Looking back on a wild year for oil prices For the oil market, 2018 has been a roller coaster ride. Ups and downs are always expected, but the twists and turns seen this year were exceptional by any standard.
In January 2018, oil prices had climbed to multi-year highs, with the supply surplus finally ebbing, after several years of a downturn and more than a year of production curbs by the OPEC+ coalition. Inventories were declining rapidly and Venezuela was entering a steep downward spiral that promised even more production losses. Brent topped $70 per barrel and seemed to be heading higher.
But what unfolded in the ensuing months nobody could have predicted. And that was true on many fronts.
The IEA expected the US would add 1.3 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2018, while the US EIA predicted growth of 1 mb/d. In reality, the US added about 1.5 mb/d in 2018, and preliminary data suggests US production in December 2018 will be 1.6-1.7 mb/d higher than the same month a year earlier.
That surprise pales in comparison to some of the geopolitical developments. The Trump administration launched a trade war with China, and few, if any, experts would have predicted that by the third quarter of 2018 the US would have tariffs on more than $200 billion worth of imports from China.
More directly relevant to the oil market was the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. At the start of 2018, there were clear warning signs that this might occur, so it was not entirely surprising. But few would have predicted that Iran sanctions would turn out to be one of the dominant narratives for the oil market in 2018. More surprising than the initial sanctions on Iran was the series of waivers issued in November to allow Iran to continue to export oil, a seeming capitulation on the behalf of the Trump administration to high oil prices.
At the start of 2018, OPEC+ was gaining confidence, presiding over a period of strong inventory drawdowns and higher oil prices. By mid-year, the group had grown worried that they may have tightened things too much. With steep losses from Iran expected by November, OPEC+ decided in June to ratchet up output.
That resulted in another one of the year’s big surprises: the run up in prices in September and October, and the crash that unfolded beginning in November. OPEC+ closes out the year in a worse situation than at the beginning of 2018 – oil prices in freefall, surging US supply, and the group once again trying to get a handle on an oversupplied market.
Another major surprise this year was the end of “global synchronized growth,” the return of financial volatility, and the looming danger of a broad economic slowdown. At the start of the year, global stocks were booming and US GDP looked as strong as it had at any point in the last few years.
That brings us to the start of 2019. There are no fewer sources of uncertainty next year than there was this year. Analysts are arguably a bit humbler regarding US shale, with forecasts on the pace of growth running the gamut. Most forecasters acknowledge that growth could surpass expectations yet again. The ironic thing is that 2019 might actually see a shale slowdown, now that WTI has crashed below $50 per barrel.
OPEC+ has its work cut out for it in 2019. The supply cuts of 1.2 million barrels per day, from today’s vantage point, have by traders as a sufficient response to the market’s current predicament.
Iran sanctions are in place, but the waivers expire in May. It would be imprudent to try to predict what the Trump administration might do on this issue, but the prospect of steeper supply losses loom.
The largest source of uncertainty comes from the cracks in the global economy. Tightening interest rates, in both stocks and bonds, currency fluctuations and slow growth could spell trouble for oil. The US-China trade war – now ostensibly on pause – could reignite as soon as March.
The outlook at the beginning of 2019 is set to look dramatically different than it did a year earlier. Oil prices are low and demonstrating extraordinary weakness. A year earlier the market was gaining strength for the first time in years. The global economy is currently souring instead of gaining strength. OPEC+ is looking to expand its supply reductions, not planning on how to unwind them. Meanwhile, US shale could (just maybe) begin to slow to more pedestrian growth levels. A year ago the shale machine was accelerating.
No doubt many of the forecasts being formulated today will be proved wrong, perhaps wildly off base, by the end of 2019. Then again, that’s perhaps the one assumption we can be sure of.
This was originally published on