The Geopolitical Impact of Cheap Oil

CAMBRIDGE – The price of oil has fallen more than 25% in the past five months, to less than $80 a barrel. If the price remains at this level, it will have important implications – some good, some bad – for many countries around the world. If it falls further, as seems likely, the geopolitical consequences on some oil-producing countries could be dramatic.

The price of oil at any time depends on market participants’ expectations about future supply and demand. The role of expectations makes the oil market very different from most others. In the market for fresh vegetables, for example, prices must balance the supply and demand for the current harvest. By contrast, oil producers and others in the industry can keep supply off the market if they think that its price will rise later, or they can put extra supply on the market if they think the price will fall.

Oil companies around the world keep supply off the market by reducing the amount of oil that they take out of the ground. Oil producers can also restrict supply by holding oil inventory in tankers at sea or in other storage facilities. Conversely, producers can put more oil on the market by increasing production or by running down their inventories.

The market expectations reflected in today’s price reflect lower future demand and increased future supply. Lower demand reflects both the current weakness of economic activity, particularly in Europe and China, and, more important, the longer-term changes in technology, which will increase cars’ fuel efficiency and induce the use of solar power and other non-oil energy sources. The increase in the future potential supply of oil reflects new output produced by fracking, the development of Canada’s tar sands, and Mexico’s recent decision to allow foreign oil companies to develop the country’s energy sources.