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Oil investors are trying to survive a brutal start to the year. They're coping with crude prices sinking to 12-year lows as Chinese demand falls and ballooning U.S. stockpiles fuel fear.
Relief, however, may be on the way. One top analyst expects prices to triple back into the $90 a barrel range by 2018. At present, few analysts expect crude prices to recover that sharply.
But before the markets get there, the pain could intensify.
"It looks like a rough year," Wolfe Research managing director and senior oil and gas analyst Paul Sankey told CNBC's "Fast Money" recently. "Our base-case scenario is not for a full-blown recession," but the firm is "pretty negative" on the year.
Yet Sankey thinks the end might be in sight. He said he expects prices to average in the $40 a barrel range in 2016 — about $10 higher from current levels. Once the current turmoil ends, and OPEC overcomes its inability to forge a consensus on production cuts, Sankey believes the market will eventually head higher as excess capacity gets used up.
At that time, oil will retest levels above $90, he added.
In that scenario, Sankey likes the refiners the best. "Our bull case for refining is about U.S. gasoline demand being strong," he added. "At a given point if things get bad enough, the big oils will outperform on balance sheet."
The biggest wildcard to Sankey's forecast: A recession.
"It is definitely a possibility. There's no question about that," he said.
Trader disclosure: Wolfe Research Sr. Analyst Paul Sankey: No conflicts.