Stocks aren’t the only asset exhibiting volatility lately. Along with prices for just about every other risky and cyclically sensitive asset, oil prices plunged in late summer, and then quickly surged.
From its June peak to mid-August, the U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) collapsed by nearly 40 percent, according to Bloomberg data. Then, as the data show, crude prices staged a mini bull market in the last week of August, when the WTI rose more than 25 percent in its fastest three-day advance since the first Gulf War in 1990.
But while the recent crude price movements have been extraordinary, I still believe that oil prices will, for the most part, remain range bound, with the global benchmark Brent trading between $50 and $65 and WTI trading at a modest discount. Though crude is currently a bit below the lower end of that range, oil prices should, for the most part, remain within that channel going forward, with a bias toward the lower end.
Why? The oil market’s basic fundamentals haven’t changed much—apart from some further deceleration in the global economy-since earlier this year when I discussed a range bound energy market. Plus, the recent drop in oil prices has led to supply and demand responses that are helping to keep oil markets from melting down.
On the supply side, U.S. oil production is now in outright decline. Recently revised numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveal that U.S. production peaked in early June at 9.6 million barrels per day (bpd). Over the past three months, it has fallen sharply, to just over 9.2 million bpd, the lowest level since February. This is the main reason oil prices have rebounded so dramatically in recent weeks.
However, while low prices are finally having a noticeable impact on U.S. producers, a situation that is likely to continue, other producers are ramping up. OPEC production is running at close to 32.5 million bpd, a rise of more than 2 million bpd since last summer. Several key producers, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq, have been increasing production in an effort to defend market share ahead of the likely lifting of Iranian sanctions in 2016.
Plus, even in the United States, production efficiency is improving, according to data accessible via Bloomberg. This is why, despite the collapse in prices, production is still 1 million bpd higher than it was at the start of 2014.
On the demand side, while lower oil prices have resulted in a modest pickup in usage, economic growth, particularly in emerging markets, simply isn’t strong enough to produce a sharp increase in demand.
What could cause oil prices to break out of the expected range? A major risk to the downside is that the slowdown in emerging markets infects developed markets, leading to a global recession. On the other hand, given the ongoing security issues in the Middle East, it’s still possible that a significant supply disruption (one measuring at least 2 million bpd) could push oil back to, or through, the upper end of its range. In the absence of either scenario, investors should expect continued range bound volatility.
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