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Oil: The case for low for longer prices

What will it take to move the oil price higher again? The prospect of greater Western involvement in the Syrian conflict, coupled with news that stockpiles are falling, has helped push the price higher this week – yet many in the market appear convinced that historically low oil prices are here to stay.

The world's biggest oil agencies: The U.S.'s Energy Information Administration (EIA); the Saudi-led Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), now all forecast a significant decline in supply next year, yet also argue that prices will not suddenly shoot up as a result.


One reason may be that, as soon as the price starts making substantial movements above $50 a barrel, investment will start coming back in, raising supply again.

"We're going through a period of oversupply, in all of the natural resources, and one way to reach a new equilibrium is when tighter credit starts to rebalance the market. As soon as the oil price goes back to $60, the capital comes back, the activity comes back, the supply comes back," Michele Della Vigna, head of European energy research, Goldman Sachs, told CNBC.


The change in focus from Saudi Arabia and OPEC, who have kept supply pumping even as the price has sunk, is another factor keeping prices low.

"Today, if they withdraw a barrel of oil from the market, they encourage the U.S. to produce that barrel. Their policy is going from one of swing producer to one of market share gain," Della Vigna said.

Oil producers have also drastically reduced their cost of production to deal with the price plunges seen in recent years.

There are plenty of outliers to this particular near-consensus. Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, told an audience at Irish economics forum Kilkenomics last weekend that he thinks that the oil price could go as low as $4 a barrel, according to festival organizer David McWilliams, the well-known Irish economist.


Rusted out "pump-jacks" in the oil town of Luling, Texas.
Getty Images
Rusted out "pump-jacks" in the oil town of Luling, Texas.

And oil price watchers, as always, underestimate the Middle Eastern strife at their peril.

The tragic events in Paris may, in the long term, lead to a higher oil price, according to Jodie Gunzberg, global head of commodities at S&P Dow Jones Indices

"The ISIS attack on Paris might be the catalyst to change OPEC's oil market policy of defending market share. Saudi Arabia may need to alter their focus to support defensive measures rather than maintaining oil market share. There is a pivotal question about whether Saudi protects the long-term value of oil reserves or if they defend their role as the pre-eminent Sunni power in the region… both are important," she wrote in a research note Wednesday.