Азиатские тигры (igor_tiger) wrote,
Азиатские тигры

О ценах на нефть

Что движет мировыми ценами на нефть

For people who  believe that oil markets are rigged or broken, the first week of May offered  Exhibit A.
That week, the  price of crude oil plunged more than $16 a barrel, erasing about $32 billion of  the market value of Exxon Mobil and presaging an easing of prices at the pump,  where the cost of a gallon of gas had hit record levels.

On that Thursday  alone, the price of oil fell off a cliff, tumbling more than $10 a barrel.
 Yet the physical  amount of oil in the market didn’t change that week. Libya’s oil exports had been  offline for more than two months. In the oil world, the surface was relatively  calm. But a couple of signs of economic weakness spooked traders, who suddenly  worried that demand would be less than they had expected. Goldman Sachs, a  believer in rising crude oil prices, predicted a temporary pullback. Poof! More  than a tenth of the value of a barrel of oil disappeared.
For consumers, oil  prices are like a bad case of malaria — feverish one month and tolerable another.
Such wild fluctuation makes it nearly impossible to discern: What is the right  price for oil?

Today’s crude oil  prices are nearly 10 times as high as they were in 1998, and twice as high as  in 2005. They hit a record of $147 a barrel in July 2008, only to sink to less  than $40 a barrel by the end of that year.

In March, amid  intense fighting in Libya,  President Obama said that there wasn’t a serious supply shortage and that  rising oil prices weren’t reason enough to tap the nation’s Strategic Petroleum  Reserve. Then on June 23, he suddenly said that turmoil in Libya justified  the largest-ever release of reserves.It was more of an economic stimulus than a  national security measure.

Because oil prices  fluctuate so much, however, it will be impossible to measure Obama’s success or  failure. If prices continue to drop, as they were doing before his move, will  he deserve credit? If they rise, will he deserve blame? If it works, will we  want him to do it again?

That will come  down to the question of price.
 In a competitive  market, the price of oil would be linked to the marginal cost of the next  barrel. In other words, the price for the first 88 barrels would be affected by  the cost of producing the 89th barrel, in effect the cost of replacing each  barrel used.
But in the world  of oil, it’s hard to say what that replacement cost is. Producing oil is not  like churning out computer chips, where costs are similar everywhere. 

In Canada, it  costs somewhere between $40 and $60 a barrel to mine and melt the viscous goo  known as tar sands that environmentalists would rather leave in the ground. Yet  in the Gulf of Mexico, where giant drilling
rigs plumb deep waters, the cost of finding and developing oilfields can be  relatively modest. Chevron, for example, has a $7.5 billion platform that will  tap into a half-billion-barrel field at an average cost of about $15 a barrel.  In Iraq,  it’s even cheaper. The country has giant, shallow fields as good as almost  anything in Saudi Arabia.  In some places, you could practically stick a spear in the ground and come up  with oil. Those neglected fields are being rehabilitated — if fighting can stop  long enough.

And that’s the  thing: There is no free market. There are obstacles everywhere. Pipelines.  Politics. Oil spills. Warfare. They make it hard to figure out a marginal price  for the next barrel of oil because it’s not clear whether the cheapest barrel  can get anywhere near a tanker, refinery or consumer.

Then there’s the  demand side, where needs and habits are so ingrained that we don’t respond  quickly to rising prices. Buying oil isn’t like buying fruit: If an apple costs  too much, buy an orange. If your gas costs too much, there isn’t much choice  for most Americans who need to get to work. As a result, a relatively small  percentage change in world supplies can upend the whole balance — and price.

Obama, often  faulted for not having an energy policy, took care of the most crucial energy  policy item back in early 2009, when he raised fuel-efficiency standards for  American cars, which consume one out of every nine barrels of oil produced  worldwide. More recently, he’s been touting electric cars, which he says should  number 1 million by 2016. Saving a barrel is even better than discovering one;  it’s tidier, and more money stays at home. But with General Motors selling only  about 450 of its Volt plug-in cars a month, I don’t think OPEC is quaking in
its boots.

The Organization  of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is devoted to the idea of managing — or  manipulating — oil markets.
 Though Saudi Oil  Minister Ali al-Naimi emerged from the cartel’s cantankerous June meeting and
declared it the worst one ever, when it comes to oil prices, OPEC is having its  best year ever.

