Why is the oil price falling?
Mostly because of increased supply from America—up by 4m barrels a day since 2009. Although most crude exports are still banned, American imports have plummeted, contributing to a glut on world markets. Other producers have decided not to try to curb their production and keep the price up.

Highly indebted companies are going bust, with knock-on effects on investors.

Oil Slump Extends to a Fifth Week as Global Glut Seen Expanding

Why?
The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries is dominated by Gulf producers, notably Saudi Arabia. They have huge reserves to cushion the impact of low prices. They also hope that the slump will eventually shut down high-cost production, tightening the market again.

Are they right to think that?
Probably not. America’s shale production boom is based on new techniques—fracking and horizontal drilling—and unlike “big oil” involves small companies and small projects. These are flexible, meaning they will quickly respond to any price rise. And they are innovative: huge productivity gains still lie ahead.

What about the other producers?
Other producers such Nigeria and Venezuela are indeed hurting badly. But OPEC solidarity stretches only so far. Russia tried and failed to get OPEC support for a production curb—and is now ramping up its production in the hope of protecting the volume of oil revenues.

Will low prices continue?
It looks like it. Some high-cost production is closing, but once wells are drilled, it usually makes sense to keep pumping, even at a loss. It is better to make a little money rather than none. And the shale revolution is marching on.

How low can the price go?
If your correspondent could forecast that, he would be on a yacht reading The Economist rather than at a desk writing for it. But much below $40 will sharply increase bankruptcies, and the pressure on OPEC to curb production. Cheap energy also leads to higher demand.

What happens next?
The debate about lifting America’s ban on crude exports is firing up. The petrochemical and steel lobbies are fighting a rear-guard action against big oil. America’s domestic crude (light and sweet) is unsuited for the nation’s refineries (configured for sour and heavy imported oil)—but would make a lucrative export.

Who benefits from low prices?
Winners necessarily outnumber losers (imagine a world in which energy was free). Consumers have more cash in their pockets; industry enjoys lower energy costs, makes bigger profits, and pays more taxes. And it is a great time for companies with strong balance-sheets to make acquisitions.

And who suffers?
The oil industry’s immediate reaction is to squeeze costs out of its supply chain. So wages and margins are falling fast. Highly indebted companies are going bust, with knock-on effects on investors. But lower costs help the industry adapt and increase efficiency.

UPDATE March 19

 

(Bloomberg) — Oil trading near the lowest price in six years is headed for a fifth weekly drop amid signs the global supply glut is worsening.

Futures were little changed in New York after falling for the seventh time in eight days on Thursday. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries needs to keep its production target unchanged to maintain market share, said Kuwait, the group’s third-largest member. Iran may increase oil exports within months of reaching a deal on its nuclear program, according to U.S. and European officials.

Oil has renewed its slump after losing almost 50 percent last year as U.S. crude stockpiles expand to the highest levels in more than three decades, even as drillers idled the number of active rigs to the fewest since 2011. OPEC maintained its quota at 30 million barrels a day in November, resisting calls to curb output amid surging supply from shale producers.

“The demand-supply imbalance is going to need to be fixed by an adjustment to supply,” Ric Spooner, a chief strategist at CMC Markets in Sydney, said by phone. “Traders are waking up to the harsh reality of the U.S. inventory builds and it’s getting difficult to ignore that.”

West Texas Intermediate for April delivery was at $43.92 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down 4 cents, at 11:39 a.m. Sydney time. The contract, which expires on Friday, closed at $43.46 on March 17, the lowest since March 2009. The volume of all futures traded was about 81 percent below the 100-day average.

Crude Supplies

WTI’s more active May contract was 21 cents higher at $45.74 a barrel. Front-month prices have decreased 18 percent this year.

Brent for May settlement was 15 cents higher at $54.58 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. It slid $1.48 to $54.43 on Thursday. The European benchmark crude traded at a premium of $8.85 to WTI for the same month, compared with $9.83 on March 13.

OPEC, which supplies about 40 percent of the world’s crude, has no plans for an extraordinary meeting to discuss ways to shore up prices, Kuwait Oil Minister Ali Al-Omair said in Kuwait City. The 12-member group, scheduled to gather on June 5, pumped 30.6 million barrels a day in February, exceeding its quota for a ninth straight month, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

World powers have offered to suspend restrictions on Iran’s oil exports if the Islamic Republic accepts strict limits on its nuclear program for at least a decade, said U.S. and European officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Crude stockpiles in the U.S., the world’s biggest oil consumer, gained by 9.62 million barrels to 458.5 million through March 13, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s the highest level in weekly records from the Energy Department’s statistical arm dating back to August 1982. Production climbed to 9.42 million a day, the fastest pace since at least January 1983.

Protect your portfolio from the tax man http://www.youroffshoremoney.com