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Oil Update—April 2019

My forecast for May is that the West Texas Intermediate oil price will range between $62.50 and $72.50 per barrel. The range is $5.00 higher than last month’s forecast.

After the US administration began the process of ending waivers on the Iran sanctions, prominent pundits have had a difficult time assessing the effect of the resulting loss of Iranian production. Part of the challenge is that no one knows with certainty just how much production will be lost.

A Wall Street Journal article titled “Oil Volatility Picks Up, Putting 2019 Rally Under Scrutiny” (subscription required) highlights the uncertainty.

Prices had climbed early last week after the Trump administration surprised some market participants by ending waivers on Iran sanctions that allowed some buyers to continue purchases from the Islamic Republic. Last week marked the first time in nearly two months that oil logged multiple moves of at least 2.5% in either direction.

The moves are putting investors on edge because of the narrow supply-demand balance heading into the U.S. summer driving season. The decision to end the sanctions waivers threatens to remove even more oil from global markets at a time when U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and a continuing conflict in Libya have already resulted in lower supply from those countries.

Even with the U.S. producing record amounts of oil, many investors remain unsure how quickly OPEC and its allies would fill any impending production gaps, opening the door to large price swings in either direction.

Because Saudi Arabia wants and needs higher prices to help balance its budget, I am assuming that the Brent oil price remains between $70 and $80 per barrel. Estimating that WTI prices are about $8 dollars lower, I arrived at my range for May of $62.50 and $72.50 per barrel.

Because the uncertainty surrounding production from Iran, Libya, and Venezuela is particularly high, I do not have great confidence in my range. Furthermore, the US China trade deal, with implications for global growth, has yet to be resolved. So, I would not be surprised if prices declined below or rose above my forecast.

Perhaps once the OPEC+ meeting in June has concluded and the driving season is in full swing, the outlook for oil prices will become clearer. Until then, though, I expect considerable uncertainty and, possibly, volatility.

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Oil Update—March 2019

My forecast for April is that the West Texas Intermediate oil price will range between $57.50 and $67.50 per barrel. The range is $2.50 higher than last month’s forecast.

The price has been slowly creeping up as OPEC+’s cutbacks take effect. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is driving prices higher according to a Reuters article “More shale, who cares? Saudi Arabia pushes for at least $70 oil” where it states the following:

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Budget needs are forcing Saudi Arabia to push for oil prices of at least $70 per barrel this year, industry sources say, even though U.S. shale oil producers could benefit and Riyadh’s share of global crude markets might be further eroded.

Riyadh, OPEC’s de facto leader, said it was steeply cutting exports to its main customers in March and April despite refiners asking for more of its oil. The move defies U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands for OPEC to help reduce prices while he toughens sanctions on oil producers Iran and Venezuela.

A Brent price of $70 translates into a low $60s WTI price.

Of course, the US China trade negotiations are still important for global growth. My assumption is that both sides will continue working toward or will successfully conclude a deal. And there are still concerns with Iran and Venezuela as well as other OPEC members. In other words, there are still a lot of moving parts that can drive oil higher or lower. My expectation, though, is that oil will continue to rise in April.

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Oil Update—February 2019

My forecast for March is that the West Texas Intermediate oil price will range between $55 and $65 per barrel. The range is five dollars higher than last month’s forecast.

I have raised my target range because of the ongoing problems in Venezuela, the progress that US and China are making toward some sort of a deal, and OPEC+’s determination to reduce oil exports. An excerpt from the February 12 Financial Times article “Saudi Arabia goes on the hunt for global oil and gas” states the following:

The kingdom and Russia are leading global producers to curb supply to support oil prices after they fell by 40 per cent in late 2018. Crude is now hovering near $60 a barrel, while Saudi Arabia’s budget requires levels closer to $80.

Mr Falih said in March the kingdom would reduce production to near 9.8m barrels a day, from above 11m b/d in November. Exports would also fall to near 6.9m b/d, down from 8.2m b/d three months ago.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose $1.82 a barrel to $63.34 after the FT reported the minister’s production outlook, though prices came off their highs later in the trading day.

As we constantly see in the news, Venezuela is going through a very difficult time. Putting oil aside for a moment, I hope that a new government can quickly stabilize and then improve the situation. So far, the US and China appear to be making progress. And the rising oil prices throughout February and OPEC+’s determination to reduce output should lead to higher prices.

