Thursday, December 31, 2015

Question #7 for 2016: What about oil prices in 2016?

by Bill McBride on 12/31/2015 12:05:00 PM

Over the weekend, I posted some questions for next year: Ten Economic Questions for 2016. I'll try to add some thoughts, and maybe some predictions for each question.

Here is a review of the Ten Economic Questions for 2015.

7) Oil Prices: The decline in oil prices was a huge story at the end of 2014, and prices have declined sharply again at the end of 2015.  Will oil prices stabilize here (WTI is at $38 per barrel)?  Or will prices decline further?  Or will prices increase in 2016?

First, Josh Zumbrun at the WSJ has a review of 2015 forecasts compared to what actually happened: What Economic Forecasters Got Right, and Wrong, in 2015

Crude Oil

Average forecast for December 2015: $63/barrel
Actual as of December 29: about $38/barrel

None of the forecasters in the survey saw the price of oil being below $40 this month. Throughout the year, economists have continued to forecast that oil prices would regain some of their lost ground and have been continually disappointed.
Forecasters did a poor job on oil prices (including me).  Oil prices are difficult to predict with all the supply and demand factors.

The reason prices have fallen sharply is supply and demand. It is important to remember that the short term supply and demand curves for oil are very steep. 

In the long run, supply and demand will adjust to price changes.  But if someone asks why prices have fallen so sharply recently, the answer is "supply and demand" and that the short term supply and demand curves are steep for oil.

As I noted last year, the keys on the short term demand side have been the ongoing weakness in Europe and the slowdown in China.   There has been an increase in demand in the US, but that has been more than offset by global weakness.  Will Europe recovery in 2016? Will China's growth increase? Right now it looks like more of the same, so I expect the demand side to stay weak again in 2016.

The supply side is even more difficult.  There are volatile regions that have increased supply, such as from Libya and Iraq.  And there will be more supply from Iran in 2016.  Will be there be a 2016 supply disruption in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, or some other oil exporting country?  That is a key geopolitical question.

And what about tight oil production in 2016?   At the current price, it would seem fracking would be uneconomical for new wells (existing wells will continue to produce).  We've seen some decline in US oil production, but the decline in supply has been fairly small.  As an example, production in North Dakota peaked at 38.1 million barrels in December 2015, and is only down to 34.6 million barrels in September.

It is impossible to predict an international supply disruption, however if a significant disruption happens, then prices will move higher. Continued weakness in Europe and China seems likely, however sluggish demand will be somewhat offset by less tight oil production.  It seems like the key oil producers (Saudi, etc) will continue production at current levels.  This suggests in the short run (2016) that prices will stay low, but probably move up a little in 2016.  I'll guess WTI will be up from the current price by December 2016 (but still under $50 per barrel).

Here are the Ten Economic Questions for 2016 and a few predictions:

Question #1 for 2016: How much will the economy grow in 2016?
Question #2 for 2016: How many payroll jobs will be added in 2016?
Question #3 for 2016: What will the unemployment rate be in December 2016?
Question #4 for 2016: Will the core inflation rate rise in 2016? Will too much inflation be a concern in 2016?
Question #5 for 2016: Will the Fed raise rates in 2016, and if so, by how much?
Question #6 for 2016: Will real wages increase in 2016?
Question #7 for 2016: What about oil prices in 2016?
Question #8 for 2016: How much will Residential Investment increase?
Question #9 for 2016: What will happen with house prices in 2016?
Question #10 for 2016: How much will housing inventory increase in 2016?