Is Oil Nervous Enough About Iran and the Saudis?

This last point is particularly interesting.  While U.S. oil supplies have been rising, most of that increase has come from just one source: the Permian basin.  Oil produced in other regions has lagged considerably.  Bakken and Eagle Ford production rose quickly until oil prices crashed at the end of 2014.  Since then production in those regions never recovered.  Nor has there been much increase in production in other regions (Figure 6).

The reason for this is straight forward.  The Permian is better connected to the oil hubs in Cushing, Oklahoma and Houston, Texas than the other regions.  Transport from Midland, at the heart of the Permian, to Houston costs as little as $2 barrel in a pipeline.  By contrast, coming down from the Bakken region in North Dakota, costs around $12 per barrel (Figure 7).  Influenced by transport costs, investment outside of the Permian collapsed after 2014 (Figure 8) even though the productivity of the remaining rigs in those regions remains extremely high (Figure 9). 

If oil prices returned sustainably back up to, say, $70 or $80 per barrel, investment could soar in many different U.S. production regions, vastly expanding oil U.S. supplies and, perhaps, offsetting a large portion of any production lost in the Middle East should a lasting conflict develop.  Even if U.S. production could rise enough to offset any decline in Middle East production, it could take many months to bring greater production on line.  For example, when oil prices hit bottom in February 2016, the number of operating oil rigs did not begin to increase until that June.  Production didn’t start rising until October 2016.  There could be up to an eight-month lag between a sudden move in prices and a lasting increase in production from the Bakken, Eagle Ford and other producing regions.

As such, we suspect that the muted market response to the events in Saudi Arabia probably had to do with high levels of inventories and soft demand in addition to the possibility of greater U.S. production.  That said, the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure crystalized fears about vulnerabilities in the global oil supply that had previous seemed theoretical.  During the past few weeks markets have seemed to forget about the attacks and largely ignored warnings from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that more disruptions could occur in the future.  Moreover, outside of Iran, few OPEC countries can do much to expand supply and most of OPEC supply still transits the Persian Gulf where tensions remain very high. This raises the question: are traders taking threats to Persian Gulf oil supplies seriously enough?

Bottom Line

  • While oil markets reacted strongly the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, the price move wasn’t as big as one might have expected given than 6% of global production came off line.
  • High inventories might have absorbed some of the impact from lost production
  • Soft demand in China, India, Japan and Europe could also have muffled the market reaction
  • The possibility of higher U.S. production could also have muted the gains in the oil market.

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By: CME Group

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