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Here’s Who’s in Charge of the Oil Deal Now (It’s Not OPEC)

by | published December 6th, 2016

Crude oil prices moved above $52 a barrel for WTI (West Texas Intermediate, the oil benchmark rate traded in New York) before the market even opened yesterday, while Brent (the equivalent rate set in London) was above $55.

Of course, the price surge results from last week’s “Vienna Accord” – the deal to cut oil production reached by OPEC during its regular meeting in the Austrian capital.

The point of the deal is to quicken the arrival of a balance between oil supply and demand. That, in turn, enables the medium-term objective: lowering expected price volatility, essential to maintaining a higher oil price.

But none of this is possible if the Vienna Accord itself doesn’t last.

On that front, things aren’t looking too good. Russia has to get formally on board, and individual OPEC members need to be assigned their quotas. But that’s just the beginning…

The real factors determining whether the deal will survive aren’t even in OPEC’s hands.

They’re much closer to home…

OPEC’s Quotas Will Be Key

As regular readers of Oil & Energy Investor will recognize, the prices for WTI and Brent are where I estimated they would be by the end of this year – mid $50s.

This morning the oil price is under pressure as both OPEC and Russia predictably increase production before the accord takes hold in January – making the setting of individual quotas quite tricky.

Those quotas are the source of a lot of discord within OPEC, as they will require most member countries to cut, while Iran and Nigeria were allowed to simply cap their production.

Even Iraq’s acceptance of the cuts is wavering. Similarly, while committing to at least half of the production declines required from non-OPEC countries, Russia is still viewing the Vienna Accord with suspicion.

All the main parties need to hold the line on production volume, or the whole accord collapses. Unfortunately, as I have observed before in Oil & Energy Investor, these days there is no justification for individual countries to keep oil in the ground. Doing so just means giving up market share – and revenue – to some other country willing to grab it.

I predict that the January production level of 32.5 million barrels a day will be obtained by OPEC (although with some expected over-production from the likes of Venezuela, Libya, Iraq, and Iran pushing the total closer to 33.2 million), with non-OPEC production roughly holding to expectations.

That’s in the first quarter of 2017.

The more serious concerns about the sustainability of the Vienna Accord will kick in by the beginning of the second quarter…

The Vienna Deal is Changing How Traders Price Oil

There are two overriding factors when we reach that point. One deals with how traders approach the Vienna Accord. The second is what U.S. oil production will add to the mix.

We’ve talked about each of these in Oil & Energy Investor before, but both have taken on added urgency now that the Vienna push has unfolded.

You see, it’s been some time since the actual price of oil for delivery has driven the market price. Its futures contracts that do that, and the spread between such “paper barrels” and the actual underlying consignments of crude in trade (the “wet barrels”) determine the volatility.

This is where the expected volatility I mentioned above comes into play.

A real pricing range is determined not by the “ceiling” (the highest price in the range), but by the “floor” (the lowest price in the range). And that floor is set by traders and materializes in the arbitrage between paper and wet barrels as futures contracts expire.

What I call expected volatility determines where contracts are pegged and parallels the so-called implied volatility calculated when option prices are determined.

In normal markets, the relationship between the futures contracts (controlling the delivery of oil to occur later) and the options set to hedge those contracts determines the net exposure of the trader. Essentially, the contract price is set at the expected cost of the next available barrel.

However, in market conditions where the price is moving decidedly in one direction or the other, a trader’s approach is different. Then, the price becomes the expected cost of the most expensive next available barrel (when prices are rising) or least expensive next available barrel (when prices are falling) – reflecting the direction in which the trader has to position primary hedge moves.

Reductions in expected volatility point toward both a balancing of the market and gravitation to narrower spreads. This becomes the foundation of trading stability.

But it requires an anticipated monthly level of oil coming to market.

And that requires some confidence among the paper barrel-wet barrel players that a move such as the Vienna Accord will hold…

U.S. Shale is in the Driving Seat Now

Second, the wild card of U.S. production has acted like the 600-pound gorilla in the room ever since Doha in April. Back then, an attempt by OPEC to set a production cap failed.

That was followed by an initial “breakthrough” coming from marginal meetings at the International Energy Forum in Algiers at the end of September, and led to Vienna last week. In between there were several meetings both on and off the radar.

At none of these gatherings was American production represented. Given decentralized oil production and the lack of a national oil company, there was never a way to represent the U.S. at a table expecting any agreement to translate directly into U.S. policy.

Nonetheless, from the outset of the Saudi-inspired decision in November 2014 to defend OPEC market share instead of oil prices, U.S. producers have been the outlier. Technically, they impact global prices only through the levels of imports into the U.S. While Congress has finally allowed American producers to export crude out of the country, that is not likely to have an impact for some time.

Nonetheless, the reaction of U.S. producers to the Vienna Accord will have an effect on setting global prices.

