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By Robert Rapier on Aug 20, 2015 with 11 responses

Why the $20 Oil Predictions are Wrong

Deja Vu

As the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) retests the $40 per barrel (bbl) mark, some pundits are again calling for WTI to fall to $15 or $20/bbl. The same thing happened earlier in the year when crude prices tested $40. Lots of people predicted $20, the price went to $60, and the $20 crowd went quiet for a while. Well, they are back:

Why oil prices could sink to $15 a barrel

“There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest we have bottomed. You could have $15 or $20 oil — easily,” influential money manager David Kotok told CNNMoney. “I’m an old goat. I remember when oil was $3 a barrel,” said Kotok, whose clients include former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean.

Yes, and you could get a candy bar and soda for a nickel. But I will bet him $10,000 we don’t see WTI at $15/bbl unless he has access to a time machine. Today I want to address this argument. I got into a debate on this topic with a person yesterday, and I am seeing enough of these predictions that I thought it warranted addressing. Again. The $20/bbl argument goes something like this: Crude oil inventories are extremely high. U.S. oil production keeps rising. Demand is falling. Something has to give.

Crude Inventories Did Rise

The problem is that this conventional wisdom argument is wrong on 2 counts. It is true that crude oil inventories are high. Last week there was a surprise build in U.S. crude oil inventories. Analysts were expecting inventories to fall — which they have been doing since April — but instead crude inventories rose by 2.6 million barrels. Following this week’s release of the Weekly Petroleum Status Report announcing the surprise build in inventories, I saw more than one person claim “We are definitely going below $40/bbl today.” Didn’t happen. Now it could happen within the next few days. We are close, so one really bad day could drop us below $40, disproving my January prediction that WTI would not close below $40/bbl in 2015. But the price won’t stay there because that is well below the marginal cost of production at the current level of world demand. More on that below.

I don’t believe the people predicting $20 oil are seeing the whole picture. The person I debated this week essentially argued “High inventories = much lower oil prices.” But you have to dig down a bit more than that. Why did inventories rise last week? There were two primary drivers.

The first is that the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana — one of the largest in the country — is dealing with unexpected maintenance problems. They have 235,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil refining capacity offline. (For those who think this is some sort of conspiracy by BP to drive up gasoline prices, get real. This helps all the other refiners — not BP). So BP didn’t consume about 1.6 million barrels of crude during the week that they otherwise would have consumed. Yet inventories rose even more than that. Why? Did U.S. production surge?

U.S. Crude Production is Falling

No, U.S. crude oil production is now falling. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in its most recent Short Term Energy Outlook (STEO) that U.S. crude oil production declined by 100,000 bpd in July compared with June, and they expect these declines to continue because of the steep cuts shale oil producers have made to their budgets. The EIA reduced its forecast for oil production next year to 400,000 bpd less than this year. More on the significance of this below.

So why did inventories increase last week? It was actually because crude oil imports surged. Crude oil imports were 465,000 bpd higher than the previous week. That means 3.3 million barrels more oil came into the country than arrived in the previous week. Add that to the BP outage, and there was a surplus of oil of 4.9 million barrels relative to the previous week. This more than explains the 2.6 million barrel weekly gain in inventories. The question is “Will that continue to happen?”

In my opinion, “No.” The BP outage will continue for an indefinite period, but the import surge was an anomaly. Crude imports from Canada surged by 404,000 bpd from the previous week. But guess what? Canadian oil producers are in an even deeper bind than U.S. oil producers. A recent article stated that at $40/bbl WTI, Canada’s largest synthetic crude project is losing about $10 on every barrel. How long do you suppose that can continue? The larger producers will hang in as long as they can, but some of the smaller guys are going to be shutting in production at $40 WTI (which implies an even lower price for them due to the distance to market). That will reduce imports from Canada — the very imports that surprisingly drove crude inventories higher this week.

The U.S. Role in the Global Supply Picture

U.S. crude oil production is falling because investments into shale oil production dried up as the price of crude oil fell below $60/bbl. Companies aren’t interested in putting new capital to work, and because these oil fields deplete, that means crude production is falling. Why is that significant? Because most of the world’s new oil production in the past 6 years has come from U.S. shale oil fields. It is hard to overstate the global importance of the new crude supply that came online in the U.S. since 2008. Perhaps this graphic will help put it into perspective:

6 Years Oil Production Change

Since 2008, U.S. oil production growth is equivalent to 83% of the global supply added during that time. (Some countries had declines in oil production, which is why the increases shown on the chart add up to more than the global total.) Not only did U.S. oil production grow faster than production in Saudi Arabia and Russia, but it outpaced production growth in all of OPEC, as well as the entire Middle East. Yet even with U.S. shale oil production, oil prices exceeded $100/bbl. And while U.S. shale oil producers have been getting more efficient, they aren’t going to invest in new production at current prices. Hence, the handwriting is on the wall. (For an explanation of BP’s crude oil accounting, see Is the U.S. Really the World’s Top Oil Producer?).

