Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Limits of Oil’s Rebound

Since last August, when it became clear that the lifting of sanctions on Iran would unleash a massive increase in global oil supplies, $50 has proved to be a ceiling for the trading range of a barrel. But now that this level has been exceeded, will it again become a floor?

LONDON – For the first time since last October, the price of a barrel of oil has broken through $50. So it seems a good time to update the analysis I presented in January 2015.

Back then, I argued that $50 or thereabouts would turn out to be a long-term ceiling for the oil price. At the time, with crude prices still above $60, almost everyone believed that $50 would be the rock-bottom floor. After all, futures markets predicted prices of $75 or higher; the Saudi and Russian governments needed $100 to balance their budgets; and any price much below $50 was considered unsustainable, because it would put the US shale-oil industry out of business.

As it happened, the price of Brent crude did fluctuate between $50 and $70 in the first half of last year, before plunging decisively below $50 in early August, when it became obvious that the lifting of sanctions against Iran would unleash a massive increase in global supply. Since then, $50 has indeed proved to be a ceiling for the oil price. But now that this level has been exceeded, will it again become a floor?

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