Why Crude Oil Prices Will Recover Faster than You Think

Over the last six months, WTI crude oil prices declined from a peak of $107 to $60 a barrel, or a decline of 44%. Many analysts, including the Energy Information Administration (EIA), are forecasting even lower prices, and more glaringly, for prices to stay at these levels for at least the next 12-24 months. The EIA is forecasting WTI crude oil to average $63 a barrel in 2015 (down from its October forecast of $95 a barrel), while Andy Xie, a Chinese economist, is forecasting oil prices to stay at $60 over the next five years.

The oil market is now in a state of panic. We believe WTI crude oil prices will recover to the $75 to $85 range by the second half of 2015 as: 1) fear in the oil markets subsides, 2) shale production growth plateaus or even declines, and 3) global demand increases as a reaction to lower oil prices. Let’s examine these three reasons in more detail.

1) Oil markets are panicking and prices will bounce back after the fear subsides

At $60 a barrel, WTI is now more than two standard deviations below its 200-day moving average, its most oversold level since March 30, 2009. With the exception of the 6-month declines during: 1) late 1985/early 1986, and 2) summer 2008 to December 2008, the WTI crude oil price is now at a level which has previously marked a multi-year bottom. More importantly–from a technical standpoint–oil prices have always bounced faster than most analysts expected. E.g. After hitting $10.73 a barrel in December 1998, WTI rose by 80% to $19.28 a barrel over the next 6 months; similarly, after hitting $17.48 a barrel in November 2001, WTI rose by 68% to $29.38 over the next six months. Note that in the latter case, the rise in oil prices occurred despite the 9/11 attacks and the fact that the U.S. economy was in recession. Just like today, analysts were expecting oil prices to remain low during December 1998 and November 2001. In its December 2001 forecast, the EIA expected WTI to average $21.79 a barrel in 2002. WTI would average $26.17 in 2002, or 20% higher. We believe the current supply/demand dynamics today are even more conducive for a quick snap-back and a subsequent stabilization at higher crude oil prices.

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2) Shale production growth will subside faster than expected

Our recent MarketWatch.com article discusses three reasons why the U.S. shale supply response in reaction to lower oil prices will be faster than expected. Those are: i) shale drilling is inherently capital intensive; many shale E&P firms have relied on GAAP and dubious accounting practices to mask the high, ongoing costs to sustain shale production, ii) unlike the major, multi-year projects undertaken by major, integrated oil companies, shale production growth is highly responsive to prices, and iii) shale depletion rates are much faster than those of conventional oil production.

These arguments for faster-than-expected shale production declines are stronger than ever. Firstly, shale drillers have only sustained the boom as long as there was ample financing, but this game is now about to end. The spread for high-yield energy debt has already jumped from less than 450 basis points in September to 942 basis points today. We expect financing to dry up for marginal drillers and fields; higher financing costs will also increase the costs of shale oil production, creating an overall higher hurdle for shale projects. Secondly, shale fields on average take about 6-9 months to come online, which is much faster than for most conventional projects. With such a quick response time, we expect shale production growth to slow down dramatically by April-May of 2015. Thirdly, higher efficiencies have meant faster depletion rates. Shale producers are looking for quick paybacks, and so are highly incentivized to begin and ramp up production as quickly as possible. As discussed by the EIA, the monthly decline in legacy shale oil production is about 300,000 barrels a day. We expect U.S. shale oil production to begin declining by April-May of 2015 unless prices rise back to the $75-$85 a barrel range.

3) Global oil demand to surprise on the upside

Our recent MarketWatch.com article discusses why U.S. gasoline consumption is already surprising on the upside, with the AAA estimating that Thanksgiving travel by car was up by 4.3% from last year, and the highest in the number of miles driven in seven years (versus EIA’s estimate of a 20,000 barrel decline in U.S. gasoline consumption in 2015). Higher demand is also now materializing in other parts of the world. For example, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers reported a higher-than-expected 10% year-over-year rise in domestic passenger vehicle sales due to lower fuel prices. We expect Indian automobile growth to pick up even more next year as the Reserve Bank India (India’s central bank) will likely cut policy rates by early next year. This will reduce the cost of auto loan financing, thus increasing automobile affordability for the Indian middle class. In addition, Chinese car sales in November still increased by 4.7% year-over-year despite an economic slowdown and a broad government mandate to limit car ownership in major cities. We believe both Chinese and Indian oil demand growth will be resilient as both the country’s central banks have ample room to slash interest rates, thus countering any pressures of a further global economic slowdown.

Now, more than ever, we reiterate our bullish stance on oil prices. We expect WTI crude oil prices to bounce back soon and to stabilize and mostly trade in the $75-$85 range by the second half of 2015.

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