Insatiable Demand

But what about demand? Isn’t it declining? No. Our Western-centric view of the world may give us the impression that oil demand is declining, but the truth is quite different:

Global Crude Demand

Over just the past decade global oil consumption increased by an average of 900,000 bpd each year, and consumption has risen in 18 of the past 20 years. If we look back 30 years, global oil consumption increased by an average of 1.1 million bpd annually. Demand did decline in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — the grouping of the world’s developed countries. But demand growth in developing countries overwhelmed the declines in the developed world. In just the past five years, demand in developing countries has increased by an average of 1.6 million bpd annually, and now exceeds OECD demand.

OECD vs Non Demand

Note that there was hardly any negative impact on demand in developing countries even with oil prices at $100/bbl. What drives consumption in these countries is a very large number of people using just a little bit more oil than they did before. High oil prices will do little to dissuade them from buying a little bit more when it can make such a big impact on their lives, especially when incomes are rising.

Global demand growth for crude oil is projected to continue. The International Energy Agency recently forecast that global demand will increase by 1.4 million barrels per day this year, and a further 1.2 million bpd in 2016. The bulk of that demand growth is expected to come from developing countries in Asia. With U.S. supply falling, where are the new oil supplies coming from to satisfy global demand at $40/bbl oil? There simply isn’t enough to go around. Another way of looking at this is “We are past peak $40/bbl oil.”

Iran Can’t Close the Gap

Yes, Iran may be putting another half million barrels per day on the export market over the next year. However, oil production in Iran has historically grown slowly. In the past 20 years the most they ever increased production by in a single year was 423,000 bpd. The 2nd most was 249,000 bpd. I am a bit skeptical about some of the optimistic forecasts for their ramp up. A year from now Iran’s half million barrels per day may be on the market, but then oil demand will be another 1.4 million bpd higher.

Further, if U.S. production begins to decline in earnest, that production will have to be made up as well. So if the IEA is correct we need another 1.4 million bpd plus the losses that will happen as a result of lower oil prices — and if Iran is stepping up then it will be taking place in an unstable region of the world. Is this really a scenario that can support $40 oil?

This is why, in my opinion, oil can’t go to $20/bbl. Despite very vocal predictions of much lower oil prices, many people are aware of the dynamics I have laid out here. They know that if you look at this moment in time, today, the market is slightly oversupplied. That is why oil prices are in the $40′s. But 6 months or a year from now? No way. Demand will keep growing, and there aren’t enough producers willing to grow oil production at these prices. Thus, prices will rise, so every time WTI gets down to the sort of unsustainable level it is at now buyers start stepping up.

The OPEC Wild Card

This scenario presumes that OPEC doesn’t blink. If you recall, at OPEC’s meeting in late November 2014, they decided to defend market share instead of reducing production quotas, as some expected, to prop up the price of crude. OPEC’s rationale was that such a move would only help shale oil producers grow their market share by allowing them to maintain high margins. Instead OPEC decided to produce all out, and the falling oil prices that began in the summer accelerated following OPEC’s meeting. (See OPEC Crashed the U.S. Rig Count for additional background).

At their June 5th meeting this year, they once more decided to leave production unchanged. But this strategy is inflicting a lot of pain on OPEC countries, and many are becoming more vocal about the issue. This week Algeria wrote a letter to OPEC questioning the wisdom of their current strategy. The letter asked OPEC to consider taking some form of action to bolster oil prices, as many OPEC countries need oil prices to be at least $100/bbl to balance their budgets. CNN recently reported that this year Saudi Arabia alone has burned through $62 billion of its cash reserves. By my calculations, the steep slide in the price of oil has cost Saudi Arabia around $200 billion in the past year.

