Oil prices, speculators, and supply expansion…

An article from the FT here touches on an issue that has been discussed since there was an oil market:

Who trades oil is changing, however. Investors who bother little with details such as inventories and pipeline flows are replacing dwindling ranks of specialist commodities hedge funds. The shift could alter the way prices are formed…
Then who is driving oil positions higher? Newly prominent oil speculators are not necessarily reacting to news about supply and demand or utterances from Riyadh. Instead, they may be buying and selling oil based on moves in currencies, interest rates or the price of oil itself.

Namely, are speculators affecting the price of oil? You can see from the graph above that the exponential growth of Brent Ice futures contracts, which is cash settled and does not require physical product delivery, bears no relationship to the relative steady increase in the demand for oil. Some demand for these futures clearly reflects increasingly sophisticated financial risk management techniques, but some clearly represents purely speculative capital trading on price moves (often with large amounts of leverage).

There has been an entire industry in trying to ascertain the economic effects of speculators in oil markets. The IMF view is that they have no effect, but reputable economists at institutions such as the St Louis Fed disagree. A good summary is here.

My own (simplified) view, that accords to a well researched positions, is that speculators affect the volatility of the oil price but the not the final price over the long run.  Basic economic logic alone should dictate that if there is an increased amount of capital being invested in an asset class it will cause the price to rise, but when combined with leverage it adds huge volatility (quite simply if you have borrowed money to buy something and the price drops you tend to liquidate quickly to minimise loses). Which is why you see such huge swings in oil investment positions with a clear procyclical bias:

The big long.png

But the major point for those involved in service industries to my mind is that this is part of the explanation why there is not a linear relationship between the oil price and demand for oil field services. Directors at E&P companies make decisions about the long term price but ultimately the market for physically delivered product is more important when investing in production infrastructure, despite the large trading arms of the supermajors,  because they obviously do have deliver in the physical form eventually. They also benefit from miscalculating demand on the upisde through rising prices and a higher ROE on invested capital, so although they give up some amount of market share it’s a fairly small downside for erring on the side of caution.

Too many models that forecast the demand for oilfield services work are based on the forecast oil price rather than physical volume required. Too many management teams in offshore are using a rebound in the oil price as “proof” the “market” will eventually recover in demand terms when it is clear there is no linear relationship. As shale becomes the swing production method of choice offshore demand in particular should be relatively easy to forecast because in the new environment it will be supplying a baseload of physically demanded production while short-term changes in demand are managed by tight-oil. If someone in oil services tells you their business model is fine because the price of oil will rise I would suggest examining things a lot more carefully.

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