OPEC seeks lower oil prices

Economic growth, Futures trading, Oil markets

OPEC are sounding a note of concern about the impact of high oil prices on the world economy. Hasan Qabazar, OPEC’s chief economist said yesterday ‘We are trying, hopefully, to reduce high oil prices, to have prices that are more conducive to economic development’.

Qabazar also emphasised OPEC’s desire to help counter any impact from the subprime downturn in the US, stating that this had put ‘some clouds’ over the forecast for global GDP growth of 5% next year. ‘We are trying to avert a slowdown’, he added, as ‘we are afraid that prices may play a part in the slowdown, and we want to avert that if possible’.

Oil traders ignored OPEC’s comments today, sending NYMEX prices to a new record $79.29/bbl. They also ignored OPEC’s two agreements to increase quotas by 500,000 bbls/day, and to ‘normalise’ the basic quota in line with recent actual production (which effectively added another 900,000 bbls/day to the quota). Even the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) decision to reduce its Q4 demand estimate by 250,000 bbls/day, and its 2008 demand estimate by further 180,000 bbls/day, had no impact on the euphoria.

This does support the CGES view, mentioned here on 5 July, that players in oil futures markets are trend followers rather than leaders. Most of the ‘technical charts’ appear to show that oil prices remain in an upturn, and are poised to break $80/bbl. This supposed ‘momentum’ drives the ‘paper’ traders to buy more, encouraged by the widespread consensus that the oil price doesn’t matter any more to the world economy.

The IEA has played a key role in sustaining this idea, with its continuing forecasts of large increases in demand. So it is interesting that it has now begun to reverse itself on this critical point. Having just been in Asia, it would certainly seem that higher oil prices there are already affecting demand in those countries where subsidies don’t exist. And they are also prompting subsidising governments to review the level of support that they can afford to provide.

My own view is that the liquidity boom in financial markets and the high oil price may well have been inter-connected. The ready availability of credit meant that consumers (and governments) could borrow, instead of having to cut back expenditure as the higher costs of oil reduced their cash-flow. Now, however, we are entering a credit squeeze, and growth in US gasoline demand has already begun to slow.

Futures traders may well continue to ignore OPEC for a while, and the risk to supply from geo-political events remains very real, so one cannot discount the potential for even higher prices, if circumstances conspire together. This could make an already difficult situation worse. 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.

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