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Wall Street sees a recovery for oil prices in 2019 — but there's plenty of risk to that forecast

Key Points
  • Oil analysts forecast a moderate recovery for crude prices after as sharp pullback in the third quarter.
  • Brent crude is seen averaging about $68-$73 a barrel, up from prices below $55 today.
  • However, analysts say any number of economic and geopolitical risks could cause oil to spike or slump beyond that range.
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The oil market will be a tale of two halves in 2019, according to Wall Street forecasters.

Oil analysts see prices recovering in the first six months of 2019, following a sell-off that has slashed the cost of crude by about 40 percent since October. But in the back half of the year, commodity watchers anticipate new headwinds for the oil market.

The upshot is Wall Street expects a moderate recovery for oil in 2019. Investment banks see Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil prices, averaging about $68-$73 a barrel next year. Forecasts for U.S. crude mostly fall in a range between $59-$66 a barrel.

Last week, Brent briefly dipped below $50 a barrel for the first time since July 2017, while U.S. crude bounced off a 1½-year low at $42.36. Both benchmarks have lost more than 40 percent of their value amid darkening forecasts for growth in oil demand and surging output from top producers the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

While the outlook looks brighter in 2019, end-of-year research notes are filled with warnings that oil prices could spike or slump outside of that range. The risks range from closely watched macroeconomic factors like the U.S.-China trade dispute to underappreciated threats emanating from refineries in Asia.

The road to recovery

The key drivers behind the anticipated rally in the opening months of 2019 are OPEC policy and North American oil production.

OPEC, Russia and several other producers in January will launch new production cuts that aim to remove 1.2 million barrels per day from the market. The producers began capping output in January 2017, but lifted the curbs in June ahead of U.S. sanctions on Iran, OPEC's third-biggest producer.

The alliance will get a hand in course correcting from Alberta, Canada. Officials there have ordered producers to slash output by 325,000 bpd in order to drain brimming stockpiles of oil. Storage tanks have filled up because the province doesn't have enough infrastructure to transport crude.

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Pipeline bottlenecks are also putting a lid on U.S. production growth. Takeaway constraints in the nation's top shale field, the Permian Basin underlying western Texas, are largely expected to persist at least through the first half.

But in the back half of 2019, U.S. output flips from a bullish boost to bearish drag in oil markets. Once new pipes start bringing Permian oil to market, American output is expected to surge and put fresh downward pressure on crude prices.

OPEC could offset that surge by extending its production cuts, which expire in June. The alliance will meet in April to determine whether market conditions warrant keeping the curbs in place.

Plenty of risk in forecasts

However, doubts about the effectiveness of the OPEC cuts underpin one of the most bearish forecasts on Wall Street. Ed Morse, global head of commodities at Citi, said the supply caps encourage U.S. drillers to put more crude on the market and "almost certainly" set up another sell-off.

Iran's exports are also expected to drop further heading into May, when sanctions waivers for several of the Islamic Republic's biggest customers expire. The Trump administration granted the six-month exemptions in order to prevent a price spike. It stands that oil prices will play a major role in President Donald Trump's calculus when the waivers expire.

"If prices stay in the low $60s, the Trump administration would have even more leeway not to grant waivers," said Michael Cohen, head of energy markets research at Barclays. "In our view, only if prices spike above the $80 level would the US not enforce continued significant reductions in Iran's ability to export."

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Macroeconomic conditions will also play a role. Analysts see economic growth remaining fairly robust in early 2019, supporting an increase in fuel demand. However, that growth is expected to slow heading into 2020.

"As we look ahead, we expect oil demand growth to remain firm in the next couple of quarters as our economists forecast a turnaround in manufacturing PMI and industrial production," said Abhishek Deshpande, head of oil market research and strategy at J.P. Morgan Chase.

"However, this recovery is unlikely to last as structurally demand should slow in 2019-20 based on our economists' projection for GDP," Deshpande wrote in J.P. Morgan's latest quarterly outlook.

The biggest economic risk is that tit-for-tat tariffs between the U.S. and China devolve into a full-blown trade war. The world's two biggest economies could impose tariffs on all goods shipped between the two behemoths if they don't clinch a final deal in the coming months.

An economic slowdown in China could have significant impacts on energy markets because Asia is the engine of oil consumption, while demand is fairly anemic in developed Western countries. While Asia has delivered in recent years, the oil market's reliance on the region for growth nevertheless creates downside risk for crude prices, according to RBC Capital Markets.

In fact, the biggest threat to the oil market in 2019 emanates from China, according to RBC analysts. While China has been sopping up lots of crude, it has also been churning out huge volumes of refined products like gasoline. The firm warns that a glut of Chinese fuel could create contagion throughout the global oil market.

According to RBC, "continuing down the path of the current elevated refinery run rate would intensify gasoline balances that are already downward spiraling and potentially kick off a domino effect in which a gasoline glut created in the East ultimately reverberates westward and results in an oil market led lower by an oversupply of refined product."