Oil Prices Reaching Breaking Point For The Economy?

I just came back from a trip to New York and investors concerns about energy and oil prices were clearly at the top of the agenda.

Who’s to blame for the current oil price?. Supply? demand?. Mmmm. I have a feeling that the blame this time is on Mr Draghi and friends in UK, Norway, Australia, US, with the ongoing mass liquidity injections and QEs, all driven to generate inflation one way or another, and driving investors to increase net length in crude.


Oil prices reached all-time high in Euro and in GBP last week. All US media is mentioning high gasoline prices and it’s a permanent fixture in Europe news. If sustained, the price increase since December could trim 0.25-0.5% from annualized real GDP growth over the next year. Moreover, the combination of a stronger world economy, massive liquidity injections and quantitative easing programs with increased tensions in the Middle East suggest that a bigger shock is less of an issue than in the past.

Barclays highlights that “it is not necessarily the oil price itself that can pose a threat to economic growth but the pace of its growth that is more important. It is the sudden surge in oil prices that leads to an abrupt shock to consumer spending and economic growth. Consumer durable spending, the most sensitive component of spending, fell sharply when the 3-month annualised change in headline inflation exceeded 9%. In each case, the price of oil rallied in excess of 40% over a 3-month period. In contrast, the latest geopolitical fears have, so far, led to a 20% rally in oil” …and inflation is way below 9%, at 3-5%.

quarterly inflation

Let’s start with supply. Global oil supply, despite Iran, Syria and Lybia is at record levels. Not only Russia and other producers are keeping the pace strongly, but OPEC is producing at all time high, as per the figure below:

photo opec

What is interesting is that, outside of the Euro crisis, the world’s economies are behaving much more strongly than expected but oil demand is not reacting. Efficiency comes to the fore. What many call “weak demand due to crisis” is in many cases, US being the clearest, a relentless improvement of efficiency. See below:

Additionally, the US imports reached a 12 year low last year thanks to the shale oil and gas revolution we have mentioned many times in this blog. The US imported 8.91m barrels a day of crude oil last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the lowest amount since 2000. US and Europe implied demand is down between 5 and 7% yoy, while Asian demand is pretty much unchanged. Emerging markets are keeping global oil demand above the 87mmbpd, but every two weeks we read from the IEA or other agencies that they are lowering their demand estimates for 2012. The IEA said it expects oil consumption to rise a relatively poor 800,000 barrels a day, or 0.9%, in 2012, according to its latest monthly market report. That would be 300,000 barrels a day less than the IEA forecast just a month ago. As we said at the beginning of the year, I expect demand to be flat year on year.
Inventories at the OECD have been shrinking recently, but remain within the average band of the last five years, 57-60 days of demand covered. The market is tight but not excessively tight, as prove by the fact that demand is well covered despite geopolitical disruptions in Iran, Siria and Nigeria.
CFTC Non-Commercial long/short net positions (21st February)
CFTC MANAGED MONEY net positions (21st February)
ICE Brent long/short net positions            (14th February)
228,180 (prev 204,752)
215,802 (prev 202,222)
105,901 (prev 93,673)
Nat Gas
 -124,929 (prev  -126,157)
 -70,832 (prev   -72,314)
Managed Money
96,703 (prev 88,706)
90,298 (prev 87,696)
91,640 (prev 88,575)
Heat Oil
27,566 (prev 23,544)
43,207 (prev 39,379)


One of the areas that interests me the most is the growing net long interest in crude, reaching levels close to 2008. The inflation trade is on and the carry trade is guaranteed by the insane monetary policy and low interest rates “for the foreseeable future”.

cftc february

Think about it. Monetary supply is growing so fast, from China to Europe, because the developed world is worried about deflation, that we cause inflation in all commodities (except regional and local ones like US natural gas). The balance sheet of the ECB has multiplied by 3 since June. Monetary supply is twice as high as it was at the end of the past decade.

