The Oil Price Decline: No Conspiracy Theories Need Apply

2014 is in the books, and fittingly the last day of the year  saw a fall in the price of oil. The nearly 50 percent decline in oil prices from the end of June to today was the biggest commodities story of the year. This decline has spawned numerous conspiracy theories, which like most conspiracy theories, are pure bunk.

Most of the stories focus on Saudi Arabia and shale oil. In some versions, the Saudis decided to crash the price of oil to drive out competition from US shale production. I analyzed, and dismissed, this story some weeks back. In other versions, the Saudis decided to crash the price of oil in order to strike a blow at its arch enemy Iran, or in some variants, at Iran and Russia (either in cahoots with the US, or to punish Russia for its support of Assad).

Well, to crash prices it is necessary to increase output. The Saudis, however, did not increase output over the past 6 months: it has remained relatively static. This couldn’t be more different from what happened during the 1985-1986 price collapse, to which the most recent decline is often compared. In the early-80s, the Saudis cut output from about 10 million barrels per day (mmbpd) to as low as 3.5 mmbpd in order to maintain prices in the face of rampant cheating on output quotas by other OPEC members. Realizing that it was being the chump, the Saudis increased output about 44 percent. Nothing like that has happened in the past six months.

The other purported cause of the price decline is the increase in US output. This increase is indeed remarkable, but its timing and magnitude doesn’t explain the price decline. US output has been rising inexorably for a couple of years, and the rate of increase has exceeded forecasts, but not by nearly enough to explain the post-June price decline. Since June, US output has risen by about 100kbpd per month. Cumulatively, that’s about 600kbpd, or a less than .7 of world output. Even using an elasticity on the high side of 10*, this could account for about a 7 percent decline in the price. What’s more, some of the US increase has been needed to offset the on again, off again production in Libya and declines in production in Mexico.

Meaning that the focus on the supply side has been totally misplaced. This in turn implies that all of the hyperventilating about S&S-Shale and the Saudis-is wrongheaded.

Instead, the most likely explanation for the price decline is a decline in demand. The fall in price parallels quite closely declines in world GDP forecasts. Chinese manufacturing in particular has slowed. This has been reflected in other commodity prices which are driven by Chinese industrial demand, most notably iron ore, which has fallen almost 50 percent over the last year, and copper, which has fallen by about 15 percent since June. And somehow I don’t think the Australians or Chileans are attempting to punish their economic rivals or geopolitical enemies. They are just along for the ride on the demand train.

The biggest price daily oil price decline occurred the day after Thanksgiving, when OPEC announced it would not cut output. Prices have also declined on days when the Saudis or other Gulf states reiterated their intention to maintain output. But maintaining and increasing output are two different things. The Saudis didn’t announce that they were opening the taps, like they did in 1986. They are just saying they won’t shut them. And as I argued in an earlier post, given their market share and the elasticity of demand for oil, that’s a rational thing to do without having to resort to predatory explanations.

Again, although most analysis focused on supply, the post-Thanksgiving price decline was really attributable to demand too. Market participants were predicting that OPEC would cut output to support prices in the face of falling demand, and this expectation helped to prop up prices. When the expectation was contradicted, prices fell. (I was only surprised that people were surprised that OPEC didn’t cut output. I didn’t see that happening, and I was right: The Saudis only cut output very modestly (by about 3 percent) during the price collapse in the aftermath of Lehman. Where I was wrong was not understanding that it appears that it was almost universally believed that OPEC was almost certain to make a large cut: I was right about the Saudis, but wrong about what everybody thought about the Saudis. This is why I am blogging, rather than sipping Mai Tais on a yacht that would make Abramovich green with envy.

So, it’s not exactly a case of move along, there’s nothing to see here: the price decline is certainly worth watching. It’s just that what you are seeing is not the result of some grand scheme engineered by the Saudis or anybody else. If there is any scheming going on, it is China’s attempt to move to a more sustainable growth model that is less dependent on stimulus-driven investment in industry and infrastructure.

It is certainly the case that the decline in commodity prices generally, and the oil price in particular, could have -and is indeed already having-seismic economic and geopolitical controversies. It is definitely the case that Russia and Iran are going to suffer mightily as a result of the price decline. This may in turn force them to dial back their geopolitical ambitions, although particularly in the case of Russia it could lead to the opposite response by a desperate leadership. But just because these outcomes might be desirable to the US or the Saudis doesn’t mean that the price decline was deliberately engineered to produce them. They are just consequences of broad economic developments that were intended by no one. For the Saudis, the unintended geopolitical consequences at best palliate some serious economic pain.

Given that (unlike in 2008-2009) the demand decline isn’t due to weakness in the US economy, on the whole the US will benefit from the lower oil price, though some regions (like here in Texas and in North Dakota) will obviously suffer. Drilling activity in the US will decline, but this shouldn’t warm Saudi hearts, because if demand rebounds and drives up prices, drilling will rebound too. The oil and the technology aren’t going anywhere: they are on tap for when the price is right.

Recent academic research shows that most of the price variations in oil over the past decades have been demand driven, rather than supply driven. This most recent decline is just another example of that.

Conniving oil ticks and outlandish Texas oilmen make colorful copy , but usually the world is much more prosaic. Oil supply is very inelastic in the short run, so when demand declines even modestly, prices can plunge. This is counterintuitive to most: how can small changes in demand have such huge effects on prices? This leads to speculations about conspiracy, especially when the price changes can shake nations like Russia to their cores. But such speculations are idle. The normal operations of commodity markets routinely produce such price movements. Which is precisely why subjecting grandiose ambitions for geopolitical power to the vicissitudes of commodity prices is the strategy of fools.

And yeah. I’m looking at you, VVP.

Putin may not be having a happy New Year, but I close this post by wishing all my readers all the best for 2015. Enjoy the schadenfreud!

*This elasticity of 10 is related to the sensitivity of oil consumption to prices. Speculative storage makes oil demand more elastic. Indeed, in response to the price decline, visible speculative storage (primarily at Cushing) has increased, and the market has moved into a contango, which is associated with greater storage.

About Craig Pirrong 227 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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