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Arthur Berman

Arthur Berman

Arthur E. Berman is a petroleum geologist with 36 years of oil and gas industry experience. He is an expert on U.S. shale plays and…

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Oil Markets Are Balancing Faster Than IEA Would Have Us Believe

Oil Markets Are Balancing Faster Than IEA Would Have Us Believe

Fundamentals point toward market balance but pessimism is dragging oil prices down. IEA has apparently succumbed to this negativity but their data suggests that things are getting better, not worse.

In a business-as-usual world in which nothing unusual happens, the world will be close to market balance some time in 2016. If anything unusual happens, all bets are off and oil prices could rebound much faster than anyone imagines.

A Year of Extreme Price Cycles

NYMEX WTI futures prices have fallen 34 percent since October 2015, and are below $30.00 per barrel for the first time since 2003. Prices have gone through four cycles of 30-40 percent increases and decreases over the past year (Figure 1).

Figure 1. NYMEX WTI futures prices and price cycles in 2015. Source: EIA, Bloomberg & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

The two price rallies from March-to-June and from August-to-October were based largely on hope and the price decline from June-to-August represented a return to the reality of supply and demand fundamentals.

The most recent price decline that began in October is a bit different. Here, confirmation bias has replaced critical thinking about the oil market. The ruling paradigm is that prices are likely to stay low for years or even for decades and evidence is easily found that favors and confirms this bias. I believe that this paradigm is incorrect.

Despite troubling signals of structural weakness in the global economy, data suggests that the oil market is stumbling toward balance. Although I have said that prices must go lower in order to flush out the zombie producers, IEA’s statement in the January Oil Market Report that the world could drown in over-supply is based more on sentiment and pessimism than on data.

Stumbling Toward Market Balance

The best way to show this is by using both IEA (International Energy Agency) and EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) data. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

IEA data estimates demand—oil use (consumption) plus stock increases—whereas EIA estimates only consumption, a proxy for demand. EIA presents monthly global liquids data while IEA only presents quarterly data. EIA forecasts both supply and consumption a year forward whereas IEA only forecasts demand. Together, the two provide a reasonably full view given the difficulties and uncertainties involved.

IEA data shows that global over-supply (supply minus demand) of liquids was 1.83 mmbpd (million barrels per day) in the 4th quarter of 2015 (Figure 2). Although that is an increase of 250,000 bpd over the 3rd quarter, it represents a 530,000 bpd decrease compared with the second quarter, the highest level of over-supply since the price collapse began in mid-2014. Furthermore, the 6-month moving average (1H MA in Figure 2) of market balance shows that the production surplus is decreasing.

Figure 2. IEA World liquids market balance (supply minus demand) and Brent crude oil price. Source: IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Total supply actually decreased somewhat in the 4th quarter, and it was the seasonal decline in demand that increased market balance. I am not trying to make a case that things are great but simply that the data indicates that things are moving slowly in the right direction. Related:Oil Stages Rebound From Twelve Year Lows

EIA’s monthly data shows that market balance is clearly improving with a decline of almost 1 mmbpd in supply surplus from August (2.51 mmbpd) to December (1.55 mmbpd) (Figure 3). The 4-month moving average (4 MMA in Figure 3) reinforces the observation that the over-supply is decreasing.

Figure 3. EIA Market balance vs. Brent crude oil price. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Much of IEA’s negativity is because of lower forecasted demand growth of 1.2 mmbpd in 2016 (Figure 4). This is based largely on pessimism about China’s unstable economy and declining oil demand, discouraging economic expectations in the developing world, and renewed Iranian production.

Figure 4. IEA annual liquids demand growth and 2016 forecast. Source: IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Let’s put this in context. 1.2 mmbpd is disappointing only compared with 1.7 mmpbd in 2015 but that was the highest demand growth in 5 years. 2016 demand growth is more than the average for 2011 through 2013 when oil prices were more than $100 per barrel, and is one-third higher than in 2014 when the oil-price collapse began. Related: Goldman Sachs Sees Oil Markets Turning Bullish Soon

Annual consumption growth data from EIA (Figure 5) offers a somewhat different perspective suggesting a progressive increase since 2013.

Figure 5. Annual demand growth and 2016 forecast, and Brent crude oil price. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

What conclusions might we reach from this? If we assume that supply remains flat and IEA’s forecast of a 1.2 mmbpd increase in demand is reasonable, the supply surplus should fall to approximately 350,000 bpd. That does not include the wild card of Iranian production.

That is where EIA’s forward estimate of both production and consumption is helpful because Iranian production is included (correctly or incorrectly). Figure 6 shows improving market balance using a 6-month moving average of supply minus consumption to smooth through the month-to-month variations that have characterized market balance since the oil-price collapse began.

