A 'forecasting nightmare': Volatile oil prices are virtually impossible to predict, analysts say

  • Oil prices have soared since the start of the year, due to a number of risk factors such as OPEC-led supply cuts, U.S. sanctions on oil exporters Iran and Venezuela and escalating fighting in Libya.
  • But, alongside mounting concerns about the health of the global economy, surging U.S. crude inventories appears to have capped further gains.
  • Brent and WTI crude futures have risen by approximately 30% and 40% respectively since the start of the year.
A worker on a an oil drill near New Town, North Dakota.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A worker on a an oil drill near New Town, North Dakota.

A flurry of intensifying risks in the energy market has made it "virtually impossible" to confidently forecast the price of oil, industry experts told CNBC on Thursday.

Oil prices have soared since the start of the year, due to a number of risk factors such as OPEC-led supply cuts, U.S. sanctions on oil exporters Iran and Venezuela and escalating fighting in Libya.

But, alongside mounting concerns about the health of the global economy, surging U.S. crude inventories appears to have capped further gains.

"There are so many uncertainties surrounding the oil market that it makes it virtually impossible to predict developments for the rest of the week let alone for months or a year ahead," Tamas Varga, senior analyst at PVM Oil Associates, said in a research note published Thursday.

"There are economic and geopolitical developments to deal with and these can change almost on a daily basis," Varga said. He described oil market conditions at present as a "forecasting nightmare."

International benchmark Brent crude traded at around $71.15 Thursday afternoon, down 0.8%, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) stood at $64.05, around 0.9% lower.

Brent and WTI crude futures have risen by approximately 30% and 40% respectively since the start of the year.

Need to be 'very brave' to forecast oil prices

A dramatic upswing in prices so far this year has prompted President Donald Trump to call on OPEC to ratchet up supply.

The producer group has so far ignored Trump's warnings. OPEC, along with Russia and other non-member countries, is trying to keep 1.2 million barrels per day (b/d) off the market through June, following a collapse in crude prices at the end of 2018.

The production curbs aim to drain oversupply from the oil market and boost prices.

"In a world where we saw Brent at $86 a barrel in October, $50 a barrel in December and now back to over $70, I think it is a very brave person that attempts to forecast what the price will be at the end of the year," Neil Atkinson, head of the oil industry and markets division at the IEA, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Thursday.

Some investors are worried an economic downturn over the coming months could soon start to significantly dent fuel demand.

Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its global growth forecast to the lowest level in a decade.

In a closely watched oil market report published Thursday, the IEA reaffirmed its estimates for global oil demand growth in 2018 and 2019 at 1.3 million b/d and 1.4 million b/d, respectively.

The group also warned a rapid rise in crude futures over the coming months would inevitably hurt consumers — just as it has done in previous months.

On the other hand, Atkinson said prices that "gyrate all over the place" would not be helpful for anyone, most notably energy market participants craving certainty as they assess potential investment opportunities.