“There must be some way out of here….”


….said the joker to the thief..Ben Bernanke has brought cheer to the world by claiming that inflationary pressures are easing as a result of the fall oil and other commodity prices.

I suppose any good news in the current climate is better than another kick in the teeth, but the big questions are: how far can crude fall and what’s the long-term price of oil that can be afforded chemical producers with no access to advantaged feedstock?

Some of the froth has been taken out of the speculation in commodities as a result of the stronger dollar and a fall in demand for the filthy black stuff in the West. For example, Goldman Sachs estimates that developed countries will use 500,000 fewer barrels a day this year than in 2007.

But emerging market demand will grow by 1.3m barrels a day in 2008 with a 5% increase in consumption in China, the same bank adds. This has led Goldman Sachs to conclude that crude prices will rebound to $149/bbl by the end of the year.

Demand destruction in the West might be occurring. For example, the US could have as many as 12 million fewer motorists by 2015 as those earning $25,000 a year or less get by on one rather than two cars per family.

But for every American that is forced to make do with only one set of wheels there will be hundreds of people in developing countries earning enough to buy their first car.

On a global basis it’s therefore more accurate to talk about demand relocation rather than demand destruction.

During the heady days of 2006 everybody in the chemicals industry was making money, even those who are seriously feedstock-impaired. Profitability remained strong for the better-integrated liquids-based producers up until Q4 of last year.

The last couple of quarters have been so dismal that it’s understandable that the recent fall in crude has raised expectations the worst might be over.

But you will be hard-pressed to find many energy experts willing to take a punt on prices returning to their levels of a couple of years.

The fundamentals of tight supply haven’t changed over the last few weeks as oil prices have retreated – just as much of developing world demand growth will more than compensate for less consumptiion in West.

Rising capital costs mean a lack of sufficient investment in new supply.

Whether or not you believe that Peak Oil is upon is almost irrelevant for the next few years because the lack of investment – also the result of increased resource nationalism – means that the reserves that do exist are not being adequately tapped.

And the irony of the slightly lower oil prices of the last few weeks is that exploiting tar sands and other marginal oil reserves, which require very high capital costs and great technical skills, will seem less attractive. Perhaps this is what the Middle East wants…..

If you don’t an advantaged feedstock, either through a position in the Middle East and/or being very smart at refinery/petrochemical integration, you’ve got big problems.

Maybe there is no way out of here….

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