was almost as though I was saying that there will be snow in Calgary in March, and it will be warm in Florida. There’s a certain amount of truth to this commenter’s complaint. The range is reasonably wide, and the forecasts do tend to mirror the latest prices.

The challenge, though, is that if I were to make the range narrower, then I would be much more likely to be wrong, in large part because I have no hard data for increased specificity. If I were to attempt to provide a forecast for a period further into the future, I would be truly guessing. Even those with access to far better information and statistics are not able to provide accurate longer-range forecasts. So instead, I focus on the next few weeks. I attempt to provide my reasoning based on information gained from the articles that I have read.

In summary, I expect that WTI oil prices will be bound between $60 to $67.50 for the next few weeks.

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Oil Update–January 2018

With West Texas Intermediate hitting $66.66 a barrel last Thursday, my forecast of between $50 and $60 a barrel for January was too pessimistic. There were a number of factors that led to higher oil prices, including uncertainty regarding potential new sanctions against Iran, international oil inventories depleting faster than expected, hedge funds’ extreme positioning in oil futures, solid cooperation amongst OPEC members with the possibility that Russia might work cooperatively with OPEC for many years, a depreciation of the US dollar, strong economic global growth, declining oil production from Venezuela, and a buoyant stock market where the S&P 500 has appreciated roughly 7 percent so far this year. All these factors have led to optimism that oil prices will remain strong this year.

I am always cautious about large price moves. Although the prior and other factors might propel oil prices even higher, I expect that prices will be bound between $60 to $67.50 for the next few weeks. While there is some room to the upside, I anticipate that the prior factors will likely prevent oil prices from falling too far in the near term.

Because I have been surprised by the strength of both oil prices and the stock market during the first few weeks of this year, I do not have much conviction in my oil price forecast. I am taking a wait and see approach for February and will reassess toward the end of the month.

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Oil Update–December 2017

Back in August, I quoted Dan Dicker saying that oil prices were likely to rise to $60 per barrel by year end, perhaps even $70. At the end of the last trading day of the year and after normal oil trading hours, West Texas Intermediate closed at about $60.10, after hitting a high of $60.51 near the end of the normal trading session.

I had predicted that WTI oil would remain below $60. And perhaps if there had not been a series of exogenous events such as the Kurdish Iraqui conflict, the Forties Pipeline System outage, and the extreme cold snap into the end of the year, prices might have remained below $60 per barrel. Exogenous events, of course, do happen with unpredictable regularity.

On Saturday, a Wall Street Journal article “Oil Prices Expected to Keep Rising in 2018, but It Could Be a Rocky Ride” (subscription required) quote indicated that Brent prices are forecast to average $58 per barrel.

A survey of 15 investment banks by The Wall Street Journal estimates that Brent crude, the international oil-price gauge, will average $58 a barrel in 2018, up from an average of $54 in 2017. The banks expect West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil gauge, to average $54 a barrel in 2018, up from $51 in 2017.

As noted at the outset of this article, WTI closed above $60. I expect that once some of the exogenous issues subside, oil prices will retreat. Furthermore, these high oil prices might attract some short sellers to drive prices lower. On the other hand, some argue that world inventories are depleting faster than expected, world economic growth remains strong, and shale oil growth alone will not be sufficient to keep a lid on prices below $60. We will need to watch to see how the oil story unfolds.

My expectation for the next few weeks is that WTI prices remain bound by $50 to $60 a barrel.

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Oil Update–November 2017

With WTI prices at about $58.00 per barrel, I am updating my WTI oil price forecast upward over the next several weeks to range between $50.00 and $60.00 per barrel. As mentioned last month, geopolitical uncertainties are likely to have created a floor near $50 per barrel. Aside from the conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the potential for President Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, the arrests in Saudi Arabia have added to the list of geopolitical uncertainties.

In its latest monthly report, the International Energy Agency lowered its global crude demand growth outlook by 100,000 barrels per day for 2017 and 2018. The reduction in demand growth was in direct opposition to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countrie’ report that raised demand growth. If the IEA is correct in its forecast, current prices might not be sustainable.

On November 30, OPEC and Russia are scheduled to announce their decision whether they will extend their oil production cuts past March of 2018. Most, including me, expect that the cuts will be extended to the end of the year. Even if the cuts are extended, the bulls might declare victory and reduce their long positions. On the other hand, prices might rise even further with decreased uncertainty.

Because of the extended rally in oil prices and because of IEA’s reduced growth demand, I am cautious about oil prices escalating much further in the near future. I do appreciate, however, that global oil inventories are falling, and that might cause prices to spike higher. We should gain more insight after the market’s reaction to OPEC’s decision.

