The Opec oil cartel no longer exists in any meaningful sense and crude prices will slump to $50 a barrel over the coming months as market forces shake out the weakest producers, Bank of America has warned.
Revolutionary changes sweeping the world’s energy industry will drive down the price of liquefied natural gas (LNG), creating a “multi-year” glut and a much cheaper source of gas for Europe.
Francisco Blanch, the bank’s commodity chief, said Opec is “effectively dissolved” after it failed to stabilize prices at its last meeting. “The consequences are profound and long-lasting,“ he said.
The free market will now set the global cost of oil, leading to a new era of wild price swings and disorderly trading that benefits only the Mid-East petro-states with deepest pockets such as Saudi Arabia. If so, the weaker peripheral members such as Venezuela and Nigeria are being thrown to the wolves.
The bank said in its year-end report that at least 15pc of US shale producers are losing money at current prices, and more than half will be under water if US crude falls below $55. The high-cost producers in the Permian basin will be the first to “feel the pain” and may soon have to cut back on production.
The claims pit Bank of America against its arch-rival Citigroup, which insists that the US shale industry is far more resilent than widely supposed, with marginal costs for existing rigs nearer $40, and much of its output hedged on the futures markets.
Bank of America said the current slump will choke off shale projects in Argentina and Mexico, and will force retrenchment in Canadian oil sands and some of Russia’s remote fields. The major oil companies will have to cut back on projects with a break-even cost below $80 for Brent crude.
It will take six months or so to whittle away the 1m barrels a day of excess oil on the market – with US crude falling to $50 – given that supply and demand are both “inelastic” in the short-run. That will create the beginnings of the next shortage. “We expect a pretty sharp rebound to the high $80s or even $90 in the second half of next year,” said Sabine Schels, the bank’s energy expert.
Mrs Schels said the global market for (LNG) will “change drastically” in 2015, going into a “bear market” lasting years as a surge of supply from Australia compounds the global effects of the US gas saga.
If the forecast is correct, the LNG flood could have powerful political effects, giving Europe a source of mass supply that can undercut pipeline gas from Russia. The EU already has enough LNG terminals to cover most of its gas needs. It has not been able to use this asset as a geostrategic bargaining chip with the Kremlin because LGN itself has been in scarce supply, mostly diverted to Japan and Korea. Much of Europe may not need Russian gas at all within a couple of years.
Bank of America said the oil price crash is worth $1 trillion of stimulus for the global economy, equal to a $730bn “tax cut” in 2015. Yet the effects are complex, with winners and losers. The benefits diminish the further it falls. Academic studies suggest that oil crashes can ultimately turn negative if they trigger systemic financial crises in commodity states.
Barnaby Martin, the bank’s European credit chief, said world asset markets may face a stress test as the US Federal Reserve starts to tighten afters year of largesse. “Our biggest worry is the end of the liquidity cycle. The Fed is done and it is preparing to raise rates. The reach for yield that we have seen since 2009 is going into reverse”, he said.
Mr Martin flagged warnings by William Dudley, the head of the New York Fed, that the US authorities had tightened too gently in 2004 and might do better to adopt the strategy of 1994 when they raised rates fast and hard, sending tremors through global bond markets.
Bank of America said quantitative easing in Europe and Japan will cover just 35pc of the global stimulus lost as the Fed pulls back, creating a treacherous hiatus for markets. It warned that the full effect of Fed tapering had yet to be felt. From now on the markets cannot expect to be rescued every time there is a squall. “The threshold for the Fed to return to QE will be high. This is why we believe we are entering a phase in which bad news will be bad news and volatility will likely rise,” it said.
What is clear is that the world has become addicted to central bank stimulus. Bank of America said 56pc of global GDP is currently supported by zero interest rates, and so are 83pc of the free-floating equities on global bourses. Half of all government bonds in the world yield less that 1pc. Roughly 1.4bn people are experiencing negative rates in one form or another.
These are astonishing figures, evidence of a 1930s-style depression, albeit one that is still contained. Nobody knows what will happen as the Fed tries to break out of the stimulus trap, including Fed officials themselves.