When OPEC+ agreed to begin cutting crude oil production again in December, hardly anyone in the cartel thought the effect of the news on prices would be as lackluster as it turned out to be. It took some time for the fact to sink in that this time too many traders were worried about the future of oil demand and were reluctant to speculate with oil. Now OPEC is facing another tough year, perhaps even tougher than 2016, and it might just need to reduce production even more to make it work.
“Well, J.P. Morgan said prior to the OPEC meeting early December, that if OPEC didn’t really cut by more than around 1.2 million barrels per day, and they did just for the first half, (not) for the full year, that we could gravitate toward ... our low-oil-price scenario, which is $55 Brent for 2019,” the investment bank’s head of oil and gas for the Asia-Pacific told CNBC this week.
“We expect oil markets to remain volatile, in part driven by flexible North American shale production that can ramp up and down quickly in response to changes in investment levels,” ConocoPhillips’ CEO Ryan Lance told Bloomberg, also this week.
North American shale production is, of course, the number-one challenge for OPEC’s plans. Two years ago it was easier: nobody was sure exactly how flexible shale oil production can be so the OPEC cuts worked, helped by a brighter global economic outlook. Now, things are different. Shale production is growing despite the slump in prices and although this may change if prices fall further or stay at current levels for longer, this is far from certain: in the last week of December, after prices have been on the decline for three months, U.S. drillers continued adding rigs.
Yet it wasn’t just U.S. production that rose last year: Russia’s hit a new record in 2018, at 11.16 million bpd, which made it the second-largest producer after the United States. Saudi Arabia also pumped at a record level of over 11 million bpd in the months that followed the June OPEC+ decision to reverse the cuts to rein in prices. This is the context in which OPEC+ agreed the new cuts, which were 600,000 bpd lower than the ones agreed in 2016. No wonder skepticism is rife.
Some analysts believe that once the cuts enter into effect, which they did at the start of the new year, the effect on prices will come to be felt. But JP Morgan’s Scott Darling may just turn out to be right: yesterday, news that Saudi Arabia had reduced its crude oil exports by half a million barrels daily pushed up prices only briefly before both Brent and West Texas Intermediate faltered and slid down again.
While six months may be enough to reduce the combined output of OPEC and its partners by the agreed 1.2 million bpd, if U.S. production continues to grow at the current rate, it would likely offset this cut completely. True, the amount of crude that is added or leaves the global markets is not the only factor that counts: the type of crude is also important, and U.S. oil is overwhelmingly light crude, while there is also global demand for heavier grades that the Middle East and Russia produce. Yet grades are rarely the top concern of traders when they hear words like “oversupply”. Volatility, as Conoco’s Ryan Lance said, is clearly here to stay and will likely intensify in the coming months. OPEC might just be forced to extend the cuts it agreed in December if a positive effect from this agreement fails to materialize soon.