Of course, the questions then become how far and how fast? Before making a new assessment, I want to see how the market reacts to these changes over the next month.

Global growth, US shale production response, and Iranian sanctions are also factors that will play important roles in the months ahead.

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Oil Update—January 2019

My forecast for February is that the West Texas Intermediate oil price will range between $50 and $60 per barrel. The lower end of the range is five dollars higher than last month’s forecast.

As outlined by John Kemp, Senior Market Analyst for Reuters, there are five central elements when considering oil prices for the next several months:

  1. Global economy
  2. US shale production growth
  3. OPEC+ output reductions
  4. US sanctions on Iran
  5. US sanctions on Venezuela

I will provide a cursory comment on each item.

The outcome of the US China trade dispute will drive global growth. If trade talks fail, then global growth will obviously falter. If the trade talks make significant progress, then global growth is likely to at least muddle along. While some are pessimistic, I am optimistic that the two countries land on an agreement. Neither country wants a protracted trade war.

If WTI oil prices remain below $60 per barrel, US shale growth will be moderated because many companies have difficulty being profitable at those prices. OPEC+ output reductions will begin to bite more as time progresses. Because it takes time for reduced oil volumes to reach their destinations, the full impact of the reductions has yet to be realized.

Continued US sanctions against Iran and waivers for the sale of its oil are unknowable at this point. We will have to see how the world looks when it comes time to renew sanctions and waivers, including any possible further action against Iran.

Because Venezuela will have its own difficulties maintaining its production, I view any US sanctions against Venezuela as having minimal affect. Furthermore, there are always other potential buyers for Venezuela’s production. This evening, the US announced sanctions as outlined in the Wall Street Journal article “U.S. to Sanction Venezuela’s State-Owned Oil Giant” (subscription required). So far, the oil price reaction to those sanctions has been muted.

I believe the low oil price in December was an aberration. The oil supply and demand should be getting close to balancing. In my view, the top two items are most important. So, we need to watch to see how the US China trade talks develop and how US shale production performs.

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Oil Update—December 2018

December was a challenging month for the stock market and oil prices. The price of oil fell much further than I expected.

My forecast for the next four weeks is that the West Texas Intermediate price will range between $45 and $60 per barrel. In my view, the current price of about $45 per barrel is not sustainable.

There are three sources of information that are worth considering.

First, the US Energy Information Administration predicts lower prices in the months ahead. In its latest “Short-Term Energy Outlook” (PDF), it states the following:

EIA expects Brent spot prices will average $61 in 2019 and that West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices will average about $7/b lower than Brent prices next year. NYMEX WTI futures and options contract values for March 2019 delivery that traded during the five-day period ending December 6, 2018, suggest a range of $36/b to $77/b encompasses the market expectation for March WTI prices at the 95% confidence level.

Second, a December 24 article from the Wall Street Journal titled “Banks Sharply Lower Oil-Price Forecasts” (subscription required) mentions the following:

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, is now expected to average just over $69 a barrel next year, down from an estimate last month of roughly $77 a barrel, according to a poll of 13 investment banks conducted by The Wall Street Journal. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil standard, should average just over $63 a barrel, compared with a November forecast of around $70 a barrel, the poll showed.

And third, Helima Croft on CNBC’s Fast Money stated that she believes Saudi Arabia will do whatever it takes to get oil on a firmer footing because it raised its budget spending by 7 percent recently and its budget is based on an $80 per barrel Brent price.

The markets are currently experiencing a high level of volatility. Once volatility recedes and the effects of OPEC’s reduced volumes becomes known, I expect that oil prices will be higher.

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Oil Update—November 2018

Last month, I forecast that West Texas Intermediate would range between $65 and $75 for November. Nearing month end with WTI at about $50, I was wrong.

Some of the factors that led to the sharp oil price decline are as follows: unexpected waivers granted for purchase of Iranian crude; worries about global growth; continuing trade concerns between China and the United States; political pressure from President Trump, especially in light of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi; supply growth from the Permian basin; Russia and Saudi Arabia producing at near record volumes; and a strong US dollar. How much each of the factors contributed is unknown and open to debate.

