Trump accused OPEC of jacking up oil prices. Here's what he means

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Friday accused OPEC of keeping oil prices artificially high.
  • OPEC, along with Russia and several other producers, began limited their output last year to clear a glut of oil that has weighed on prices since 2014.
  • The agreement is widely seen as stopping a devastating price slide, but the president appears to think that the producers have now boosted oil prices too much.
Donald Trump
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President Donald Trump's broadside against foreign oil producers on Friday took investors by surprise and included some notable inaccuracies about the state of the oil market.

On Friday, Trump aimed his social media firepower at OPEC, tweeting that the 14-member producer group is keeping crude prices "artificially high."

@realDonaldTrump: Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!

There's a lot to evaluate in that statement, so CNBC broke it down and checked the president's facts.

"Looks like OPEC is at it again": What is OPEC doing and why?

OPEC worked out a deal with Russia and several other nations at the end of 2016 to remove 1.8 million barrels a day from the market. The two dozen oil-producing countries agreed to limit their production to clear a glut of crude that sent prices from more than $100 a barrel in 2014 to about $26 in 2016.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, actually refused to take action at first, arguing that the glut was caused by a flood of new U.S. oil production. The Saudis instead bet that U.S. drillers with high production costs would be forced to cut output, and that would drain the oversupply.

Instead, American drillers cut costs, kept pumping and oil prices continued to fall. That heaped pressure on nations and U.S. states that depend on oil revenue, bankrupted about 200 American energy companies and wiped out hundreds of thousands of jobs.

After prices bottomed in 2016, OPEC worked out the deal with Russia and began limiting its output in January 2017. The producers have since extended the agreement to run through the end of this year.

Are there really "record amounts of Oil all over the place"?

Yes and no, but mostly no.

While U.S. oil output has recently risen to all-time highs above 10 million barrels a day, many of the world's biggest oil producers are purposely limiting their production and pumping below record levels.

OPEC's output caps have also shrunk the amount of oil sitting in storage around the world. The group's goal is to whittle down stockpiles in developed countries to the five-year average.

Those inventories stood at just 30 million barrels above that level in February, the International Energy Agency said last week. These stockpiles peaked in 2016 and have since fallen.

What about "the fully loaded ships at sea"?

Trump could have meant several things when he said this, but this part of the tweet is misleading.

Oil shipped by sea is actually down 48 million barrels from a peak at the start of the year, according to data from tanker-tracking firm ClipperData. The amount of crude loaded on ships around the globe averaged 50 million barrels a day last month, down from a record 52 million barrels a day last July.

While U.S. exports have recently hit highs above 2 million barrels a day, top oil exporter Saudi Arabia has cut its shipments to help balance the market.

Traders also store oil in floating tankers, but here too, those levels are down 25 percent from their high in the middle of 2017.

"Storage at sea has dropped, which is what you would expect because the market is in backwardation, which disincentivizes storage, be it onshore or offshore," said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData

So are oil prices "artificially Very High"?

That's up for debate.

Trump's accusation may have been fueled by recent reports that Saudi Arabia would like oil prices to rise to $80 to $100 a barrel. Those higher prices would support the planned stock market debut of the kingdom's energy giant, Saudi Aramco, industry sources who spoke to Saudi officials told Reuters and Bloomberg.

Some analysts are doubtful that's official Saudi policy, but the reports have fueled speculation that the Saudis will lobby against winding down the production deal even if that's what's best for the market. That could cause prices to spike as the world's appetite for oil outstrips supply.

But if Trump is criticizing the OPEC deal itself, that would make him something of an outlier. The market generally sees the agreement as a necessary measure that stopped a devastating price crash. OPEC is viewed less as a manipulator and more of a manager.

It's worth noting that Trump and his polices are at least partially responsible for oil prices hitting their highest levels in more than three years in recent weeks. His decision to launch air strikes in Syria this month contributed to geopolitical tension in the Middle East. His threat to restore sanctions on Iran next month has also raised fears about supply disruptions from OPEC's third biggest producer.

Is OPEC's price support "No good"?

That depends on who you ask.

Oil-producing nations and energy companies surely welcome higher oil prices, which have stabilized their finances and returned many drillers to profit after years of pain.

But the rebound means higher prices at the pump. A gallon of regular gasoline is currently fetching an average $2.75 at U.S. filling stations, up from $2.42 a year ago, according to AAA.

However, there's an argument to be made that the best thing for both consumers and producers is stability. Sky-high oil prices hurt consumers and ultimately shrink demand for fuel, while super low prices discourage energy companies from making investments in future production, which can lead to undersupply and price spikes.

OPEC's action "will not be accepted": What can Trump do?

Unlike many oil-producing nations, the U.S. government can't tell drillers how much to produce. That means Trump can't ask companies to flood the market to offset OPEC's production cuts. Even if he could, American drillers are already pumping at all-time highs.

The Trump administration has developed a close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so it's possible he will appeal directly to the kingdom to change its policy.

The U.S. president also controls the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a stockpile of emergency crude supplies that currently stands at 665.5 million barrels. The government sometimes sells oil from the reserve to raise revenue, but it would be unprecedented for a sitting president to threaten to use the SPR as a weapon.