dollar weakeningAccording to seeking alpha (see link here): “Developing China’s M2 money supply has been rising by a large 20% and Russia’s by a very large 30%.Even developed countries such as Switzerland have seen money supply growth of 25%. Japan’s M2 is gradually moving higher after the ‘Lost Decade’ and after recent events exacerbating an already fragile situation. Global money supply growth is increasing by 8%-9% per annum”.
money supply

Then we go to the issue of “the oil burden” or the import bill versus GDP. It’s  currently close to 5%, but the share of the oil burden in the OECD is diminishing, making high oil prices less risky for the recovery. Meanwhile, in emerging markets, high oil prices are also a less of a problem as the oil consumption generates products, goods and services of much higher productivity and higher added value. Remember that most emerging economies do not “need” low oil prices, that is more an OECD construct. Those economies have lived with high energy prices for a long time. When the oil burden reaches 7% is when we can start to worry. So far, demand destruction is a concern but not a worry.

Obviously, many of those emerging economies are also oil producers. Russia, Brazil, OPEC, West Africa and Asia are main beneficiaries of a wealth re-distribution out of US-Europe and into new markets.
Brent-Urals has gone negative this week. In this environment, the trade is likely to be negative European refiners. Another trade starting to look attractive is long WTI short Brent as the tensions with Iran are played out and inventory issues at Cushing start to be solved. I do not expect the differential between Brent and WTI to go to zero, but closer to $10/bbl, which is more fundamental, as we mentioned in this blog here (http://energyandmoney.blogspot.com/2011/02/brent-wti-spread-more-fundamental-than.html).
Finally the other attractive trade that seems to be unwinding is a short European Big Oil after the companies showed no meaningful free cash flow generation at the 4Q results and poor refining and downstream margins added to sub-par production growth and upstream profitability. The sector is at the top of its trading range versus the market and the traditional strengths (balance sheet, dividend, safety) are still there but at much more demanding multiples. At 9.5xPE the sector trades at historical high EV/IC/ROIC/WACC. All above 1 (which means expensive).
Meanwhile the US is seeing the benefit of shale oil and shale gas in every part of its economy. Just a small calculation shows that the effect of WTI at $20/bbl below brent and Henry Hub gas at $2.5/mmbtu versus $8/mmbtu in Europe has the same effect as Bernanke’s trillion QE… annually. Read this. In Europe we continue to ban it. Someone in Washington must be laughing hard. The US refiners seem in the best place to take advantage of a strengthening economy and lower feedstock. So do the US oil names. As for US gas names, careful when asset (land) value collides with low earnings multiples, because M&A comes back…. except in joint-venture filled companies, because JVs are giant poison pills.
I believe the risk of demand destruction remains, but unlike 2008, the risk of a financial meltdown and a credit crunch is much lower, and in fact if there is any risk is that loose monetary policy will remain for the foreseeable future, keeping the commodity-led inflation high. Draghi, Bernanke and friends want the carry trade, and need it to avoid deflation in a japanese way. Supply and demand remain well covered, printing money is the wild card.

The IEA March report left 2012 oil demand forecasts unchanged, but highlighted OPEC’s ability to increase production, with OPEC volumes at the highest level since October 2008. OPEC supply in February was 1.3Mbpd ahead of the forecast call on OPEC for 1Q.
OECD inventories rose 13.6Mbbls in January and fell 26Mbbls less than usual in Feb. Furthermore, the IEA sees 625kbpd extra OPEC capacity by 3Q, adding to current spare capacity at 2.75Mbpd (Bernstein).

Data courtesy: Carnegie, Erste, Oriel, BP, BarCap, Bernstein and own research.

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About Daniel Lacalle

Daniel Lacalle (Madrid, 1967). PhD Economist and Fund Manager. Author of bestsellers "Life In The Financial Markets" and "The Energy World Is Flat" as well as "Escape From the Central Bank Trap". Daniel Lacalle (Madrid, 1967). PhD Economist and Fund Manager. Frequent collaborator with CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, Hedgeye, Epoch Times, Mises Institute, BBN Times, Wall Street Journal, El Español, A3 Media and 13TV. Holds the CIIA (Certified International Investment Analyst) and masters in Economic Investigation and IESE.

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