Personally, I think Saudi made a monumental miscalculation. While I have seen some claim that the rise of shale oil has effectively neutered OPEC, keep in mind that the organization still produced 41% of the world’s oil last year. 36.6 million bpd of global production came from OPEC. Had they decided to cut production by 5% or so last fall, they would have lost some market share, and yes, the shale oil producers would have kept growing production. But oil prices would probably be at least twice what they are now. The net outcome for OPEC, despite the loss of market share, would have been much higher revenues than what they ended up with.

Another problem for Saudi Arabia now is one of saving face. If they announce an emergency cut to the quotas, or even announce this at their next meeting in December, they will be admitting defeat. They may argue that if they can hold out just a bit longer, they can set the shale oil industry back by years, and then when prices go back up OPEC will be the biggest beneficiary. That is not the decision I would make, but certainly a decision that has benefited U.S. consumers.


I don’t like predicting prices short term, because they are less influenced by fundamental factors. Longer term, irrational markets return to pricing based on fundamental factors like the cost to produce something and make a profit. In the long run, $40/bbl oil is not a price sufficient to entice enough oil producers to produce at a level that can satisfy global demand. Hence, prices will rise. How long will it take? Hard to say. Oil prices stayed above $100/bbl for a lot longer than I thought they would. Maybe they will remain depressed longer than I think they will. Personally, I believe prices will be back up to the $60/bbl level in 6 months or a year – and that’s without any action from OPEC. If OPEC announced a 10% across the board production cut, that’s a Black Swan that would drive prices back to $100/bbl very quickly.

Here is a closing thought. If you could freeze the price of oil at $40/bbl for the next year, what do you think would happen? Supply would be lower in a year, and demand would be higher. In the real world, the price of oil will rise. Granted, the oil markets are notorious for over-correcting, which is the situation they are in right now, in my opinion. Could the price of oil drop to $20/bbl briefly? Well, these are predictions and opinions, and I am on the record predicting that WTI would not close below $40/bbl this year, but you never say never. I think it’s highly unlikely though. If WTI shocks me and does fall to $20/bbl I will scrape together every penny I can and buy oil, and just sit back and wait for the inevitable swing in the other direction.


Link to Original Article: Why the $20 Oil Predictions are Wrong

(Follow Robert Rapier on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.)

  1. By Dipchip on August 22, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Thanks for your update. I concur.

    Today’s world seems to be driven more by emotion than common sense.

  2. By Benjamin Cole on August 23, 2015 at 7:52 am

    Well, probably right, this analysis is. But then, we did see $10 oil in the 1990s, not that long ago.

    In the longer run, I think there is a ceiling on oil, somewhere in the $70 to $100 range. Alternatives and conservation make a lot of sense once oil gets too expensive, And I guess better and better fracking techniques can go global.

    Plenty of wild cards out there in next 20 years. Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Russia—gobs of oil, but can it be extracted? Even Saudi Arabia is cutting output artificially (in free-market terms).

    BTW, GS Yuasa says they will have a battery with double the power at half the cost on the market in two to five years. That company is a publicly held, Japanese, and already a major commercial battery maker, so I do not think this is pie on the moon stuff, ala cellulosic ethanol or $200 barrel oil.

    Urban regions with lots of battery cars? You can rent a car for cross-country drives, when you really need the gasoline. Fleets–UPS trucks, etc—will gravitate to batteries.

    It may be soon EVs will actually make commercial sense.

    Not sure oil is a good long-run bet. That said, oil back o $70? Very possible.

  3. By Arthur_Henderson on August 23, 2015 at 10:49 am


    In my opinion – fantastic analysis! You took all of the variables into account. I think one of those most important variables to emphasize is depletion rates. With producers in the US and across the world pumping as much as they can, they are doing it at a cost of running into diminishing production rates (depletion) on those existing wells even sooner.

    I think the oil market will have turned a corner and prices will be back in the $60 – 70 range within about 18 months. I really think the oil market is going to get blindsided by this and all of a sudden, the reactions will be swiftly to the upside.

    I think we’ll bottom out around $30 per barrel as the media broadcasts negative, emotional headlines through their propaganda bullhorns, and that’s when we’ll spike back into the $40s immediately before seeing more bullish data in the 1st and second quarter of 2016 – driving prices into the $50s.

    This is under the assumption that OPEC stubbornly refuses to budge. If they DO budge, oil markets are going to be on a tear into the $80s at the very least. US producers wouldn’t be able to ramp up production quick enough to catch up at that point – and we’d be in the exact opposite situation we’re in today!

  4. By Common Sense on August 23, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    What about the impact of potentially rising interest rates in the U.S. And its impact on the strength of the dollar?

