Oil prices touched $100/bbl today, a new record in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms. At the same time, the US Institute of Supply Management (ISM) index signalled that the manufacturing sector ‘failed to grow in December’, with ‘industries close to the housing market struggling more than others’. All the ISM’s main indicators were negative, with inventories also reported to be moving in the ‘too high’ direction.
It is difficult to underestimate the psychological importance of oil reaching the $100/bbl level. I first identified the potential for this to happen 6 months ago on 5 July (just as this blog began), when I suggested $100/bbl could be reached ‘early next year’. But at the time, this was a distinctly minority view. The price then was only $71/bbl, and many expected it to retreat to the $50/bbl level seen at the start of 2007.
I noted on 14 July, as oil rose to $79/bbl, that leading retailers Wal-Mart and Tesco were already reporting that consumers had become more conscious of value-for-money issues. I commented that CEO’s needed to develop ‘a major cost-leadership programme’ for September rollout, in order to respond to this twin challenge of higher feedstock costs and increasing consumer price resistance.
By August, I had also become concerned that the combination of the subprime disaster and high oil prices could provide ‘a distinctly unhealthy cocktail’ for the global economy. With OPEC proposing only a small increase in oil supplies as we came into the northern winter, plus ‘weakening US demand and credit markets’, I worried that chemical company profits could well be hit.
I repeated this concern in mid-September, when prices were still at $79/bbl, and concluded that ‘higher oil prices have always slowed the world economy in the past. Their impact may have been deferred this time, but it is hard to believe that it has been avoided’.
My EPCA posting confirmed this concern. I found myself worrying that the consensus forecast was too complacent, expecting $70/bbl crude and reasonable chemical demand and margins for 2008. Instead, I suggested that the meeting ‘will mark a turning point in the petchem cycle’.
By mid-October, I was pointing out that crude had risen to $90/bbl, and worried that ‘this latest upward rush by the oil price will be the catalyst that finally causes the US consumer to cut back on non-essential spending’. I suggested that companies should develop contingency plans for a 2008 downturn, even whilst hoping these would not be needed.
By the end of October, crude had reached an all-time high in inflation adjusted terms of over $92/bbl. And I questioned the reliability of Western inflation figures that sought to portray inflation at ‘only’ 2%, despite massive increases in the prices of food and energy. I worried that we would see ‘margin compression’ in the industry, as central banks belatedly woke up to the risk that inflation might become a real problem again.
Paul Satchell, chemicals analyst at ING shared my concerns, believing that investors had become ‘dangerously complacent about the industry’s ability to cope with increases in oil prices’. Whilst TOTAL’s CEO added to my worries in early November when I reported his view that ‘increasing tightness of supplies will keep oil prices relatively high in the future’.
By December, I noted that ‘the dialogue between oil producers and consumers is starting to break down’. I suggested that ‘the price and availability of oil is absolutely critical to the chemical industry. Growing uncertainty around these key issues is already leading to increased price volatility, which in turn will reduce margins and profitability’.
During December, we had a significant fall in the price to below $90/bbl. But the experience of previous oil price surges in 1973-4 and 1979-80 was that when the rally finally ended, prices stabilised at the new, higher, level. They did not collapse. It would therefore be a triumph of hope over experience to expect the 2007-8 surge to be different. And, of course, the worst of the northern winter is possibly still to come.