I’ve been offering reasons for believing that the flow of funds into commodity investing has contributed to the recent oil price highs. Although I believe this speculation has gotten ahead of fundamentals in the last few months, there is no question in my mind that market fundamentals are the main reason for the broader 5-year move up in oil prices. Here I review those fundamental factors.
The developed economies consume a disproportionate share of the world’s energy, with North America and Europe accounting for about half of the total oil use in 2006. However, it is the newly industrialized countries and oil producers that account for the recent rapid growth in demand, with Asia and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the increase in petroleum use between 2003 and 2006. North America and Europe contributed only 1/5 of the growth.
Particularly dramatic in this growth has been China, whose petroleum consumption between 1990 and 2006 increased at a 7.2% annual compound rate. It’s always amusing to project these impressive exponential growth rates. If that rate of growth were to continue, China would be using 20 million barrels a day by 2020, about as much as the U.S. is today. By 2030, China would be up to 40 mb/d, twice the current U.S. consumption.
Are such projections plausible from the point of view of potential demand? During 2006, China used about 2 barrels of oil per person. For comparison, Mexico used 6.6– Chinese oil consumption could triple and they’d still be using less per person than Mexico is today. The U.S. used almost 25 barrels per person. According to the data collected for a new research paper by Max Auffhammer and Richard Carson, there were 3.3 passenger vehicles per 100 Chinese residents in 2006, compared with 77 in the United States. Yes, I would say that these astonishing numbers for potential future Chinese oil demand are not at all inconceivable.
Are such projections plausible from the point of view of potential supply? Not remotely. I do think there are prospects for a significant boost to world petroleum production this year, thanks to a number of big new projects scheduled to begin production. The Wikipedia database reports 7 mb/d in eventual gross new production capacity eventually expected from projects that are supposed to begin producing during the current calendar year. Before you get too excited about that number, however, several cautions are in order. First, 7 mb/d refers to the eventual peak production, not the amount that can be produced this year. Second, there is inevitably some slippage and delays. For example, the list includes 250,000 b/d from Thunder Horse, BP’s Gulf of Mexico project that was initially hoped to start giving us oil in 2005, but is still undergoing repair work. Third, the above tabulation refers to gross new capacity, much of which is needed to replace declining production currently being observed in the world’s mature producing fields. At any point in time, some of the world’s producing fields are well into decline, some are at plateau production, and others are on the way up. It is not clear what average decline rate is appropriate to apply to aggregate global production, but a plausible ballpark number might be 4%. That would mean that in the absence of new projects, global production would decline by 3.4 mb/d each year. To put it another way, a new producing area equivalent to current annual production from Iran (OPEC’s second biggest producer) needs to be brought on line every year just to keep global production from falling. Of the 7mb/d in gross new capacity from the projects tabulated above, projects in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Mexico account for about a third of this gross increase. Data currently available for the first two months of 2008 show actual production in Saudi Arabia down 350,000 b/d from its average 2005 value, though the latest news suggests that Saudi production may be close to returning to 2005 levels. Mexican production is currently down 400,000 b/d from 2005, and Russian production is down 100,000 b/d from its average level in the second half of 2007.
To summarize, I think we will see some net production gains this year, and expect this to bring some relief for oil prices. But I cannot imagine that the projected path for China above will ever become a reality. Oil prices have to rise to whatever value it takes to prevent that from happening.
So yes, I do believe that speculation has played a role in the oil price increases, particularly what we’ve observed the last few months. But it’s a big mistake to conclude that speculation is the most important part of the longer run trend we’ve been seeing.