Quietly, oil has moved back to the $100/bbl level.
This is quite different from January, when it first hit the magic $100/bbl number. Financial players had jumped on the trend from November as crude rose above $80/bbl, and then wanted to ‘get out at the top’. Their thinking was that a US recession would reduce demand for oil, and so prices would fall. Now, however, more fundamental forces seem to be taking prices higher, and causing the 'shorts' to cover their positions.
The problem for the chemicals industry is that this purely speculative behaviour creates additional volatility. And with $120bn already ‘invested’ by financial players in commodities, much of it in oil, companies must assume that ‘speculative volatility’ will increase.
The behaviour of financial players is not the only uncertainty currently driving oil prices. Apart from the impact of geo-political issues such as Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela, four key questions will influence the direction of oil prices in 2008:
• Does OPEC care that higher oil prices will damage the western economy? In the past, the answer would have been ‘yes’, but recent signs (their decision to ignore President Bush’s plea for lower prices last month) imply their thinking may have changed.
• Can net non-OPEC supply increase as much as expected this year? Production from existing fields in Mexico and the N Sea has recently been decreasing faster than expected. This means more new oil has to be produced, to make up the difference.
• Will Asian and OPEC countries continue to subsidise oil products? If they do, then higher world prices will have no effect on the countries where fastest demand growth is taking place.
• Will financial players and pension funds see oil as a hedge against a falling US$? Some are already viewing the ‘US recession’ argument from a different angle, and believe it will force the Fed to cut interest rates back to 1%, causing the US$ to fall further.
The downturn in the global economy has been impacting chemical margins since the summer. Profits have been hit, as key customer industries such as housing, autos, and retail became more price conscious. Demand has also been slowing, as higher oil prices acted as a tax on Western consumption. Now feedstock volatility is likely to increase, due to the growing influence of financial players. CEOs and CFOs therefore need to ensure that proper risk management tools are in place to protect margins.