Arjun N. Murti remembers the pain of the oil shocks of the 1970s. But he is bracing for something far worse now: He foresees a “super spike” — a price surge that will soon drive crude oil to $200 a barrel.
Mr. Murti, who has a bit of a green streak, is not bothered much by the prospect of even higher oil prices, figuring it might finally prompt America to become more energy efficient.
An analyst at Goldman Sachs , Mr. Murti has become the talk of the oil market by issuing one sensational forecast after another. A few years ago, rivals scoffed when he predicted oil would breach $100 a barrel. Few are laughing now. Oil shattered yet another record on Tuesday, touching $129.60 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gas at $4 a gallon is arriving just in time for those long summer drives.
Mr. Murti, 39, argues that the world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil means prices will keep rising from here and stay above $100 into 2011. Others disagree, arguing that prices could abruptly tumble if speculators in the market rush for the exits. But the grim calculus of Mr. Murti’s prediction, issued in March and reconfirmed two weeks ago, is enough to give anyone pause: in an America of $200 oil, gasoline could cost more than $6 a gallon.
That would be fine with Mr. Murti, who owns not one but two hybrid cars. “I’m actually fairly anti-oil,” says Mr. Murti, who grew up in New Jersey. “One of the biggest challenges our country faces is our addiction to oil.”
Mr. Murti is hardly alone in predicting higher oil prices. Boone Pickens, the oilman turned corporate raider, said Tuesday that crude would hit $150 this year. But many analysts are no longer so sure where oil is going, at least in the short term. Some say prices will fall as low as $70 a barrel by year-end, according to Thomson Financial.
Experts disagree over the supply of oil, the demand for it and whether recent speculation in the commodities markets has artificially raised prices. As an energy analyst at Citigroup, Tim Evans, reportedly put it, trading commodities these days is like “sticking your hand in a blender.”
Whatever the case, oil analysts like Mr. Murti have suddenly taken on the aura that enveloped technology analysts in the 1990s.
“It’s become a very fashionable area to write about,” said Kevin Norrish, a commodity analyst at Barclays Capital, which began predicting high oil prices around the same time as Goldman. “And to try to get attention from people, people are coming out with all sorts of numbers.”
This was not always the case. In the 1990s, oil research was a sleepy area at banks. Many analysts assumed oil prices would hover near $15 to $20 a barrel forever. If prices rose much above those levels, they figured, consumers would start conserving, suppliers would raise production, or both, causing prices to decline.
But around the turn of the century, oil company after oil company started missing predicted production. Mr. Murti, who covers oil companies like ConocoPhillips and Valero Energy, decided to study the oil spikes of the 1970s.
Since starting his career at Petrie Parkman & Company, a Denver-based investment firm acquired by Merrill Lynch in 2006, he had been conservative in his calls on oil. But by 2004, he concluded the world was headed for a long supply shock that would push prices through the roof. That summer, as oil traded for about $40 a barrel, Mr. Murti coined what has become his signature phrase: super spike.
The following March, he drew attention by predicting prices would soar to $105, sending shock waves through the market. Angry investors questioned whether Goldman’s own oil traders benefited from the prediction. At Goldman’s annual meeting, Henry M. Paulson Jr., then the bank’s chief executive and now Treasury secretary, found himself defending Mr. Murti.
“Our traders were as surprised as everyone else was,” Mr. Paulson reportedly said. “Our research department is totally independent. Our trading departments have no say about this.”
Over time, Mr. Murti was proved right again. Oil crossed $100 in February. Mr. Murti’s forecasts now feed into many of Goldman’s economic and corporate forecasts, affecting research of companies like Ford and Procter & Gamble. His research is distributed widely among investors.
“Even if you disagree with their views, the problem is that Goldman does carry so much credibility,” said Nauman Barakat, senior vice president for global energy futures at Macquarie Futures USA. “There are a lot of traders who are going to buy based on their reports.”
His sudden fame unsettles Mr. Murti. He rarely grants interviews, citing concerns about privacy, and he declined to be photographed for this article. He is not the bank’s only gas prognosticator: Jeffrey R. Currie predicts oil prices out of London.
Mr. Murti, for his part, discounts suggestions that his reports affect market prices. “Whenever an analyst upgrades a stock or downgrades a stock, sometimes you get a reaction that day, but beyond a day, fundamentals win out,” he said.
Mr. Murti falls into the camp of oil analysts who believe that supply is likely to remain tight because of geopolitical factors. These analysts predict higher prices because production is declining in non-OPEC countries like Britain, Norway and Mexico.
The analysts who predict lower prices say there are supplies of oil that the bullish analysts are missing. “This year will be a year in which supply will be put into the market by stealth by OPEC and by countries we call black-hole countries,” said Edward L. Morse, chief energy economist at Lehman Brothers. China is one example, he said.
But while oil and gas prices have been rising for a while now, Americans have only just begun to reduce gasoline consumption, so their efforts to conserve have not dragged down oil prices.
“The fact that the U.S. gasoline demand can be down and that the U.S. gasoline consumer is no longer driving world oil prices is a monumental event,” Mr. Murti says. He spends most of his time talking to money managers and analysts, many of whom keep asking him if oil prices will stay high if speculators abandon the market, and says he applauds investors for driving up oil prices, since that will spur investment in alternative sources of energy.
High prices, he says, “send a message to consumers that you should try your best to buy fuel-efficient cars or otherwise conserve on energy.” Washington should create tax incentives to encourage people to buy hybrid cars and develop more nuclear energy, he said.
Of course, if lawmakers heed his advice, oil analysts like him might one day be a thing of the past. That’s fine with Mr. Murti.
“The greatest thing in the world would be if in 15 years we no longer needed oil analysts,” he says.