The Great Oil Bubble Has Burst

Martin Vander Weyer is editor of Spectator Business

Bad news from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline - an installation that may not normally draw much of your attention, but which is a throbbing artery of global energy supply, carrying vital oil supplies from Central Asia towards a tanker terminal on the Turkish coast. On some remote, sun-baked plain of Anatolia, an explosion sparked a fire earlier this week, temporarily cutting the flow through the pipeline.

But guess what? Here's the good news: the oil price did not zoom upwards in response, not a blip, barely a flicker. Actually the price of a barrel of crude has been falling: from a peak of $145 in early July, it came down to $117 and was trading yesterday at $120. That's almost a 20 per cent drop in little more than three weeks.

Oil barrels

A return to relatively normal oil prices would take the sting out of inflation

If the trend continues into September at anything like the same rate of descent, most of the inflationary spike of the past 12 months will miraculously have been sliced away. This is a dramatic reversal, and it is worth trying to work out why it is happening and what it means.

Just possibly, it means that what investors refer to in shorthand as the great "oil up" story has finally revealed itself not as the fundamental reflection of scarce supply that its adherents liked to claim, but as a simple, speculative bubble that was always going to burst.

The market's conviction that oil prices were set on an unstoppable upswing was underpinned by a set of mantras to be chanted daily before breakfast by anyone hoping to make money by following the crowd: insatiable demand from China; indolent Opec sheikhs unwilling to open the supply taps; that nasty Vladimir Putin playing political hardball with Russia's oil and gas resources; those mad Iranian mullahs hell-bent on nuclear conflict; and beyond all these, the looming threat of "peak oil", the inevitable moment when Mother Earth's carbon-fuel gauge starts pointing towards empty.

One way or another, said the fundamentalists, the only destination for oil prices in the medium term was somewhere north of $200 a barrel. And hooray to that, chorused the green lobby, because it may be the only thing that will ever make us wake up to the need to stop cooking the planet with carbon emissions.

Layered on top of these long-term factors were the short-term headlines. As a matter of market psychology for the past several years, any news item suggesting temporary disruption of supply - rebel activity around Nigerian refineries, strikes in Venezuela, hurricane warnings in the Gulf of Mexico, Anatolian shepherds lighting their cooking fires beside a leaking pipeline - has motivated oil traders to push prices upwards: sometimes just long enough to turn a quick buck before settling back for the next jump, but always trending higher.

Now the psychological tide seems to be turning. On the supply side, Saudi Arabia, the dominant member of Opec, is now signalling greater willingness to open the oil taps. When the princes of the desert made a rather smaller gesture of willingness in that direction in June, the market took no notice and prices marched on. But in the new mood, any hint of an increase in Saudi supply is a reason to mark down prices.

As for the Russians and the Iranians, the pundits have remembered that even the most externally truculent or internally turbulent of energy-exporting nations can feed its people at home only by selling its natural resources abroad, so must ultimately stay on good terms with its customers.

And meanwhile, five years of rising oil prices have provoked a wave of investment in new drilling and refinery capacity - including the opening up of inaccessible oil sources that no one wanted to tackle when prices were low. Whether it is deep under the Arctic ice-cap or soaked into the tar-sands of northern Alberta, there turns out to be quite a lot more oil waiting to be exploited before we really approach the peak-oil apocalypse. More than that, high oil prices have encouraged rapid development of such alternative energy sources as wind and solar power, and more efficient engine and heating technologies.

On the demand side, a shuddering deceleration in economic activity across the industrialised world is starting to take pressure away. Many economists think the downturn will be deep and painful, and Opec (whose predictions are naturally at the low end of the range) thinks demand for its output could be lower in the early part of the next decade than it was in 2006.

In the motor industry, the talk is of plunging sales of gas-guzzlers, as drivers on both sides of the Atlantic switch to smaller, fuel-efficient cars - or simply cut out non-essential mileage. Even in China, for all the Olympic razzamatazz, a fall-off in Western demand for cheap manufactured exports must soon lead to at least a tempering of growth in energy demand.

Reading these tea leaves, if you are a hedge-fund manager who has spent the past year smugly amassing "oil up" positions in sophisticated financial instruments, you will certainly be trying to get out of them now: hence the sheer speed of the recent falls.

There is a long-running argument as to just what proportion of any commodity price movement can be traced to speculative activity by hedge funds and others, and what proportion to physical demand. But when the oil price swings up or down by $5 or more in a single day, you may be sure that the fluctuation is not being caused by a sheikh on one end of the line arguing with the manager of your local petrol station on the other: it is the financial parasites in between who are moving the market.

Less sophisticated, perhaps, are the more traditional oil players, who have simply been holding tankers full of the sticky stuff offshore while the barrel price was rising. They will now be instructing their captains to steam into port sharp-ish and unload at the best cash price they can get.

And where will that price be by mid-autumn, after a couple more months of gloom-laden statistics from the industrialised economies? Perhaps, with all the speculative fizz taken out of it, down by as much as a half from its June peak. That's not to say it won't go up again when the signals change and all those long-term factors loom large once more.

But for the time being, a return to a relatively "normal" oil price in the $60 to $80 range would take the sting out of the current inflationary surge, and that in turn would allow the Bank of England to contemplate cutting interest rates to stave off recession and help the housing market. Keep your fingers crossed, and keep your eye on how oil traders react to titbits of bad news.
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