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OPEC Pre meeting analysis January 16, 2000.
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OPEC Challenges
As OPEC ministers arrive for the meeting on January 17, 2001, the issues are not as black and white as they appear to the casual observer. Most news reports indicate a consensus of a cut of about 1.5 million barrels per day and that is our expectation as well. Let's look at the various segments of the problem.

OPEC is concerned about preventing another price collapse. This concern is real. The outlook for the economy of the major oil consumer, the United States, is uncertain. As the U.S. is the driving force behind many of the economies of the rest of the world we must add concern for the health of Europe and Asian economies as well. 

An ill timed production increase just as Asian economies were weakening led to the last price collapse. To avoid the possibility of a repetition OPEC has adopted a price band of $22 to $28 per barrel for the OPEC basket of crudes with "automatic" adjustments of 500,000 barrels per day when the price is below $22 for 10 days or above $28 for 20 days. OPEC has also been meeting quarterly to better manage the inherent volatility of crude oil prices. In practice there have been few automatic adjustments as the timing for the adjustment mechanism to go into effect has almost always coincided with an upcoming meeting and adjustments were delayed until the meeting.

Underlying all OPEC decisions is the fact that for most OPEC countries crude oil represents over 50 percent of their export revenue and in some cases over half of the country's GDP. To some extent even the internal political stability of many OPEC nations is dependent upon maintaining or increasing petroleum revenue.

As we have noted in the past, the demand for petroleum is seasonal.  Demand within OECD countries can vary 7 million barrels per day from the peak consumption month in the winter to the summer low. This is a critical factor in OPEC's upcoming deliberations especially with an uncertain outlook for world economies and since a short term imbalance between supply and demand of a million barrels per day can move prices $3 to $5 per barrel. 

While demand is very seasonal this is not as much the case with production. In fact most years seasonal variation in world production is much less than half that of consumption. 

Why then do prices not fluctuate by $15 - 20 per barrel every year if supply and demand are out of balance by 3 -4 million barrels per day in some months? The balancing item is inventories. Historically, consuming nations would build crude and product inventories in preparation for the winter heating season. 

Unfortunately for OPEC that historical pattern of summer inventory build has been showing signs of change. Refiners have been hesitant to build inventories for the winter season in the past couple of years. The reason is best illustrated by looking at the strip of futures prices on the right.  While it is not as extreme as it has been over the last year or two the current market exhibits considerable backwardation. With a difference of $3 to $4 in expected crude prices between today and three months from now a refiner faces the risk of being caught with high cost product in inventory if they build stocks for sale several months out. As a consequence most have gone to a just in time policy. 

The just in time policy has resulted in product inventories in the U.S. which are dangerously low. (These inventories will discussed in detail in our next petroleum inventory update.) The point is this unless OPEC takes an action which removes backwardation from the market refiners will not rebuild inventories to normal levels and OPEC faces the full brunt of the 7 million barrel per day fluctuation in the seasonal demand of its largest consumers.

Light Sweet Crude Oil (CL)
CLG1 Feb 2001 30.05
CLH1 Mar 2001 28.76
CLJ1 Apr 2001 27.94
CLK1 May 2001 27.41
CLM1 Jun 2001 26.98
CLN1 Jul 2001 26.57
CLQ1 Aug 2001 26.19
CLU1 Sep 2001 25.84
CLV1 Oct 2001 25.55
CLX1 Nov 2001 25.29
CLZ1 Dec 2001 25.05
CLF2 Jan 2002 24.82
You can obtain this data in close to real time at www.ino.com: Crude Price
If OPEC wants to sell more crude it needs to remove backwardation from the market. The question is, "Can OPEC flatten the forward curve?" The answer is a definite maybe. The  scenario with the best chance of success is one which narrows the $22 - $28 per barrel price range and announces a phased cut in production over the next few months. The cut could be as much as 1.5 million barrels effective in February with an additional 1 - 2 million barrels over in March and April. There would be an opportunity to adjust these numbers through the price band mechanism or at the next ordinary meeting in March. 

If OPEC were to narrow the price band,  political expediency on the home front would probably result in a price band centered around $25 per barrel. Unfortunately for OPEC nations this price band would likely come under threat within a year. The last report had non OPEC production up by 700,000 barrels per day and non OPEC production will continue to increase as long as prices remain much above $20 per barrel. If these increases are accompanied by weaker world economies OPEC will have to reduce its market share to maintain prices. At some point OPEC will have to make the decision that it usually faces twice a decade. It must choose price or market share, but it cannot have both. A price than can be maintained with market chare is closer to $20 per barrel than to $25.

For a graphic OPEC overview go to our OPEC and World Oil Graphs Page.

What about the ability for non OPEC nations to produce more oil? One of the best answers comes from Shell. Take time to read The Future of Global Exploration by Andy Wood, Head of Global Exploration, Shell International E&P B.V.

Copyright 2001 
by James L. Williams  
James L. Williams
WTRG Economics 
Phone: (501) 293-4081
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