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OPEC is ‘manipulating sentiment, not supply’ with oil deal, says former WH aide

Market watchers who put stock in OPEC's proposed deal to cut oil output should prepare for history to repeat itself, according to a former energy advisor to President George W. Bush.

Just as crude prices surged ahead of OPEC's April meeting in Doha, Qatar, and its informal Algerian summit last month before fizzling out, the current runup is premature and won't end well, said Bob McNally, founder and president of energy consulting firm The Rapidan Group.

"OPEC has been extraordinarily successful at manipulating sentiment, not supply. Despite having increased production by … almost 900,000 barrels a day since they started talking about a freeze in February, they have been very successful in getting the market to believe they're going to act," the former White House aide told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Tuesday.

U.S. crude had its best close since October 2015 and Brent struck a one-year high on Monday after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country was ready coordinate output limits with OPEC. Crude prices gave back some of those gains on Tuesday amid a flurry of comments from oil ministers at an energy conference in Istanbul.


People carrying umbrellas walk by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Heinz-Peter Bader | Reuters
People carrying umbrellas walk by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

On Tuesday, the International Energy Agency said the global crude oversupply could wind down more quickly if OPEC and top oil producer Russia agree to substantial output cuts. But Goldman Sachs said "higher production from Libya, Nigeria and Iraq are reducing the odds of such a deal rebalancing the oil market in 2017."

McNally said he expects prices to remain range bound until OPEC meets in Vienna on Nov. 30 to finalize a deal to pare back production by several hundred thousand barrels a day.

Ultimately, the cartel will likely to stick to its target of reducing its output to between 32.5 million to 33 million barrels a day for a sixth-month period, in McNally's view.

But he cautioned that top oil exporter Saudi Arabia will actually only return to a "normal" production level slightly above 10 million barrels a day after ramping up output to 10.6 million barrels in August — meaning the deal will be a freeze in name only.

"They'll call that a freeze because they're cherry picking August's surge level, but that's smoke and mirrors. Really, what'll happen is Saudi Arabia is going back to a normal operating level — about 10.2, 10.1 — and we'll stay there through the spring, and they will hope the market shows signs of rebalancing on its own."