On December 6, OPEC plus Russia will meet in Vienna to discuss the current situation and determine whether and how significant any cuts might be. A November 23 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Saudis Mull Quiet Cuts to OPEC Production” (subscription required) lays out a possible scenario where cuts are made without drawing undue and unwanted attention.

Saudi Arabia and OPEC are inching toward a compromise between pleasing the U.S. with policies that won’t lead to price spikes and throttling back the flow of its oil to rebalance oversupplied global markets.

The solution the cartel is considering: A production cut that doesn’t look like a production cut.

Under such a scenario, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would announce plans to retain current output targets, first set in 2016. That move would imply a production pullback because Saudi Arabia is overproducing by nearly 1 million barrels a day, according to people familiar with the matter.

Because oil prices have fallen so far, I am inclined to think that prices are at or very near the bottom. Therefore, I estimate that the WTI price over the next four weeks will range between $50 and $65. This range is wider than my usual ten dollars because there potentially could be a snapback resulting from the OPEC meeting and a general rally into yearend.

As an aside, for those who have been following horrific details surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the following Wall Street Journal article is worth reading: “Saudi Arabia Accused of Torturing Women’s-Rights Activists in Widening Crackdown on Dissent” (subscription required).

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Oil Update—October 2018

My November oil price range forecast for West Texas Intermediate returns to where it was for July through September. That is to say, I expect that WTI will range between $65.00 and $75.00 per barrel, a decrease of $2.50 from October’s upper and lower range values. While oil prices might deviate from that range for a few days, I expect that WTI prices will fall within that range for most of the month.

Given the ongoing market correction and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, I expect OPEC and Russia to keep the oil market well supplied in the face of the Iranian sanctions while not letting oil prices fall much further. There are articles suggesting that OPEC might need to cut supplies again because too much oil will soon be available. Yet other articles highlight the lack of surplus capacity suggesting that higher prices are warranted.

A lengthy article titled “Saudi energy minister Al-Falih speaks to TASS on OPEC+, oil prices and Khashoggi” published in the Russian new agency TASS is worth reading.

For those who want to add oil exposure to their portfolios, this market correction might be providing an opportunity. Many of the major integrated oil companies can generate substantial profits in this price environment. As a bonus, many of those same companies pay attractive dividends.

November will be an important month because we will learn how the markets react to the current correction, US election results, fallout from the Khashoggi murder, and Iranian sanctions. As mentioned in prior articles, I am still waiting to see how the trade tensions play out and how Venezuela manages in the months ahead. I continue to expect substantial price uncertainty over the next several months.

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Oil Update—September 2018

My expected oil price range for October West Texas Intermediate is slightly higher than it was for September, August, and July. I expect that WTI will range between $67.50 and $77.50 per barrel, an increase of $2.50 on the upper and lower range values. While oil prices might deviate from that range for a few days, I expect that WTI prices will fall within that range for most of the month.

The Iran sanctions, trade tensions and developments in Venezuela all continue to be important factors for determining oil prices. With the Iran sanctions officially starting in November, oil prices have begun to move upward. There are numerous articles stating that oil could reach over $100 per barrel by later this year or early next. While I am skeptical that an upward oil price move will extend that far, I want to wait to see how the market reacts in October to the looming November sanctions. In other words, I do not have strong a conviction on where the price range will be in several months.

On September 30, the Wall Street Journal article “Reignited Rally Sets Off Talk of $100 Oil” suggests that much higher prices are possible soon.

Oil prices are again marching higher, prompting talk that crude could reach $100 a barrel for the first time since 2015’s crash.

Brent crude, the global benchmark for oil prices, jumped 4.1% in the third quarter to $82.72 a barrel, the highest level in nearly four years. Brent’s fifth consecutive quarterly advance marks its longest such streak since 2008. U.S. crude edged down from its most recent multiyear high, falling 1.2% to $73.25 a barrel last quarter, though it has risen in five of the past six weeks. Investors have grown more bullish ahead of Nov. 4, the U.S. sanctions deadline for companies to stop buying Iranian oil.

Sentiment was bolstered, too, by the recent decision of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies to leave production steady. That move, analysts said, convinced investors that the removal of Iranian oil from the market, along with supply disruptions in places such as Venezuela, will lead to large crude shortages.