Some additional drilling is expected. Nonetheless, with oil trading in the low $50s per barrel, most of the U.S. shale patch is still unprofitable. Improvements in field operations and efficiency have lowered well-head operating expenses by about 17% nationwide. Still, profitability for most operations requires a higher price.

On the other hand, if we do reach my projected price estimates of low $60s per barrel by the end of the first quarter 2017, we will have another situation kicking in that. The Vienna Accord will have to hold in an environment likely to restrain further price advances in the absence of: (1) a firm market balance; and (2) accelerating global demand.

In other words, the two major factors determining whether the production accord is sustainable were not “sitting at the table” in Vienna. Even more interesting, they are not under the control of OPEC.

Instead, everyone is looking at U.S. shale oil producers now.

And that means 2017 is going to be a great year for energy investors…

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  1. Malcolm Rawlingson
    December 6th, 2016 at 20:37 | #1

    Always a fascinating insight into the world of oil Kent. Enjoy reading your work. While many may scoff at the concept the days of OPEC….or anyone else…. controlling oil prices are (in my honest opinion) numbered.
    While today we are an oil focused world, the momentum is gathering for lower world consumption. With every Tesla that rolls off the production line and every Nissan Leaf that’s sold the oil market is being steadily eroded away. Each Tesla means no oil consumption for that vehicle for 10 years or more. Every major manufacturer is designing and/or building electric vehicles and the floodgates of electric vehicle penetration into the gasoline and diesel car and truck market is set to be unleashed. Tesla has given away all its technical patents which means R&D times are shorter for the rest of them.
    Certainly you could argue that even at 500,000 Tesla’s per year the time to replace the worlds fleet of cars is many years away. But with BMW,Mercedes,GM,Ford all in the game now the production rate is about to go up…way up.
    Just like the nonsense of peak oil it will be technology that changes the game for oil.
    It would be very wise for any nation that has substantial reserves of oil to pump it out and get revenue from it now or they will risk not have any market to sell into.The share of a zero consumption market is zero whether you are OPEC or shale oil producers.
    Certainly this will not happen overnight but it will occur very much faster than most people think.
    20 years ago my cell phone was as large as a house brick. Now it does a thousand times more things at a tenth the weight and size.
    Technology changes everything and it is about to flatten the oil market….permanently.

  2. Peter papageorgiou
    December 8th, 2016 at 21:47 | #2

    This is what will happen guaranteed.
    The best example was at the beginning of the 1900s with the introduction of the first automobile the then horse and carriage manufacturers where stubborn and could not understand that this new technology will make them obsolete in no time.
    That’s exactly what happened..
    We are living a new industrial revolution or rather new technological Era where things or products are moving in such a rapid rate.
    If we don’t adapt or understand the factors at play oil or its usage will decline steadily making it a extinct energy source reduced to such a low price that it’s not worth drilling for it…
    Who would have thought 30 or 50 years we would be buying bottled water?? If I told you to invest and open a water company you would tell me that it will not work…
    Now look at it in a different scope say 50 years from now I could be selling you an oxegen producing machine for you to breath and to stay alive because of our air pollution…
    We need to change with the times..
    We once lived in caves yes we were caveman- look where we are today…
    So what’s the big deal about oil??? These oil barons know that’s its over for them in the oil business and they are trying to extract all the revenues they can as quickly as they can get it to market. They will even create outside scenarios such as wars where the price to market can be higher than the ceiling price …they would elect or place puppet governments in power to control every element of the world market.. they would sacrifice human lives to profit and continually make money …
    There is no end to this rhetoric or any other form especially with oil. The whole world economy runs on this stuff it a major monopoly where you can’t do without..
    It’s now all coming apart barrel by barrel…….

  3. Michael
    December 9th, 2016 at 12:48 | #3

    Except, people xont want electric cars
    Currently 2.something of sales

  4. Innovator
    December 9th, 2016 at 22:25 | #4

    Tesla will not be around much longer. All electric cars at this time are coal or natural gas fires. If they produce any energy on their own, it is by using gasoline. Most electricity is produced using fossil fuel. Wind and solar are not continuous around the clock producers of electricity. An electric car has a limited range even with a full slow charge and about half that range with a quick recharge. If a person wanted to take a long trip of say 450 miles, they would have to find recharging stations along the way. The first recharge would be after a little over 200 miles and every 100+ miles thereafter. That is a lot of stops with long periods of recharging time even for quick charges. Some gas powered cars are can now make that trip on one tank of gas. Batteries only last so long and have to be replaced at great expense making electric cars a questionable buy.

  5. johan
    December 12th, 2016 at 02:46 | #5

    within the next three years the future you have painted will be clear for most to see. So a few years before oil consumption peaks, and the huge write- downs of zero value oil in higher cost basins, investors will start pulling money out of this sizeable sector.

  6. said elkhamrichi
    December 14th, 2016 at 09:21 | #6

    bonjour …..merci beaucoup a tous ……

  7. robert wakely
    January 13th, 2017 at 16:32 | #7

    Good Reading I AM 90yrs Old Changes Or So Fast

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