If you follow the oil markets closely, you might be feeling a bit motion sick these days. To call the path of crude oil prices over the last nine months “volatile” would be putting it mildly. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rallied at the beginning of last autumn, hitting a peak of $76.41 per barrel on Oct. 3. From there, WTI plunged, reaching a low of $42.53 the day before Christmas: A decline of 45%. Then, crude started a new rally as 2019 began, eventually zooming back up to $66.30 on April 23, for a gain of 56%. Since then, it has fallen back to about $53, for a loss of roughly 20%. Nauseous yet?
What’s been driving all these ups and downs? Two competing narratives of under- and oversupply. The first, which prompted last fall’s big rally, held that the world would soon find itself short of oil because of the strong global economy and looming U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, which would take key barrels off the market. But when Washington waived some of those sanctions, the market suddenly looked oversupplied, and oil prices tanked. Not for long, though: Anticipation of strong oil demand and concerns that oil exports from Venezuela and Libya would shrink sparked a new rally that lasted through the winter. Then, this spring, investors grew nervous that various trade disputes would weaken the global economy enough to sap oil demand, and prices once again dropped.
Even if you don’t follow the oil markets or invest in oil companies, you probably felt the effects of all these market gyrations. Retail gasoline prices soared this winter and early spring, reaching almost $3 per gallon in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Since then, the national average price of regular unleaded has pulled back by about 20 cents per gallon. (Though drivers in many parts of the country have been paying gas prices that start with a 3 lately, the national average price of regular unleaded hasn’t exceeded the psychologically painful $3 mark since 2014.)
So, what comes next for oil prices? As is usually the case with questions of economics, the answer is: It depends.
Specifically, the outlook for oil prices depends on the overall health of the economy and whether the longest expansion in modern U.S. history can keep going. Overseas, growth is weakening significantly in China and sputtering in Europe. Parts of Latin America look even worse. The U.S. remains in good health, but can that continue when most of the rest of the world is slowing down? A resolution to the trade war between Beijing and Washington would go a long way toward reviving overseas growth, but that is far from a given at this point.
If the economy can keep chugging along, and if the trade picture improves, I think the next move in oil prices will be modestly higher, perhaps after a further dip in the near term. Why? Several reasons.
OPEC and its partner, Russia, have been holding back their oil exports in order to boost prices. It’s not certain the cartel and Moscow will maintain that policy for the rest of this year, but there’s a lot of pressure on them to do so. Current oil prices are not high enough to fund the budgets of OPEC’s petro-state members.
Production losses remain a real concern in two troubled countries, Venezuela and Libya. Venezuela has already seen its output drop significantly in recent months as its economic crisis deepens. Libya is holding up for now, though it remains plagued by internal violence. The U.S. has imposed the previously delayed sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, which have also caused Iranian production to slip.
The latest attack on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf further complicates the picture. Two tankers transiting the narrow Strait of Hormuz with petroleum products were reportedly hit by torpedoes and damaged earlier today. It’s not yet clear what happened or who is responsible, but suspicions that Tehran was involved raise fears of a shooting war between the U.S. and Iran in the oil market’s most vital shipping route.
Here in the U.S., production is booming, but it’s probably ready to take a breather. The latest data from the Department of Energy peg domestic crude output at 12.3 million barrels per day, the highest in the world and up 1.4 million barrels per day from a year ago. That’s helped keep a lid on prices recently. But drilling activity has been slowing, which points to less production growth in coming weeks and months. According to oil-field services firm Baker Hughes, there are about 100 fewer rigs drilling new oil wells now than there were last autumn, when prices were higher.
In other words, there are reasons to believe that global oil supply is going to tighten up a bit.
Stephen Schork, editor of energy investing newsletter The Schork Report, thinks the recent sell-off will come to an end fairly soon. “I think we are at the bottom” for crude prices, he says, especially since, at current prices, many operators in U.S. shale fields will struggle to turn a profit. He’s concerned about the health of the economy right now, but believes much of oil’s recent price slide was sparked by strength in the value of the dollar this spring. (When the dollar rises, commodities priced in dollars become relatively more expensive for overseas buyers, which hurts demand.)
Whatever happens, prepare for more volatility ahead. Oil prices jumped on the news of the damaged tankers in the Gulf, but that price spike could reverse quickly if the situation calms down. Likewise, if global oil production slips a bit and stockpiles of crude in storage start to fall, prices will probably jump. So, keep your motion sickness pills handy, but watch for prices to eventually stabilize and trend higher if the economy can maintain its momentum.