Oil prices have collapsed in stunning fashion in the past few months. The spot price of Brent crude reached $115 a barrel in June, and was above $100 a barrel as recently as September. Since then, it has plummeted to less than $50 a barrel.
There is a sharp split among energy experts about the future direction of oil prices. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently stated that oil prices could keep falling for quite a while and opined that $100 a barrel oil will never come back. Earlier this month, investment bank Goldman Sachs weighed in by slashing its short-term oil price target from $80 a barrel all the way to $42 a barrel.
But there are still plenty of optimists like billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has vocally argued that oil will bounce back to $100 a barrel within 12 months-18 months. Pickens thinks that Saudi Arabia will eventually give in and cut production. However, this may be wishful thinking. Supply and demand fundamentals point to more lean times ahead for oil producers.
Oil supply is comfortably ahead of demand
The International Energy Agency assesses the state of the global oil market each month. Lately, it has been sounding the alarm about the continuing supply demand imbalance.
The IEA currently projects that supply will outstrip demand by more than 1 million barrels per day, or bpd, this quarter, and by nearly 1.5 million bpd in Q2 before falling in line with demand in the second half of the year, when oil demand is seasonally stronger.
That said, these projections are built on the assumption that OPEC production will total 30 million bpd: its official quota. However, OPEC production was 480,000 bpd above the quota in December. At that rate, the supply-and-demand gap could reach nearly 2 million bpd in Q2.
Theoretically, this gap between supply and demand could be closed either through reduced supply or increased demand. However, at the moment economic growth is slowing across much of the world. For oil demand to grow significantly, global GDP growth will have to speed up.
It would take several years for the process of lower energy prices helping economic growth and thereby stimulating higher oil demand to play out. Thus, supply cuts will be necessary if oil prices are to rebound in the next two years-three years.
Will OPEC cut production?
There are two potential ways that global oil production can be reduced. One possibility is that OPEC will cut production to prop up oil prices. The other possibility is that supply will fall into line with demand through market forces, with lower oil prices driving reductions in drilling activity in high-cost areas, leading to lower production.
OPEC is a wild card. A few individuals effectively control OPEC's production activity, particularly because Saudi Arabia has historically borne the brunt of OPEC production cuts. Right now, the powers that be favor letting market forces work.
There's always a chance that they will reconsider in the future. However, the strategic argument for Saudi Arabia maintaining its production level is fairly compelling. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already tried the opposite approach.
In the 1980s, as a surge in oil prices drove a similar uptick in non-OPEC drilling and a decline in oil consumption, Saudi Arabia tried to prop up oil prices. The results were disastrous. Saudi Arabia cut its production from more than 10 million bpd in 1980 to less than 2.5 million bpd by 1985 and still couldn't keep prices up.
Other countries in OPEC could try to chip in with their own production cuts to take the burden off Saudi Arabia. However, the other members of OPEC have historically been unreliable when it comes to following production quotas. It's unlikely that they would be more successful today.
The problem is that these countries face a "prisoner's dilemma" situation. Collectively, it might be in their interest to cut production. But each individual country is better off cheating on the agreement in order to sell more oil at the prevailing price, no matter what the other countries do. With no good enforcement mechanisms, these agreements regularly break down.
Market forces: moving slowly
The other way that supply can be brought back into balance with demand is through market forces. Indeed, at least some shale oil production has a breakeven price of $70 a barrel-$80 a barrel or more.
This might make it seem that balance will be reasserted within a short time. However, there's an important difference between accounting profit and cash earnings. Oil projects take time to execute, involving a significant amount of up-front capital spending. Only a portion of the total cost of a project is incurred at the time that a well is producing oil.
Capital spending that has already been incurred is a "sunk cost." The cost of producing crude at a particular well might be $60 a barrel, but if the company spent half that money upfront, it might as well spend the other $30 a barrel to recover the oil if it can sell it for $45 a barrel-$50 a barrel.
Thus, investment in new projects drops off quickly when oil prices fall, but there is a significant lag before production starts to fall. Indeed, many drillers are desperate for cash flow and want to squeeze every ounce of oil out of their existing fields. Rail operator CSX recently confirmed that it expects crude-by-rail shipments from North Dakota to remain steady or even rise in 2015.
Indeed, during the week ending Jan. 9, U.S. oil production hit a new multi-decade high of 9.19 million bpd. By contrast, last June -- when the price of crude was more than twice as high -- U.S. oil production was less than 8.5 million bpd.
One final collapse?
In the long run -- barring an unexpected intervention by OPEC -- oil prices will stabilize around the marginal long-run cost of production (including the cost of capital spending). This level is almost certainly higher than the current price, but well below the $100 a barrel level that's been common since 2011.
However, things could get worse for the oil industry before they get better. U.S. inventories of oil and refined products have been rising by about 10 million barrels a week recently. The global supply demand balance isn't expected to improve until Q3, and it could worsen again in the first half of 2016 due to the typical seasonal drop in demand.
As a result, global oil storage capacity could become tight. Last month, the IEA found that U.S. petroleum storage capacity was only 60% full, but commercial crude oil inventory was at 75% of storage capacity.
This percentage could rise quickly when refiners begin to cut output in Q2 for the seasonal switch to summer gasoline blends. Traders have even begun booking supertankers as floating oil storage facilities, aiming to buy crude on the cheap today and sell it at a higher price this summer or next year.
If oil storage capacity becomes scarce later this year, oil prices will have to fall even further so that some existing oil fields become cash flow negative. That's the only way to ensure an immediate drop in production (as opposed to a reduction in investment, which gradually impacts production).
Any such drop in oil prices will be a short-term phenomenon. At today's prices, oil investment will not be sufficient to keep output up in 2016. Thus, T. Boone Pickens is probably right that oil prices will recover in the next 12 months-18 months, even if his prediction of $100 oil is too aggressive. But with oil storage capacity becoming scarcer by the day, it's still too early to call a bottom for oil.
Adam Levine-Weinberg has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Goldman Sachs. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.