Thursday, May 26, 2016

$50 oil! What's next?

As the oil price touched $50, there has been a growing paradigm shift, a sort of "this time is different", consensus forming about the long-term outlook for oil prices. Amy Myers Jaffe of UC Davis recently addressed the 69th CFA Institute Conference and made the following bearish points about the long run trajectory of oil prices:
  • Demand: Global demand growth is set to slow, flatten and perhaps fall as countries start to adopt alternative energy sources. Indeed, Bloomberg recently reported that there are more people employed in renewable energy in China than oil and gas. Similarly, solar power related employment has surpassed employment related to coal and oil and gas combined in the United States.\
  • Supply: The fracking revolution is a revolution. For the first time in history, advances in engineering has allowed us to extract oil and gas from oil bearing rock, which means that any geology that formerly produced oil, such as Pennsylvania, is has the potential to produce oil again. Jaffe did not, however, address the cost question and said in so many words that these are engineering problems, which can be solved over time.
In effect, don`t expect much more upside in the price of oil.

Independent of Jaffe's analysis, Bloomberg Gadfly column by Liam Denning used similar assumptions about oil prices and suggested a strategy by the Big Oil companies is in order:

Like OPEC, they [Big Oil] assumed the value of their reserves of this finite, critical commodity would, more or less, keep rising over time. So a barrel not produced today, even if it cost a lot to find or acquire, is effectively money in the bank. This is why the majors obsess over their reserves replacement ratio, measuring how many new barrels come in to replace the ones they pump out.

Now, the upcoming Saudi Aramco IPO raises one troubling possibility: That the assumption of endlessly rising reserve value may no longer hold true.

A flurry of paradigm-shifting announcements out of Saudi Arabia came soon after a speech in October by BP's chief economist. He posited that the shale boom undercut the notion of peak oil supply, while efforts to curb carbon emissions raised the possibility of peak demand.
Denning went on to suggest that the upcoming partial privatization of up to 5% of Saudi Aramco representing a Saudi strategic shift to produce at any price, rather than to bank the oil in the ground because it is becoming a commodity with diminishing value.
Saudi Arabia's sudden desire to sell shares in its national champion and generally shift the entire economy away from its oil addiction suggests it at least entertains those possibilities. It also provides a rationale to maximize production at any price, rather than risk barrels being left worthless in the ground.
Shale boom + carbon emissions curb = Peak Oil demand. It's time to change the thinking on the management of this resource and sell it as fast as possible because some of those assets will become stranded in the future. Call it the Hot Potato Theory of oil.

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