Debunking ‘Lower Oil Supply Will Raise Prices’

We often hear the statement, “When oil supply is lower, oil prices will rise because of scarcity”. Now, we are getting to see firsthand whether oil prices really do rise, as oil supplies become more scarce.

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Figure 1. Figure from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report for August 2019 showing world and OPEC oil production by month.

Figure 1 shows that world oil supply hit a peak in November 2018 and has declined since then, mostly because of a decline in OPEC’s production. So, total oil production seems to be down for about eight months, relative to the peak in November 2018.

Despite this big cutback by OPEC in its oil production, prices have not responded as OPEC had hoped:

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Figure 2. Average monthly spot Brent Oil prices, based on EIA data.

In fact, as I write this, Brent oil price is currently quoted as $60.48, which is back in the range of December 2018 and January 2019 low prices. Also, reducing production doesn’t seem to be reducing inventories. Figure 3 suggests that they are now higher than they were before the reduction in oil supply took place.

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Figure 3. Figure from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report for August 2019 showing OECD commercial oil stocks.

Why aren’t oil prices rising and oil inventories falling, if oil production has fallen?

The basic issue is that the economy is very much interconnected under the laws of physics because energy is required for every activity that is considered part of GDP. Energy is required for any kind of heat or any kind of movement. Energy is even required for electricity. Without energy from the sun, food can’t grow; without supplemental energy of some kind (such as using electricity to heat an electric stove or burning animal dung or sticks), it becomes impossible to cook food or smelt metals.

One strange phenomenon that arises from the interconnected nature of the economy is the fact that the prices of all energy products (including those not listed on Figure 4) tend to move together.

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Figure 4. Comparison of changes in oil prices with changes in other energy prices, based on time series of historical energy prices shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. The prices in this chart are not inflation-adjusted.

This strange phenomenon arises because energy products are well-buried within every part of the world economy. A person’s job requires energy consumption. The tasks that governments do, such as building roads and schools, require energy consumption. Both transporting and cooking food require the use of energy products. Refrigerating food requires energy products. These energy uses, as well as many other everyday hidden uses of energy, aren’t things that we can easily cut back on.

Consumers often think, “I will drive less, and that will cut back on my energy consumption.” Unfortunately, in the whole scheme of things, whether or not individuals cut back on their optional use of gasoline doesn’t get the world economy very far. Gasoline accounts for about 26% of world oil consumption, or about 8.7% of total energy consumption, based on the most recent BP energy data. Cutting back on the optional use of gasoline would not reduce total consumption very much. If it were possible to reduce gasoline consumption by 10% by voluntary cutbacks, it would still reduce world energy consumption by less than 1%.

The strange pattern of the price changes shown on Figure 4 indicates that there is something affecting energy prices of many kinds, simultaneously. I would describe this as “affordability.” It has to do with how affordable finished goods and services are to the population in general, much more than it does scarcity. (Economists call this affordability issue “demand.”) If finished goods and services are affordable to a large number of consumers, as they were in 2008 and in 2012 and 2013, prices will be bid up to very high levels (Figure 4). If finished goods and services aren’t very affordable, a drop-off in prices, such as that experienced in November and December of 2018 (Figure 2), is likely to occur.

When OPEC decided to cut back its production of oil in response to the low prices in late 2018, this cutback in oil production didn’t help the affordability of finished goods and services. In fact, this cutback probably made the worldwide total quantity of affordable finished goods and services a little lower. This happened because, with the cutback in oil production, the governments of OPEC countries were able to collect less tax revenue on the smaller quantity of oil that the countries were selling. In fact, this smaller quantity of oil wasn’t even being sold at a higher price.

With lower revenue, governments of OPEC countries are being forced to cut back on funding of new projects such as roads and schools. These projects will use fewer energy products, and the would-be workers will have less money to spend on goods made with energy products. Thus, these cutbacks help to lower the world’s “demand” for oil and other energy products and thus help lower the price of oil.

The fact that the economy is interconnected in this strange way makes shifting prices upward much more difficult than if scarcity were the primary issue. In effect, the whole stack of energy prices in Figure 4 must somehow be made to rise. This is difficult to do because it is the lack of wages of the many poor people around the world that is holding back “demand” for energy products. If somehow, higher wages could be sprinkled on the many poor workers of the world, including those in India and Africa, then oil (and other energy) prices would tend to rise. With higher wages, these poor people would be able to afford items such as nice homes, cars, and air conditioning, pulling world food and energy demand upward.

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