Crude oil: A zero-sum game?

“The current fall in price does nothing to offset the squeeze on the total economy from rising costs,” Grantham writes. “It merely transfers massive amounts of income from one subgroup (oil producers) to another (oil consumers), in a largely zero-sum game….”[Business Insider]

The above quote from Jeremy Grantham made me do a double-take. His “largely zero-sum game” refers to the global playing field. Oil producers such as the Saudis, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria and Iran will earn less per barrel, while oil consumers like China and the EU will gain an equivalent amount per barrel. More importantly, oil consumers will receive a substantial boost to their economies. The “zero-sum game” assumes that crude production will remain constant. But consumption is likely to rise significantly as plunging oil prices deliver more disposable income to consumers, providing a massive stimulus to local economies. That in turn will lead to increased production of crude oil. A win-win for producers and consumers.

The Nymex Light Crude monthly chart shows a breach of long-term support at $75/barrel. Brent crude is in a similar down-trend. Target for the (WTI) decline is $40/barrel*.

Nymex Crude

* Target calculation: 75 – ( 110 – 75 ) = 40

Plunging prices may slow the establishment of new wells, but existing wells are likely to continue pumping as long as the price per barrel of crude is higher than the marginal cost. Marginal costs ignore sunk (or fixed) costs like exploration and establishing a new well. They are merely the variable costs that would be saved — like wages and consumables — if production is halted. Marginal costs are far lower than the producers’ total cost and are not yet threatened.

As for the long-term viability of producers at lower prices, the following chart is worth repeating. Prior to the 2005 “China boom”, the ratio of crude prices to CPI oscillated between 0.1 and 0.2. Over the last few years it has soared to between 0.4 and 0.6. A fall back to 0.2 would harm new, marginal producers (i.e. US fracking) but should not affect core producers. Whether governments reliant on “oil-welfare” — like Russia, Iran and Venezuela — are sustainable is an entirely different matter.

Nymex Crude