Back in April 2004, we discussed oil in these pages, making the judgment that at nearly $50 per barrel, oil was getting into treacherously elevated price territory. The frenzy that ensued carried prices well beyond that to what they stand at above $65 per barrel today. The world financial media has been mesmerized by the price of oil, especially since oil is so closely correlated to politics in the region. Economic pundits have been going out on a limb in making spectacular estimates for what is likely to happen to the world economy due to oil, and others, like investment house Goldman Sachs, predicts oil reaching $100 a barrel. What eventually happens to crude oil is obviously tough to predict, but there are certain signs that point to a top in the price of oil fairly soon. While the developed world grapples with the effects of oil, one thing is certain, the stratospheric rise of oil from near $10 a barrel in 1998 to where it is now has had a huge impact on the region. The Arabian Gulf economies, still reeling from the 1991 Gulf War were able to replenish their coffers and a boom of sorts is developing in a large part thanks directly to oil. To get a feel for the windfall, one simply needs to reckon that Saudi Arabia’s budgets had an embedded oil price assumption closer to $30. With oil nearly double that, they have witnessed a massive liquidity-driven inflation in asset prices, from real estate to equities, and a rise in its natural corollary, public spending. In a sense, the rise in oil, in my opinion has served to neutralize social tensions and economic imbalances in the Gulf. Think of it as petrol peace. In Europe and the US, although oil has had a negative impact on consumer sentiment, it has not translated into doom, as oil, adjusted for inflation is still nearly 30% below its historic peaks.
That is the rear view picture of what oil has done. For a closer look on what’s to come, I think one has to view oil from the perspective of yet another bubble. We have a bubble in housing, a bubble in most commodities, and a lingering stock bubble. Add crude oil to the list, here’s why.
Controversial Texas oil analyst Matt Simmons recently announced that oil could very well reach $100 a barrel. He is quoted as saying: “We could be at $100 by this winter. We have the biggest risk we have ever had of demand exceeding supply. We are now just about to face up to the biggest crisis we have ever had.” When looking for a bubble always watch out for superlatives such as “ever.” But before scenes from the movie Mad Max start permeating your every waking thought, and before you run out to the garage to make sure grandpa’s shotgun is still there, take a deep breath. The really amazing thing is that no one seems to have learnt the lessons from the previous bubble, but rather appear to be jumping in to the current phenomena, hoping to make back the losses they incurred from the previous one. Perhaps they believe the old axioms ‘lightning never strikes twice’ and, ‘this time it is for real.’ One reason why bubbles form is that many good arguments can be made for ‘why this time things are different.’ Generally speaking, as a whole, the public is not crazy. The media sells people on the best or worst case scenarios. For the last 70 or more years, people have heard reports from so-called specialists about how there is only so much oil in the world and eventually it has to run out. Yet if you look at the predictions the specialists have made about when the last drop of oil will be pumped out of the ground, you notice that every couple of years the date gets extended out a few more years. Technology has always provided man with the solutions to his self-created problems. And technology will continue to do so. Better refining techniques, offshore drilling, etc. have all been designed to overcome oil supply problems. Certainly oil can still run up a little more, making it more tempting with each advance to want to get in on all the fun. That is the hook. Besides, it takes a long time for all really big fools of the ‘greater fool theory’ to hop on the trend. Keep in mind that crude oil rose 16% in the first three weeks of August alone. At $3, $3.25 or $4 a gallon, people will cut back.
Waiting to exhale
All the cutting back of petroleum use will result in an increase supply of gasoline, which will have the direct result of lower prices at the pump. The laws of supply and demand may be slow; however, Alfred Marshall’s microeconomic laws do work well. Simply speaking, if it gets too expensive, people won’t buy it. When no one buys a vendor’s product, the vendor must reduce prices in order to get rid of his inventory. Besides, if that doesn’t work, the US can always start a war in the Gulf to fix the problem. Don’t get sucked in to this black bubble. The money will be made on the downside, not the upside. For those of you technically inclined, note how for the last three years, the futures contracts had stayed at a discount to the spot market until recently. As of early August, it seems everyone expects oil to keep flying and the forward contracts have gone a premium to the spot. To the chartist in me, oil looks very risky at its current levels and it seems to have discounted a lot of possible doom scenarios (Iran being one of them). Predictions? Oil will likely hit $45 a barrel before you see it at $75 (let alone Goldman Sachs’ $100).