Friday, 17 April 2009

Cheap Oil Forever?

This is not a posting to be read by those over at The Standard. I picked up on the following Newsweek article "If It's In the Ground, It Can Only Go Down" via the Carpe Diem blog.
One idea still has the power to capture imaginations and markets: it is that commodities like oil, copper, grains and gold are all destined to rise over time. Lots of smart people believe that last year's swoon in commodities prices represented a short pause in a long-term bull market.

It's a view rooted in powerful and real trends, like the growth of China and India, the decline in global reserves (many of the world's biggest and best oilfields are tapped out), fears over resource nationalization (independent oil firms now control only 20 percent of global reserves) and long-term underinvestment in energy and agriculture, which hampers supply.

Yet the fact is that the world has faced all these issues before, and for the past 200 years, commodity prices have been trending downwards, thanks to new technologies, greater efficiency in extraction and the substitution of one commodity for another (which explains the high correlation between commodities prices).

Bank Credit Analyst, a research firm based in Montreal, has data showing major industrial commodity prices are 75% below where they were in the year 1800, after adjusting for inflation. Despite all the worries over "peak oil," the fact is that the major bear markets in oil have been demand, rather than supply led. And when demand eventually picks up, there's usually some new alternative (nuclear energy, natural gas, green technologies) waiting to pick up some of the slack.

The real price of oil today is now at the same level as in 1976 and, before that, in the 1870s, when oil was first put to mass use in the United States. This long-term price decline is due mainly to the constant discovery of new fields and greater energy efficiency, making nonsense of the idea that the world is rapidly running out of oil. The experience of the 1980s is instructive in the current context as well.

Japan and Europe continued to grow strongly in the 1980s, and yet oil consumption remained essentially flat through that decade as both the regions strived to achieve better fuel efficiency and switched to alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power. Similarly, 90 percent of the growth in new oil capacity since 2004 has come from biofuels, synthetic oil and natural-gas liquids. As countries get richer, their per capita consumption of commodities declines. It's a myth, then, that the boom in China and India will inexorably drive up oil and other commodity prices.

At some point, of course, commodities will spike again, but only temporarily. To date, the centuries-old slide in prices has been marked by long bear markets and short bull runs. Data from CSFB shows that the average bull market in oil has lasted from four to nine years, and the average bear market from 11 to 27 years. The bull market that ended last summer saw prices rise tenfold over nine years, mirroring the duration and magnitude of the previous bull market, which ended in 1979 (see chart above). That was followed by a bear market that lasted 20 years. If history is any guide, we're only at the beginning of another long one.

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