Friday, February 01, 2008

How Low Can Oil Prices Go?

How Low Can Oil Prices Go?
(Stephen Poloz, Export Development Canada)

Oil prices have broken below the psychologically-important $90 level, leading speculators who have bet heavily on $100-plus oil to consider bailing out of the market. For real consumers, in contrast, this is good news – and the question is, how much better can it get?

There is a wide dispersion of views on the future. Just a year ago many thought oil prices were headed below $50, while today some believe they are headed above $100. A non-economist might wonder what changed during the past 12 months to account for such shifts. Certainly, the arguments that are made to support forecasts are not new – rapid growth in Asia, political risk in the Middle East, a perception that conventional sources of oil are drying up, and the like.

Consider the connection between economic growth and oil demand, which is not as tight as one might expect. The world economy grew by nearly 5% in 2007, but the demand for oil rose by only 1%. Fact is, since 1975 the world has nearly doubled its ratio of GDP to oil consumption. This is partly due to switches to other energy sources. But even if we use a broader measure of energy use, taking all sources into account, the world has seen a 50% improvement in the last 30 years. For the U.S., overall energy efficiency has doubled, while for China it has almost quadrupled!

Of course, a big part of the downshift in oil use over the past 30 years happened in the early 1980s, after the oil price shocks of the late 1970s. In the U.S. there was a 60% increase in the fuel efficiency of vehicles between 1975 and 1982. Consumers switched from large cars to mid-size cars, and to a lesser extent to small cars. Large cars fell from around 30% of sales to 18% during 1975-80. But then oil prices eased, and the pressure to conserve eased as well. By 2007, 35% of the vehicles sold in America were large. Vehicle weights have moved back up to 1970s levels, horsepower is up and truck sales as a share of the total are up significantly. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are once again shifting toward fuel efficiency.

Such consumer shifts can have a big impact on the demand for oil, but they take time, especially now that the importance of the U.S. to this equation is lower. Back in 1975, the U.S. had 40% of the world’s cars, and now that number is around 20%. China and India only account for 3-4% of the world’s vehicle population. They are rising fast, but at least those cars are small.

Oil production analysis only complicates the forecast. Old fields see declining yields, but new technologies permit increased recovery. New discoveries from deep offshore exploration have added considerably to long-term capacity. The IEA estimates that non-OPEC suppliers alone will manage to raise production by about 1 million barrels per day in 2008 – enough to satisfy the global increase in demand, according to our forecast. And Saudi Arabia is boosting output, too.

The bottom line? There are a lot of unknowns buried in every oil price forecast. But it looks like production capacity is rising faster than demand, consumers are adjusting to high prices, and speculation and leverage have played a big role in the latest run-up. This makes the risks for 2008 look decidedly asymmetric – oil prices are likely to trend lower, at least for now.

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