Figure 6. EIA market balance (6-month moving average) and Brent crude oil price. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Using this approach, the world liquids supply surplus should decline to approximately 730,000 bpd by the end of 2016 (Figure 7). That would be a decrease in supply surplus of about 1 mmbpd from year-end 2015. This suggests that Iran may add an average of 400,000 bpd in 2016 which seems reasonable although it exceeds EIA’s recent reference case estimate of approximately 300,000 bpd.

Figure 7. EIA market balance (supply minus consumption) vs. Brent crude oil price. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Finally, the Oil and Gas Journal has provided an analysis and forecast of world liquids production that is more optimistic than either EIA or IEA (Figure 8). Related: OPEC At Peak Production

Figure 8. Oil and Gas Journal world liquids supply and demand and 2016 forecast. Source: Oil and Gas Journal & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Their forecast calls for world liquids market balance by mid-year 2016.

The World Is Not Drowning In Oil

The analysis that I have presented assumes the improbable, namely, that nothing unusual happens in 2016. In a business-as-usual world, the oil market will be close to balance this year. The liquids surplus will be about a million barrels per day less than it is today. The world will not be drowning in oil a year from now.

What might happen to complicate this outcome? A supply interruption in the Middle East is likely based on current events in that region. The failure of some large producing nation or a group of smaller nations to maintain production at current prices or because of lack of capital investment is possible. Greater decline in U.S. production than assumed is probable especially after the disastrous full-year financial data is released beginning next month. OPEC and Russia will probably cut production in 2016.

Any of these scenarios or combination of scenarios would affect the oil-market and would probably accelerate movement toward market balance and higher oil prices.

Opinion suggests that little progress has been made in reducing the over-supply of oil in the world and the momentum of pessimism points toward low prices for years to come. Data points toward a different outcome in the relatively near-term.

By Art Berman for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bob on January 22 2016 said:
    as always, a thorough analysis from the top geologist in the country.
  • Kevin Quail on January 22 2016 said:
    Yeah, the IEA has about as good of a track record predicting where oil prices are headed as Dennis Gartman does on commodities- mostly wrong.
  • Kevin Quail on January 22 2016 said:
    And, even Harold Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources, admitted in an interview on CNBC in the last couple weeks that the first year depletion rates on shale wells can be as much as 70%.
  • bill on January 24 2016 said:
    An attempt to shore up a falling prices and a return to spending freely by the Saudis and Russians who are too stupid to save during the times of plenty for the day when supply and demand rears its head against them. I will throw the USA in their also. Boom or bust. They all want their cake and to eat it too. What oil co is paying for this article?. Another article here says there is plenty of storage and me I have see many, many 100-300 car trains of oil parked on tracks throughout western NY that must be repeated throughout the USA. Until the demand comes back worldwide especially China and they start killing themselves with unabated air and water pollution again at record rates, the oil producers will not be happy. What a sick situation. Now is the time to conserve, work on better mileage cars and alternative energy forms. Petroleum should be used mostly for chemical manufacture, not fuel. But that will keep the price low so it will never happen. It is what I will be doing-geothermal, back up generator, solar and wind. 5 years from now-off the grid. And this is nothing compared to the next world war-fought over water. Our kids and grandkids will call this the stupid generation, living only for today and leaving them a mess.
  • Temur on January 24 2016 said:
    errata: The text describes the MA as 6 month in figure 2, but it's really a 2 month MA as it is correctly labeled in the figure.

    Nice article though, thanks. I am a energy bond buyer the last few months and I can use a little good news.
  • Temur on January 24 2016 said:
    The Error was mine, not yours. It is like a 6 month MA because the chart is quarterly.
  • Temur on January 24 2016 said:
    The further out in time the harder it is to forecast supply and demand. The fact that supply exactly matches demand in 2h16 in figure 8 looks suspiciously like a guess. I would like to know what they estimate the error range to be in their prediction please. Also, how accurate have the O&G journal's past supply and demand predictions been?
  • Ace Ibis on January 25 2016 said:
    Given that the notion of price support is out the window and that producers are all in on the supply side,...we can look forward to a systemic downward pressure on price point for sometime (all other factors being equal). That said the only positive news will need to come from the demand side of the equation in the form of economic growth in China and India. The only economies large enough to move the needle outside of the US and Europe.

    Turning back to the supply side; At some point, during the current rate of production, supply is in danger of outstripping standby and strategic storage, including tanker capacity. This will serve as a break on production, as the only option, if we reach that point, will be to 'leave it in the ground'

    In the short to medium term we can be thankful that Libya is not a player due to internal strife as well as the fact that Iran will be hard pressed to improve on 500K bpd due to long term neglect of oil field maintenance, including extraction and transportation infrastructure.

    The other factor is price cutting. Iran and Russia are desperate for hard currency income, and will sell crude to India for example at below market prices to keep production going.


    As long as market share is king, over supply will remain even in the face of a moderate rise in demand. Look forward to $35-$45 oil in the first half of 2016. Not pessimistic by any stretch, simply a medium term adjustment.

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