Even if Saudi Arabia wins its struggle with U.S. shale producers over market share, it will face a new billion-barrel adversary.
It won’t be regional nemesis Iran, a resurgent Iraq or long-standing competitor Russia. The answer will be more prosaic: Even when overproduction ends, a stockpile surplus of more than 1 billion barrels built up since 2014 will remain, weighing on prices. Inventories will keep accumulating until the end of 2017, the International Energy Agency forecasts, and clearing the glut could take years.
“We may get to the end of the year, and even though supply and demand are in balance, the market shrugs and says ‘So what?’ because it’s waiting for proof of inventory draw-downs,” said Mike Wittner, head of oil markets at Societe Generale SA in New York. “Moving from stock-builds to balance might not be enough.”
Since it was unveiled in late 2014, Saudi Arabia’s strategy to bring the world’s oversupplied oil markets back into balance by squeezing competitors with lower prices has proved grueling, dragging crude down to less than $30 a barrel last month. While a gradual decline in U.S. production signals supply will stop growing, the second act of the process may prove the longest as stockpiles slowly contract.
For a historical precedent, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. points to the oil glut that developed in 1998 to 1999 as demand plunged in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Crude prices kept falling even as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries made output cuts in March and then June of 1998, slipping below $10 a barrel in London in December of that year. It wasn’t until stockpiles in developed economies started dropping in early 1999 that the recovery took shape.
This is a useful reminder and I think we should always keep an eye on stockpiles, wherever possible, for any commodity of interest.
I maintain that Saudi Arabia cannot achieve more than a pyrrhic victory from its efforts to curtail global production of crude oil through oversupply. Moreover, this crude strategy (pun intended) will have made more long-term adversaries than friends.
Among oil importers, forward thinking governments should quietly survey and test for their own viable and accessible shale properties, while also learning and keeping up with the technology for efficient production. This would not be expensive and they may never need the oil, but it would be useful insurance in case prices ever did spike again, for whatever reason.Back to top