December 19, 2003
by Irwin Stelzer
The price of oil has jumped about 7 percent in the past two weeks. Under ordinary circumstances, and for most commodities, volatility comes as no surprise and is of little consequence. But oil is different. For one thing, its price is affected by a powerful cartel, OPEC, that tries to lock in price increases. For another, it is so crucial to the functioning of industrial economies that past price jumps have thrown America and, in some cases, the world, into protracted periods of subpar growth.
The major consuming countries long ago decided to acquiesce in the producing nations’ cartel behavior. In return, OPEC informally agreed to cap oil prices at around $28 per barrel. Never mind that over $20 of that price constitutes profits to the Saudi royal family and the typically unsavory rulers of other countries that sit atop the world’s oil reserves. Industrial countries figured that so long as prices stayed below the cartel cap, their economies would be able to grow at reasonable rates.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land of a $28 price cap—prices have hit around $32, and stayed there. The cartel’s managers blame the decline in the value of the dollar. Oil is traded in dollars, and the dollars that the producers are getting buy fewer of the baubles that Arab princes fancy in Harrod’s and Asprey. So to maintain their purchasing power, the Saudis and their cartel partners are preventing production from rising to bring prices down to the agreed ceiling.
Several factors in addition to the dollar’s slide have converged to drive crude oil prices up. Start with the demand side. The economic recovery in America is stimulating demand as more trucks deliver more goods to factories, warehouses, and stores, while a cold snap drives up the demand for heating oil. Add in low inventories, and you have a prescription for higher prices.
More important, China’s thirst for oil seems to know no slaking. Imports are running 30 percent above last year’s level, according to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, and China has displaced Japan as the world’s second largest consumer of oil, behind the United States. China now accounts for about one-third of the annual increase in worldwide demand for oil.
Infrastructure constraints are preventing demand from growing even more rapidly. Electricity is being rationed, forcing some manufacturing plants to shut down one day each week. Petrol and diesel are in such short supply that the government has introduced rationing and refiners are raising prices in defiance of government price ceilings. Forecasters at the Development Research Centre, a Chinese think tank, are guessing that the number of cars in China will quintuple to 100 million (about half the U.S. total) in the next ten years. The International Energy Agency expects China to be importing 10 million barrels per day by 2030, which is about what America currently buys from the world’s producers. It now looks as if Warren Buffett had it right once again when he snapped up 13 percent of the shares of state-owned PetroChina.
Demand growth would not be putting such pressure on prices if supply could be expected to grow commensurately. But it most likely won’t. OPEC is already producing more than its stated quota, and so is in a position to cut output at the first sign of price weakness. Hopes that Iraq will soon return to world markets in a significant way are repeatedly dashed. One reason is the sabotage of pipelines needed to get Iraq’s oil to market. More important in the long run is the fact that the damage to that nation’s oil field from years of neglect during the Saddam regime is more serious than at first thought, and will take billions of dollars and a good long while to repair before Iraq can add substantially to world supplies. Indeed, at present the Iraqi oil industry cannot even meet domestic demand for petrol, diesel oil, and heating oil.
Nor will relief come from Venezuela, where a Castro-loving president has reduced the industry’s productive capacity by slotting his political cronies into top executive positions. Or from Africa: human rights groups are urging Western oil companies to shun Sudan; thousands of troops have been unable to prevent crooks from siphoning more than 100,000 barrels per day of oil from Nigeria’s pipelines, adding to the chronic chaos that afflicts that country’s industry.
Which leaves Russia, the world’s largest producer behind Saudi Arabia. So long as OPEC maintains its price umbrella, high-cost Russian oil should find ready markets. British Petroleum’s $8 billion deal with that nation’s TNK may amount to peanuts in oil industry terms—BP paid $62 billion for Amoco—but it does suggest that Western capital and know-how may be about to enter Russia in force. Still, renewed political uncertainty following the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former chairman of oil giant Yukos, and infrastructure constraints will prevent Russian production from growing sufficiently to dampen the price impact of rising demand.
In short, world demand for oil is likely to increase steadily, while supplies lag. Which is why Ben Funnel and Teun Draaisma, co-heads of European Equity Strategy at Morgan Stanley, are sufficiently bullish on oil company stocks to overweight energy in their portfolio. The Morgan Stanley strategists reason that oil shares are at a two-year low relative to the market, that strong dividend payments plus buyback programs bring the sector’s payout to an attractive 5.5-to-6 percent, and that OPEC “will succeed next year . . . in keeping the oil price high, with demand accelerating due to the economic recovery”.
Good news for some investors and for Arabian potentates, bad news for oil consumers. Fortunately, even if prices stick at more than $30, the powerful U.S. recovery is unlikely to be derailed.
This article appeared in London’s Sunday Times on December 14, 2003.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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