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Oil Update–October 2017

I am updating my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $50.00–$57.50 per barrel. The bottom oil-price limit is higher because geopolitical uncertainties have likely created a floor near $50 per barrel. The geopolitical uncertainties stem from the conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the potential for President Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. Another positive factor is the upcoming OPEC meeting at the end of November where many expect the agreement limiting crude-oil output to be extended beyond March 2018. The top oil-price limit has been raised because, with recent WTI prices being near $54 per barrel, it leaves further room to the upside. At current prices, producers are hedging their future production and will, therefore, produce additional volumes that should damp further increases in oil prices. With oil prices near $54 per barrel, I expect that WTI is near the higher end of its near-term range.

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A good friend Paul Precht recommended that I view a YouTube video “Tony Seba: Clean Disruption – Energy & Transportation.” Seba offers a fascinating presentation of how he sees the future of energy and transportation unfolding. Even if he is only half correct, there will be dramatic changes for society and especially Alberta. After viewing fifteen minutes of this hour-long video, you will be hooked. I urge you, though, to set aside an entire hour—you’ll not be disappointed.

Precht and I met during the 1990s when we worked together to create a new fiscal framework for the oil sands industry. At that time, he was working at Alberta Energy, a ministry of the Government of Alberta, and I was working at Syncrude. We have remained in touch throughout the years and have collaborated on several projects as consultants.

On the topic of energy, my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $45–$55 per barrel, a slight increase from my expectations of last month. After reading a few articles—for example, “Mission Accomplished? OPEC banishes contango: John Kemp”—that claimed reduced oil inventory levels in advanced economies, I am slightly more bullish.

The next few weeks will be interesting because this is typically a shoulder period between high demand from summer driving and high demand for winter heating. Refineries are often shut down for maintenance to take advantage of this slow time. With the recent storms in the Gulf Coast, I am curious to see how this year’s shoulder period evolves. Also higher prices may provide incentive for drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) to be brought on stream, not to mention that higher prices might inspire new drilling. Unless there is a spike in demand, these events ought to have a moderating effect on a steep oil price rise. Given this backdrop, I am have raised my expectations from last month.

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Oil Update–August 2017

I am staying with my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $43–$53 per barrel. With the continuing fallout from the tropical storm Harvey, I expect increased volatility in oil prices.

I have updated my graph. As a refresher, one of the benchmarks that I track is the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook data for US crude oil and liquid fuels production as shown in the next graph, which is an updated version from the prior month. Every month the EIA releases a new forecast. The January forecast is the lowest line along the horizontal axis, and the August forecast is near the top for much, but not all, of the graph. Solid-line portions represent historical data, and the dotted-line portions are forecasts. Because of data revisions, not all months start from the same point. Please note that liquid fuels include ethanol, natural gas plant liquids, and biodiesel.

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts—US Crude Oil and Liquid Fuels Production

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts

Looking at the updated graph, we note that the last four months—May, June, July, and August—seem to be clustered together. In other words, the forecasts seem to be converging.

Dan Dicker in his article “It’s Finally Time to Look at Oil Stocks” (subscription might be required) states that oil prices are likely to rise by year-end.

The trend for oil is finally about to change. Oil has been range-bound for all of 2017, with rigs continuing to increase and stockpiles continuing to swell. But rigs are beginning to roll over and are, I believe, going to decrease through the rest of the year. And more importantly, stockpiles are beginning to sink, finally going under the 10-year average for the first time in 4 years. That trend is going to continue as well.

Oil is about to break out of its range — to the upside.

Of course, the oil companies deciding to cut production and capex will accelerate both of these trends, making oil even more likely to rise to $60 by year end — maybe even $70.

In a subsequent article “Oil Will Turn Soon, But Not All Oil Companies Will Follow,” (again, subscription might be required) Dicker states the following:

I believe oil prices will get constructive soon, overcoming their year-long range between $43 and $54 dollars a barrel. We can see three factors that are going to push oil out of this range to the upside. First, we see oil stockpiles falling under the 5-year average, signifying the rebalancing is coming. Second, we see rig counts beginning to roll over, making the projections for increased production in 2018 far too optimistic. And third, major rollbacks of capex from oil producers, announced in their second-quarter reports, are going to accelerate both of these trends.

I disagree with Dicker. We have just examined the graph for expected production. As discussed, recent forecasts have converged. There is a time lag between drilling and production. So, I expect that much of the remaining production for 2017 is already set in the forecast. According to a Wall Street Journal article “Investors Eager to Hear Shale Companies’ Plans for Rest of 2017,” (subscription required) many oil companies have already hedging contracts in place, and there are many drilled-but-uncompleted wells waiting to be connected to pipelines. Furthermore, a Financial Times article “Oil Traders grapple with US crude conundrum” (subscription required) suggests that prices are likely to stay low.