    Wouldn’t further US dollar appreciation stem some increase in emerging market demand and thus impact the price of oil?

    • By Robert Rapier on August 23, 2015 at 3:07 pm

      Demand growth in developing countries didn’t flinch at $100 oil, so I don’t think it’s going to flinch with a stronger dollar and lower oil prices.

  5. By TimC on August 24, 2015 at 9:26 am

    “If WTI shocks me and does fall to $20/bbl I will scrape together every penny I can and buy oil.”

    Me too. But why not buy oil at $40/bbl, if you believe it’s going to $60 within a year? Or, if you don’t like the risk in oil, diversify with an ETF. I recall one analysis at the start of the year that predicted the S&P500 Energy Select SPDR ETF (XLE) would rise 10% in 2015. XLE is down 20% YTD, so it should go up 37.5% in the next four months. How can you go wrong?

    “I don’t like predicting prices short term…”

    Who does?

    • By Robert Rapier on August 24, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      “But why not buy oil at $40/bbl, if you believe it’s going to $60 within a year?”

      I did the last time oil dipped toward $40. Not putting your eggs in one basket is good advice, so I keep a little powder dry. But at $20? I am all in.

      “How can you go wrong?”

      If you make predictions, you are going to be wrong sometimes. The key is being right more often than you are wrong. Then you make money.

  6. By Forrest on August 24, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Liquid fuels will dominate transportation sector for foreseeable future. Technology improvements will make the common ICE very competitive. A $40k Chevy Bolt is far from being competitive to comparable MSRP $14,455 ’16 Ford Fiesta. Also, biofuels will continue to increase production as a result the negative rating of motor fuel will decrease. Inner city mass transit may be the only exception as autonomous technology and computer control would really magnify the benefit of EV with the ensuing loss of roadway congestion, parking, and pollution. This seems to be the perfect application for EV.

    More economist fear the world economies may be intertwined within a vicious deflation pressure per the older generational logistics and our past leveraging of future wealth. Meaning the long time future a slow slog of low growth, high unemployment, low wages, and dwindling standard of living. This would endure until we slowly pay down debt and start to rebuild. This is the “change” that was once was hyped as good. But, saying that the U.S., especially, has a very impressive flow of invention such as the likes from Amazon, Apple, and the internet trading community that may empower our economy. Think of the biofuel, grid, solar, wind, nuclear, oil technology, auto technology, communications, entertainment, housing, materials, fuel cell, education and the rest. We need to, as a country, to become very flexible and agile and to bust roadblocks to improvement. We need to accept even demand invention and reinvention and eliminate holy political cows of Union organizations, Public ed, and corrupt politicians protecting powerful constituencies from Wall Street to Hollywood.

  7. By ben on August 24, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Well, this ’15 prediction was wrong, yet, underlying factors promoting sustainably higher oil prices remain in play despite temporary price relief. Is this surprising? Not at all, if the influences of the Fed’s financial repression policies are taken to their logical conclusion; artificially suppressed interest rates will eventually sow the seeds of dysfunction across the whole spectrum of financial markets and assets with a concomitant impact on national economies. Artificial stimulants temporarily aiding a run-up in financial assets and equity markets cannot ultimately alter the underlying, real-world forces of supply & demand for both capital and labor.
    In short, monetary manipulations of central bankers attempting to orchestrate soft landings in relief of mismanaged fiscal policies on the part of the ‘ruling class’ will inevitably fall short of the objective. Indeed, these manipulations only serve to hide the mismanagement in such a way as to ensure that the ultimate corrections are far more traumatic than is otherwise necessary or advisable. Alas, the pretensions of such orchestrations must necessarily attend arrangements wherein political leadership, in tandem with the money manipulators, since the instinct to put off until tomorrow the demands of today naturally attend the temptation of expedient characters. Regrettably, contemporary politicians have made an art form of deflecting on the real issues while promoting their more popular (and their own) interests. Don’t believe it? Well, just tune in for a Donald Trump rally and see what it looks like when entertainment “trumps” serious reasoning ;)
    Thanks for the straight talk, RR. No apologies required nor sought!

  8. By neroden on November 28, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    The Saudis have enough cash reserves to keep prices down in the $40 range for *five years*. That will be long enough to kill the shale oil, kill the tar sands, and kill Russian and Iranian oil. They will definitely do this. They don’t have any motive to push it below $40 though.

    • By Robert Rapier on November 28, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      They won’t do it. They would lose the rest of OPEC if they tried.

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