My October outlook is slightly higher than it was for the last three months. During October, we might gain a better appreciation of how the oil markets will react to the Iranian sanctions in November. Of course, I am still waiting to see how the trade tensions play out and how Venezuela manages in the months ahead. I continue to expect substantial price uncertainty over the next several months.

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Oil Update—August 2018

My expectation for the West Texas Intermediate oil price for September is the same as it was for July and August, namely WTI will range between $65 and $75 per barrel. While it might deviate from that range for a few days, I expect that WTI prices will fall within that range for most of the month.

Although oil prices briefly fell below $65 in August, prices remained in the $65 to $75 range. September and October are considered shoulder months where oil demand is reduced because the driving season has passed and the winter heating season still lies ahead. This year, though, the Iran sanctions are making the situation more interesting.

There is still considerable uncertainty as to the timing and the quantity of the affected Iranian barrels. On August 28, the Wall Street Journal article “Iran’s Oil Exports Dropping Faster Than Expected Before U.S. Sanctions” (subscription required) suggested that reduced Iranian exports might have already taken place.

Iran oil shipments are declining at a faster-than-expected pace ahead of U.S. sanctions set to begin in November.

Iran expects crude exports to fall by a third in September, according to people familiar with purchasing plans, potentially posing an unforeseen supply risk to markets. Officials at the state-run National Iranian Oil Co. provisionally expect crude shipments to drop to about 1.5 million barrels a day next month, down from about 2.3 million barrels a day in June, say people familiar with the country’s ports loading program.

Many experts had expected oil shipments to decline by about 1 million barrels by year’s end. Now some of them say that fall may have already happened. Iran hasn’t yet announced its exports this month or its forecast for next month.

Furthermore, on August 29, the Wall Street Journal article “Oil Hits Four-Week High as U.S. Crude Inventories Fall” mentioned that Iranian production is projected to decrease by about 800 thousand barrels per day in September compared to June.

Wednesday’s price surge comes as oil market observers expect prices to remain buoyed in the coming months as the U.S. hits Iran with planned sanctions designed to prevent the country from exporting crude. The ban on Iranian oil exports officially starts in November, but signs are emerging that shipments are already being curtailed.

Officials at the state-run National Iranian Oil Co. provisionally expect crude shipments to drop to around 1.5 million barrels a day in September, down from around 2.3 million barrels a day in June, according to people familiar with the matter.

My outlook for September is the same as it was for August. I am still waiting to see how trade tensions play out over the fall, how Venezuela manages in the months ahead, and how oil markets react to Iran sanctions in November. I continue to expect substantial oil price uncertainty for the next several months.

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Oil Update—July 2018

My expectation for the West Texas Intermediate oil price for August is the same as it was for July, namely WTI will range between $65 and $75 per barrel. While it might deviate from that range for a few days, I expect that WTI prices will fall within that range for most of the month.

The US Energy Information Administration predicts lower prices in the months ahead. In its latest “Short-Term Energy Outlook” (PDF), it states the following:

Brent crude oil spot prices averaged $74 per barrel (b) in June, a decrease of almost $3/b from the May average. EIA forecasts Brent spot prices will average $73/b in the second half of 2018 and will average $69/b in 2019. EIA expects West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices will average $6/b lower than Brent prices in the second half of 2018 and $7/b lower in 2019. NYMEX WTI futures and options contract values for October 2018 delivery that traded during the five-day period ending July 5, 2018, suggest a range of $56/b to $87/b encompasses the market expectation for October WTI prices at the 95% confidence level.

Yet others believe that prices are on the cusp of a bull market. On July 28, the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “As Oil Industry Recovers From a Glut, a Supply Crunch Might Be Looming” (subscription required) stated the following:

“The years of underinvestment are setting the scene for a supply crunch,” said Virendra Chauhan, an oil industry analyst at consultancy Energy Aspects. He believes a production deficit could come as soon as the end of next year, potentially pushing oil above $100 a barrel.

. . .

Veteran oil investor Pierre Andurand is betting on a multiyear bull run in oil. Mr. Andurand said Brent could hit highs of $100 a barrel this year and top $150 by the early 2020s. Others forecast more modest price gains but still believe a supply deficit will raise prices.

Oil price uncertainty continues to rage on. I am waiting to see how trade tensions play out over the fall, how Venezuela manages in the months ahead, and how oil markets react to Iran sanctions in November. I expect substantial oil price uncertainty will remain for the next several months.

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