Behind this, analysts and traders say, is seemingly unstoppable US oil production. Those betting the industry will continue ramping up output are — for now — firmly winning the biggest debate in the oil sector regarding just how much production, led by the shale revolution, can grow despite prices languishing below $50 a barrel.

“The train has left the station in terms of shale,” said Gary Ross, head of Pira Energy, a unit of S&P Global Platts.

The so-called Brent-WTI spread, which measures the price difference between the two big crude markers, is just one indicator that points to traders betting that US shale output will grow in excess of 1m barrels a day next year, or enough to meet about 75 per cent of anticipated global demand growth.

And just today, the Wall Street Journal published an article “Saudi Arabia, Russia Pushing for Three-Month Extension to Oil Cut Deal” (subscription required). If these two countries expected prices to recover above $60 by year-end, they likely would not have called for an extension.

The end of 2017 is only a few short months away. We will soon learn if $60 per barrel has been achieved. My expectation is that, with already anticipated increased production, oil prices will remain below $60 per barrel.

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Oil Update–July 2017

I am updating my WTI oil price expectations for the next several weeks to range between $43–$53 per barrel, two dollars per barrel lower than before. The reasons for changing are increased production from Libya and Nigeria, Ecuador straying outside its production cap, and general cynicism toward OPEC being able to reduce global inventories as quickly as expected.

Although I have reduced my expectations, should OPEC announce significant changes to its policy after meeting this weekend in Saint Petersburg, Russia, then all bets are off.

If the current situation persists, however, then I am comfortable with my updated values.

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Oil Update–June 2017

US Weekly Oil Production Versus US Oil Rig Count – June 2017.

US Weekly Oil Production Versus US Oil Rig Count

With the recent release of the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook, I have revised downward my forecast for WTI oil price to between $45 and $55 per barrel for the next several weeks, until midsummer. The reason for lowering my forecast is that the EIA has forecast more production between now and roughly the end of 2018. Furthermore, in its “Forecast Highlights” it says the following: “EIA forecasts that implied global petroleum and liquid fuels inventories will decline by about 0.2 million b/d in 2017 and then increase by an average of 0.1 million b/d in 2018.” I anticipate that the forecasted build in inventories in 2018 might keep a lid on oil prices.

Let’s take a quick review of some data. You’ve likely seen a variation of the following graph where oil production has almost recovered to pre-downturn levels, yet the number of oil rigs being used is roughly half that at the peak of production. The key point from this graph is that production efficiency per rig has increased. It’s important to remember that this graph represents all rigs involved in US oil production, not just those used for shale oil.

One of the benchmarks that I track is the US Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook data for US crude oil and liquid fuels production as shown in the next graph, which is an updated version from the prior month. Every month the EIA releases a new forecast. The January forecast is the lowest line along the horizontal axis, and the June forecast is the top line for much, but not all, of the graph. Solid-line portions represent historical data, and the dotted-line portions are forecasts. Because of data revisions, not all months start from the same point. Please note that liquid fuels include ethanol, natural gas plant liquids, and biodiesel, and this total volume is different from just the oil volume shown in the prior graph.

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts—US Crude Oil and Liquid Fuels Production

EIA Short Term Energy Outlook Forecasts

In February and March, the EIA revised substantially upward its December 2018 production forecast. In the last four months, the December 2018 production forecast remained relatively constant, but the production volume leading up to December 2018 was increased with each new forecast.

With production forecasts increasing each month and with the EIA forecasting a slight build in global inventories, I am more cautious. I want to wait for more data throughout the summer. Do global inventories draw down faster than many expect, or do they remain relatively stable?

In this weekend’s Barron’s magazine article (subscription required) “Energy Shares Could Soon Heat Up,” Andrew Bary discusses bullish comments made by Morgan Stanley’s energy analyst Evan Calio.

The Energy Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund (ticker: XLE), which tracks the energy stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, is off 12% so far in 2017, compared with a 9% gain in the broad market. The more volatile SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP) is down 21% after hitting a new 52-week low last week. “This is one of the worst beginnings to the year ever,” says Evan Calio, an energy analyst at Morgan Stanley. “Investor sentiment is horrible.”

Nevertheless, Calio remains upbeat on U.S. exploration-and-production stocks, seeing about 15% upside on average from current levels. He expects oil prices to rise to the mid-to-high $50s over the summer and into the fall, supported by drawdowns of crude inventories and the effect of output reductions announced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. A rally in energy stocks could be under way, after their 2% gain on Friday.

Calio is more bullish than I am at present. If, however, global inventories deplete faster than expected over the summer, I will reverse my current position and go back to my prior expected range of $50–$60 per barrel.

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