The Limits of Oil’s Rebound

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?

That seems to be what many investors are expecting. Hedge funds and other “non-commercial” speculators have increased their long positions to an all-time high of 555,000 of the main oil contracts traded on the New York futures market, compared to the previous record of 548,000 contracts, set just before the oil price peaked at $120 in June 2014. The return of speculative enthusiasm is usually a reliable sign that the next big price move will probably be down. More important, the fundamental arguments are more compelling than ever that $50 or thereabouts will continue to be a price ceiling, rather than a floor.