By Brian Noble
No one should underestimate the impact of AI (artificial intelligence) on the future of the entire capital markets complex. The LinkedIn group, Algorithmic Traders Association, has recently been running a series of articles warning of the seismic shift that is and will continue to be felt in the global hedge fund industry as machines take over from people on trading desks.
But what intelligent human being would ever suddenly have turned bullish on the morning of Monday 15 May 2017 just because of renewed jawboning from Saudi Arabia and Russia, indulging in the same old two-step as they did at Doha in April 2016 and Vienna in November of last year. That is however precisely what the machines did. Hallelujah.
In the past couple of weeks, crude oil futures really did a round trip. First, they took a beating. WTI futures fell on May 4th to $45.52 per barrel, coming down from an April peak of $53.40, hitting the lowest point since the deal between OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers was signed last November. Since then, WTI has rallied up above $49 on as confidence grows over an OPEC cut. So is this more noise or a portent of things to come?
Despite the occasional rally, it’s hard to see that the outlook for oil is encouraging on both fundamental and technical levels. The charts look to be screaming double top for WTI, while the fundamentals seem to be saying Economics 101: too much supply, too little demand. The parallel with 2014 is there if you want to see it.
At the heart of the matter is the same old cast of characters that recur again and again. What’s different this time is the rise in cheap U.S. production, primarily shale. While it’s perfectly true that there isn’t enough U.S. shale to flood the world with oil, a lot of what there is is historically cheap to produce so as to give crude from the Middle East a real run for its money; and a solid proportion of that production has been sold forward at attractive levels in the futures market ensuring financial stability for U.S. producers.
This growing price competiveness is nothing new. In the Bakken, for example, the average breakeven cost per barrel was $59.03 in 2014, which fell to $29.44 in 2016, a reduction of 50 percent in just two years. Meanwhile, U.S. oil production has risen to approximately 9.3 million barrels a day and is estimated by the EIA to reach 10 million barrels a day by 2018. In the meantime, crude oil inventories remain stubbornly high. Most recent EIA data puts crude oil inventories at 527.
8 million barrels, stuck at the higher end of the 5-year range.
In a recent and highly informative article in Business Insider originally published in The Motley Fool and using energy industry consultant Rystad Energy research, author Matthew DiLallo shows that it costs Saudi Arabia around $9 per barrel to breakeven, Russia $19 and U.S. shale a little over $23. That said, the simple average of Saudi/Russian breakeven would be about $14, a number which can only go higher, while U.S. shale breakeven is declining significantly, with production also growing significantly. So who’s going to win this one?
DiLallo sums it up nicely: “Saudi Arabia has the lowest oil production costs in the world thanks to two strategic advantages: Abundant pools of oil close to the surface and no taxes on production. Because of that, it can make money in almost any oil price environment. That said, Saudi Arabia made a mistake by trying to use its low costs to kill the shale revolution; it only made shale stronger.”
Let the Saudis and their close allies the Russians do whatever it takes. Because they’re going to have to do a lot more than that.