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Swings in Price of Oil Hobble Forecasting

The extreme volatility that has gripped oil markets for the last 18 months has shown no signs of slowing down, with oil prices more than doubling since the beginning of the year despite an exceptionally weak economy.

Oil traders on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, New York.
AP
Oil traders on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, New York.

The instability of oil and gas prices is puzzling government officials and policy analysts, who fear it could jeopardize a global recovery. It is also hobbling businesses and consumers, who are already facing the effects of a stinging recession, as they try in vain to guess where prices will be a year from now — or even next month.

A wild run on the oil markets has occurred in the last 12 months. Last summer, prices surged to a record high above $145 a barrel, driving up gasoline prices to well over $4 a gallon. As the global economy faltered, oil tumbled to $33 a barrel in December. But oil has risen 55 percent since the beginning of the year, to $70 a barrel, pushing gas prices up again to $2.60 a gallon, according to AAA, the automobile club.

“To call this extreme volatility might be an understatement,” said Laura Wright, the chief financial officer at Southwest Airlines , a company that has sought to insure itself against volatile prices by buying long-term oil contracts. “Over the past 15 to 18 months, this has been unprecedented. I don’t think it can be easily rationalized.”

Volatility in the oil markets in the last year has reached levels not recorded since the energy shocks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Costanza Jacazio, an energy analyst at Barclays Capital in New York.

At the close of last week’s trading, oil futures fell $2.58, to $66.73 a barrel, after rising above $72 a barrel last month.

These gyrations have rippled across the economy. The automakers General Motors and Chrysler have been forced into bankruptcy as customers shun their gas guzzlers. Airlines are on pace for another year of deep losses because of rising jet fuel costs.

And households, already crimped by falling home prices, mounting job losses and credit pressures, are once more forced to monitor their discretionary spending as energy prices rise.

While the movements in the oil markets have been similar to swings in most asset classes, including stocks and other commodities, the recent rise in oil prices is reprising the debate from last year over the role of investors — or speculators — in the commodity markets.

Government officials around the world have become concerned about a possible replay of last year’s surge. Energy officials from the European Union and OPEC, meeting in Vienna last month, said that “the speculation issue had not been resolved yet and that the 2008 bubble could be repeated” without more oversight.

Many factors that pushed oil prices up last year have returned. Supply fears are creeping back into the market, with a new round of violence in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta crimping production. And there are increasing fears that the political instability in Iran could spill over onto the oil market, potentially hampering the country’s exports.

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The OPEC cartel has also been remarkably successful in reining in production in recent months to keep prices from falling. Even as prices recovered, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have been unwilling to open their taps.

Top officials said that OPEC’s goal was to achieve $75 a barrel oil by the end of the year, a target that has been endorsed by Saudi Arabia, the group’s kingpin.

“Neither the organization, nor its key members, has any real interest in halting the rise in oil prices,” said a report by the Center for Global Energy Studies, a consulting group in London founded by Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a former Saudi oil minister.

But unlike last year, when the economy was still not in recession and demand for commodities was strong, the world today is mired in its worst slump in over half a century. The World Bank warned the recession would be deeper than previously thought and said any recovery next year would be subdued.

The International Energy Agency held out the prospect that energy demand was unlikely to recover before 2014. Yet the indicators that would traditionally signal lower prices — like high oil inventories or OPEC’s large spare production capacity — do not seem to hold much weight today, analysts said.

“Crude oil prices appear to have been divorced from the underlying fundamentals of weak demand, ample supply and high inventories,” Deutsche Bank analysts said in a recent report.

Investors are betting that the worst of the economic slump may be coming to an end, and are bidding up what they perceive will become scare resources once demand kicks back again, analysts said. This uncertainty is making it difficult for companies to plan ahead, they said.

“People do not like that kind of volatility, they want to know what their costs are going to be,” said Bernard Baumohl, the chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

For the global airline industry, the latest price surge is certain to translate into more losses this year, according to the industry’s trade group, I.A.T.A. Airlines are expected to post losses of $9 billion this year, following last year’s losses of $10.4 billion. “Airlines have not yet felt the full impact of this oil price rise,” according to I.A.T.A.’s latest report.

At Southwest Airlines, for example, fuel accounts for about a third of the company’s costs, according to Ms. Wright, the chief financial officer. The experience of the past year, she said, “has convinced us we cannot afford to not be hedged.”

The company has currently hedged part of its fuel use for the second half of the year at $71 a barrel, and for 2010 at $77 a barrel. Hedging acts as an insurance policy if prices rise above these levels.

But last year, Southwest reported two consecutive quarters of losses, as prices spiked and collapsed — all within a few months. “Prices were falling faster than we could de-hedge,” Ms. Wright said.

To survive the slump, many airlines have cut routes and raised both fares and fees, like charging for luggage, while some of the industry’s top players have merged. For example, Delta Air Lines bought Northwest Airlines last year, and in Europe, Lufthansa of Germany bought Austrian Airlines and Air France-KLM acquired Alitalia of Italy.

Likewise, automobile showrooms emptied out as gasoline prices rose, forcing General Motors and Chrysler to cut production sharply as they wade through bankruptcy. Meanwhile, they are under pressure from Washington to improve their fuel ratings.

“Do not believe for an instant that sport utilities are making a comeback,” George Pipas, Ford’s chief sales analyst, told reporters last week.

But to Jeroen van der Veer, who retired as chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell last week, prices are increasingly dictated by long-term assessments of supply and demand, rather than current market fundamentals. He advised taking a long-term view of the market.

“Oil has never been very stable,” Mr. van der Veer said. “If you look at history, you have to expect more volatility.”

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