Oil prices of near $100 per barrel caused alarm in consuming countries in 2007, and analysts forecast another tense crude market next year with triple-figure records a real prospect.
Despite a murky outlook for the world economy, crude prices are seen settling at elevated levels, spelling more pain for consumers and a steady flow of petrodollars for the world’s oil exporters.
From a low point of just below $50 per barrel in January, prices doubled in 2007, hitting $99,29 a barrel on November 21, an all-time record.
Oil forecasting is a notoriously difficult business, but few had expected such a run-up — apart from an analyst at investment bank Goldman Sachs who has achieved some fame for foreseeing early in 2005 a ”super spike” in prices to $105.
”People at the beginning of this year would never have dreamt that prices would have reached such exalted heights,” said a London-based analyst for the Centre for Global Energy Studies (CGES), Leo Drollas.
Goldman Sachs, one of the most active banks in the energy market, raised its price forecasts for 2008 by $10 on December 12, with average benchmark United States prices now seen at $95. The price could reach $105 by the end of 2008, it said.
The CGES sees an average of about $90 in the first half of the year and Drollas said a spike to $100 was a possibility, above all if a cold northern-hemisphere winter increased demand for heating fuel.
”There are conditions in which we would see well over $100 per barrel, such as a cool winter, tightness of Opec [Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] supplies, or non-Opec supply not growing as much as predicted,” he said.
World oil prices on Monday traded above $94 a barrel ahead of the Christmas holiday, underpinned by generally strong US economic data suggesting that energy demand in the world’s largest consumer may not weaken as much as anticipated.
A US report showed that consumers shook off a slump in housing and tight credit and boosted spending by a stronger-than-anticipated 1,1% in November. The Commerce Department report also showed that personal incomes rose by 0,4%, a notch weaker than forecast.
Prices are also being supported at the moment by lingering concerns about supply during the northern-hemisphere winter.
The US has nonetheless been battling crises on two fronts. In the housing sector, prices are falling sharply and an increasing number of people are defaulting on home loans. That, in turn, has led to tightening corporate credit conditions, notably among banks holding securities backed by US home mortgages.
Despite prospects for slower growth, analysts at investment bank Merrill Lynch earlier this month pointed to upside risks to oil prices in early 2008.
”We start 2008 with the lowest OECD industry stocks recorded in four years, resulting in upside risks to near-term prices, particularly in the event of a colder-than-normal northern-hemisphere winter,” they said, upping their 2008 average price forecast to $82.
The OECD area includes the 30 industrialised member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The 13-member Opec is the only player in the oil industry capable of bringing down prices, but the cartel shrugged off calls for more crude at a December meeting in Abu Dhabi. It is held responsible by many for the surge in prices in 2007 by restricting supplies to take down stock levels deliberately in industrialised countries.
”Opec has not been pumping enough. It’s as simple as that,” said Drollas.
Kirsch at PFC said 2007 was the year of ”the re-emergence of Opec” after many had said the influence of the organisation, which pumps 40% of world oil, had waned.
He also said the ”financialisation of oil”, or the use of oil as an investment product for speculators and even pension funds, was a key theme of 2007 that was set to continue in 2008. ”It started late last year. We’re now seeing different types of investors,” he said. ”Before it was primarily hedge funds; now we’re seeing pension funds, which are very conservative investors, taking long-term positions in oil as part of a larger portfolio strategy.”
Opec members have railed against the role of ”speculative” money, which they blame for volatility and high prices.
One factor expected to have less of an influence in 2008 than in previous years is a key geopolitical driver of prices for the past years: Iran. A recent US intelligence assessment said the Islamic republic, the second-biggest producer in Opec, had shelved its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, sharply reducing the risk of conflict in the Middle East. — Sapa-AFP