Earlier this year, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil slumped into negative territory for the first time in history. Oil traded at a negative $37.63. Today, that same barrel of oil is changing hands at $47.48. What changed?
More than any other sector, the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the global oil and gas industry. Declining consumer demand in the first quarter of the year in combination with high levels of energy production threatened to exceed worldwide oil storage capacity. OPEC+, the oil cartel, took action on April 12, 2020 by cutting oil production by 9.7 million/bbl. per day, but by then it was too late. By April 20-22, you couldn’t give away a barrel of oil… and prices responded in kind.
By the end of the first quarter, more than 40 U.S. oil producers collectively wrote down $48 billion worth of assets, which was the largest quarterly adjustment since 2015. The losses were so bad that many investors sold banking stocks, concerned that several banks with energy loans outstanding might go under as a result. None of that happened, largely due to the quick action by our central bank’s guaranteed loan program, and a huge slug of government fiscal spending.
Fast forward to today, where the revival in energy prices is somewhat remarkable given the present surge of COVID-19 cases. In my opinion, the oil price increase is all about the expected return to our pre-pandemic way of life. The hope is that as the coronavirus vaccines do their job, we will see an increase in worldwide demand for transportation, which is the principal driver of oil prices. The re-opening of the global economy will lead to higher consumption of diesel and natural gas as industrial businesses ramp up to full production. There should also be an upsurge in demand for refined energy products that are used in just about every industry.
In the short-term, I believe the continued price rise in oil will be dependent on what OPEC+ decides to do with production. As of last week, the cartel and its outside members agreed to gradually increase oil production by no more than 500,000/bbl. per day starting from January 2021. Here in the U.S. (where we are considered to be the world’s main marginal producer), both our small and large oil companies have curtailed production and plugged wells.
There are other reasons that demand for oil may outpace supply. Unlike some industries, you can’t just turn on the spigot and produce more oil and gas. There is a lead time involved in the process. As a result of the economic downturn, nearly every oil company has had to cut investment spending this year. That meant a reduction in the development of proven reserves, which in the short-term doesn’t matter much, but if demand picks up it could become a supply issue next year.
Companies upstream from these producers, the drilling and exploration contactors, as well as oil service companies, have been cutting back as well to stay solvent. Currently, oilfield activity is down 50%, the lowest in a decade. To reverse direction, this industry requires time. And a lot of it. All of the above could create an ongoing imbalance in supply and demand, leading to further price hikes.
In addition, the trend towards renewable energy sources has finally caught the attention of the largest oil corporations. Both politically, as well as from a long-term profit motive, alternative energy is attracting more investment. It is siphoning off the cash that had originally been ear-marked for traditional energy production. That trend seems to be firmly in place. Government incentives to do even more investing in the future may well reduce the investment spending necessary to increase the supply of oil and gas. This could all result in a perfect storm of higher oil prices next year.
Looking at the stock market, while energy stocks in general have enjoyed double-digit price rises over the last month, the energy sector overall is still down 32.9% so far this year, compared to the S&P 500 Index gain of 15.3%. My bet is that energy equities continue to close the gap in performance through 2021 as the price of oil climbs.