So far this year,  the price for a basket of different OPEC crude oils has averaged $106 a barrel,  38 percent higher than last year and higher so far than the previous record in  2008. OPEC’s “hawks,” led by Iran  and Venezuela,  want higher prices. OPEC’s “doves,” led by Saudi Arabia, want prices just high  enough to keep consumers on the hook without driving them to alternatives.
 Meanwhile, money  has been sloshing around the world. Just as oil consumers are clawing back from  two years of recession, they are suddenly paying $2.5 billion a day more than  last year for petroleum products. About $1.8 billionof that flows into the  coffers of the three biggest oil-exporting nations — Saudi Arabia, Russia and  Iran — while more than $1 billion is draining out of the United States to pay  for imports.
Higher prices  reflect a political risk premium. If you think there is a 30 percent chance  that some disruption — say a bomb or a civil war or a NATO attack — will soon  drive prices up by $50 a barrel, it might make sense to pay an extra $15 for  oil now and stockpile it or buy for future delivery.

The windfall for  Saudi Arabia has enabled King Abdullahto spread around a $40 billion spending  plan to help avoid a Cairo-style uprising.
 Meanwhile, at the  local filling station in the United States,  a tank of gas is about $15 more expensive than last year, bringing the U.S. economic  recovery to a crawl and creating a combustible political issue.  That’s intensified  the Washington  blame game.
The big oil  companies, which once dictated prices to the world, now say that they are just  “price takers” at the mercy of the market, like the rest of us. Yet they reap  benefits when OPEC does. Only a dozen countries produce more crude oil than  Exxon Mobil. Big Oil bargains over access, taxes and its share of output, but  it checks the computer terminals for price.

The increase in  crude prices this year was magnified by the nation’s refiners, whose margins  were at least 17 to 23 cents a gallon higher than last year, according to  government figures. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the  concentration of ownership in gas stations. In the District, for example, about  half of the stations are owned by a single firm. It sounds like a question from  the final exam of an antitrust course.

Republicans, big  business and oil industry groups have slammed Obama for the one-year pause in  drilling permits after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of  Mexico. Citing a study paid for by the American Petroleum  Institute, oil executives say crude oil output fell by more than 100,000  barrels a day. Yet Severin Borenstein, co-director of the University  of California’s Energy Institute,  observes that “Obama’s actions have had virtually no impact on ‘current’  production, and the entire scope for changing U.S. production is tiny in the  context of the world oil market and will have no noticeable impact on prices.”

Democrats usually  blame “speculators” for soaring gas prices. And Goldman Sachs is usually high  on the list. The investment bank runs some of the biggest commodity investment  funds and has a widely used commodity benchmark composed largely of oil. Its  influential analysts move markets.

Manipulation does  happen. The most spectacular example is in natural gas, where prices dropped 8  percent in 14 seconds in after-hours trading on June 8.The Commodity Futures  Trading Commission is investigating.

It happens in oil,  too. Earlier this year, the commission charged two veteran oil traders with  booking $50 million in profits by manipulating oil markets in 2008. They bought  physical cargoes they didn’t need to artificially inflate prices while also buying  derivatives so they would profit as prices rose. They bought other derivatives  that would pay off later when prices fell — which they did after the pair sold  their physical barrels, catching other traders off guard.
 But in general,  “speculation” is a loaded term for what investors do every day. Cornering a  piece of the market can warp prices, but usually for a limited time.
There are gushers  of theories to explain the longer-term picture framed by the basics of supply  and demand. 

Some argue that an  era of limits has begun. Yes, there is a peak to world oil production out there  somewhere, because we’re gobbling up the plants and plankton that have been  simmering for millions of years in the sedimentary cooker faster than the Earth  can replace them. But we keep postponing that peak — by finding new fields,  getting more oil out of old ones or clamping down on consumption.

Still, supplies  could remain tight because of fast consumption growth in China, where every  year it’s increasing by more than half a million barrels a day, and in India.  The world has about 3 million to 4 million barrels a day of spare capacity  right now, but prices edge up when that cushion shrinks.

The only way to  restore balance in coming years will be through higher prices — but that could  constrain economic growth. Robert McNally, founder and president of the  Rapidian Group, estimates that prices will have to rise 13 to 15 percent a year  to effectively ration supplies. “You can have 4 percent economic growth or  double-digit crude oil prices,” he says, “but you can’t have both.”

That goes back to  Obama’s release of strategic reserves. “The administration will be repeatedly  tested” on its strategic oil reserves policy, McNally says. “If you believe  half of this [scenario], how do you get reelected next year?” he says. “You  have to prevent the rationing. So you have to throw the reserves into the  market.”

By Wednesday, a  week after Obama and the International Energy Agency unveiled their oil reserve  plan, petroleum prices had rebounded, recovering nearly all the ground lost  immediately after the announcement.

It remains unclear  whether the president pays a political price, and what price we’ll all pay for  oil.

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