America's power play

Why US oil may join dollar, gold as a safe haven

The U.S.—and the global economy—may have a new safe haven asset: the growing American oil bounty.

A Nabors Industries floor hand uses a towel to wipe drilling fluid from a section of pipe on a crude oil rig outside New Town, N.D.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The sociopolitical upheaval in places like Iraq, Libya and Venezuela has kept oil prices propped up at more than $100 per barrel, underscoring the unstable nature of many oil-producing nations. By contrast, U.S. oil supplies—close to generating 9 million barrels of oil per day—are expanding, and far more secure than most of those abroad. Simultaneously, the U.S. shale boom has become a draw for international capital.

To be sure, gold, the and U.S. Treasurys remain the premier safety assets during times of global distress. Meanwhile, oil market dynamics are overwhelmingly driven by supply and demand that place a "fear premium" on internationally priced Brent crude, and which drag on prices when turbulence abates.

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Still, crude is a long-term asset that attracts both investors and speculators. Meanwhile, America's shale production has put the country on the same terrain as Saudi Arabia and Russia as an energy power. In the process, it's turned a number of assumptions about oil and gas supply on their ear. Many economists have pointed out that fossil fuels are not as pricey as they could be in the face of a world in turmoil.

In recent research, Barclays noted that the "advent of U.S. (shale) oil has made the oil market much less vulnerable to supply shocks than in the past." With OPEC production constrained and non-OPEC supply on the rise, "the market is not as reliant on OPEC to fill supply gaps," the bank said, helping to contain oil's upside. All of that could eventually give U.S. oil a stability premium, some say.

Not only is [U.S.] oil safe, secure and reliable, but it can be an esoteric hedging mechanism, and that's one of the reasons it's pricey.
Richard Hastings
macro strategist, Global Hunter Securities

So does that make U.S. crude a safe haven in all but name? That effect may already be underway, and may be at least one reason behind why prices are so stable.

"In the case of U.S. crude there are a variety of things ... that mark up crude prices, and that includes a hypothetical risk premium to hedge against global disasters," said Richard Hastings, macro strategist at Global Hunter Securities. He argued that the narrowing premium between U.S. light sweet crude and —less than $6 as of Friday—is a manifestation of how the market may be repricing crude to reflect more stable domestic supplies. Last year, the two contracts briefly converged.

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"Not only is [U.S.] oil safe, secure and reliable, but it can be an esoteric hedging mechanism, and that's one of the reasons it's pricey," he said. With so much supply in the marketplace, "crude should not be so expensive, but that's not the case at all," the analyst added.

European refining capacity is diminishing at the same time that U.S. fuel exports are on the rise. Those factors "wind up creating value for our inventory," Hastings said.

'Skeptical' about shale in Europe: Statoil CEO
'Skeptical' about shale in Europe: Statoil CEO

Elevated Brent crude prices, the primary mechanism by which gasoline is priced, have consumers still paying more than $3 per gallon at the pump. However, oil has yet to match the highs seen in 2011, when a wave of uprisings toppled Middle East governments and drove West Texas Intermediate above $114 per barrel and Brent to near $125.

All of which suggests the idea of U.S. crude being a shelter from turmoil abroad may not be as far fetched as it seems. Last year, Goldman Sachs raised eyebrows when it suggested commodities were slowly becoming a stand-in for gold as a safe haven. At the time, the investment bank recommended shorting bullion while going long natural gas, largely in response to the shale revolution.

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Sheryl King, senior director of research at Roubini Global Economics, said the lack of volatility in markets reflects a growing belief that the U.S. recovery has legs.

"In general, people are becoming more confident in the economic cycle, impacting all markets including commodities," she said.

However, King acknowledged that the stability of U.S. crude oil supply was a containment mechanism for oil prices. "The U.S. is a more secure source of energy, and it is largely driven by the private sector," unlike the state-owned entities that dominate OPEC. "In the U.S., those mechanisms don't exist," King added.

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—By CNBC's Javier E. David