Will oil prices rise to $70 per barrel this year or fall to $30? Depends on who you ask.
Oil price forecasts are always all over the map, but the exceptional disparity between some projections for 2017 is pretty stunning. On the one hand, you have Citibank, which sees oil shooting up to $70 this year as supply continues to tighten even as demand rises.
Citi acknowledges the headwinds in the near-term. “Oil prices are not likely to stray far from their current $53-58 per barrel range in the near term as record investor net length and bearish inventory data will likely cap prices until more tangible evidence of a tighter market emerges,” Citi analysts wrote in a recent research note. However, they see oil prices posting much stronger gains in the second half of the year.
But the bearish threats to oil prices on the downside seem to be a lot more visible right now than the bullish ones. Aside from rising shale production, a dagger looms over oil prices in the very near-term. Hedge funds and money managers have pushed bullish bets to a new record high, equivalent to over 1 billion barrels of oil. The massive one-sided bet leaves the oil market dangerously exposed. When the herd suddenly realizes that they are all making the same bet, there could be a stampede back in the other direction. The buildup in bullish bets is all the more remarkable because it occurred at a time when oil prices were stagnant, stuck in the mid- to low-$50s per barrel.
“The world is awash with oil at the moment and there continues to be endless supply so therefore I don’t see a real reason for prices to rise above $60 or $70…so I’m really seeing probably the risks of the prices falling below $50 for a considerable period of time and probably even touching the levels of $40 to $45 this year,” Eugen Weinberg, Head of Commodity Research at Commerzbank, told CNBC’s Street Signs on February 21.
Some oil watchers are even more pessimistic. Unless OPEC extends its production cut for another six months or so, crude prices could plummet to $30 per barrel, according to ABN Amro Bank NV. The OPEC deal has succeeded in already taking roughly 1 million barrels per day off of the market, but the supply/demand balance is not as tight as OPEC members had hoped it would be at this point.
Prices have firmed up, but oil and refined product inventories are still rising in the U.S., with crude stocks at record highs and gasoline inventories also at their highest level in decades. The OPEC deal is helping, but new output from the U.S., Brazil, Canada, and even OPEC members like Libya and Nigeria are offsetting some of those reductions. If OPEC were to abandon its deal in June, and begin producing back at the levels seen in 2016, the market could crash.
“If they don’t continue with this trend, then the oil price could drop back to where it was two years ago,” Hans van Cleef, ABN Amro’s senior energy economist, told Bloomberg’s Oil Buyer’s Guide in an interview. “Oil prices could easily go back to the low $30s.”
Prices are in exceptional danger because the gains stemming from the OPEC deal are already priced into the market. A further tightening of supply is baked into today’s price, so even if OPEC maintains a high compliance rate over the next few months, the oil market might not see any more large price increases. “[W]e don’t see any upside from OPEC anymore,” van Cleef told Bloomberg. The downside risk, on the other hand, is very real.
Which brings us back to the extraordinary buildup in bullish bets on oil futures. Hedge funds and money managers are near unanimous in their belief that oil prices have more room to grow. But since there is little sign that more supply will be taken off the market beyond what OPEC is cutting, then the adjustment may continue at a painfully slow pace. At some point, investors might grow wary of this protracted process and abandon their bullish bets. If crude and gasoline inventories continue to rise, that could force bulls out of the market. The WSJ cited an estimate from JP Morgan analyst David Martin, oil prices could suffer a swift decline of $5 to $10 per barrel if the U.S. sees another few weeks of strong inventory gains, a sharp loss that would occur as investors unwind their bullish bets.