Volte-Face Investments believes that it is …
The Last Two Oil Crashes Show Peak Oil Is Real
- Recent oil crashes show you the hard floor for gauging value oil company equities.
- Properly understood, the crashes lend an insight into the concept of Peak Oil.
- All oil equity investors should understand the overarching upward trend on display here.
Note: ALL prices used in this article are using current 2015 dollars, inflation adjusted using the
US BLS inflation calculator.
Generally, when I invest, I try to keep my thesis very simple. Find good companies, with good balance sheets and some kind of specific catalytic event on the horizon. But when one starts to concentrate their holdings in a sector, as I have recently in energy (see my recent articles on RMP Energy (OTCPK:OEXFF) and DeeThree Energy (OTCQX:DTHRF), you need to also get a good handle on the particular tail or headwinds that are affecting it. Sometimes a sector like oil (NYSEARCA:USO) can be subjected to such forces, like the recent oil price crash, where almost no company specific data mattered.
One of the biggest arguments, normally used by proponents of owning oil stocks as core holdings, in the energy sector is “Peak Oil.” For the unfamiliar, it is a theory forwarded first by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s regarding U.S. oil production. Essentially, the theory stated that the U.S. would reach a point where the oil reserves would become so depleted that it would be impossible to increase oil production further, or even maintain it at a given level, regardless of effort. This would inevitably lead to oil price rises of extreme magnitudes.
Since those early beginnings, the details have been argued over in an ever-evolving fashion. The argument has shifted with global events, technological developments, and grown to encompass nearly every basin in the world (even best-selling books have been written about peak oil like Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy by Matt Simmons about a decade ago) consuming endless bytes of the Internet in every kind of investment forum and medium of exchange.
In general, I believe that the term “peak oil” is a highly flawed one. Some picture peak oil in a Mad Max fashion, with oil supplies running out like a science fiction disaster movie. Others simply dismiss peak oil as having failed to predict these so-called peaks repeatedly (the world is producing a record amount of oil right now, so all previous absolute “Peak Oil” calls below these amounts are obviously wrong). But what people should be stating when they use these terms is a Peak Oil Price.
Using my own thinking and phrasing, I believe civilization has probably passed $25 Peak Oil. This means that if you set the oil price to $25 a barrel, there is no method available to humanity to provide enough oil to meet demand over any period of time that’s really relevant. I also believe we are in the middle of proving that we have also passed $50 Peak Oil. My final conjecture here is that we will prove in the near-term future to have reached $75 Peak Oil. I don’t believe we are quite at $100 Peak Oil.
Notice that in my formulation the term Peak Oil is always stated as a peak price. Oil is not consumed in a vacuum. The price affects the demand the world has for the product and simultaneously changes the ability of all sorts of entities (businesses and governments) to retrieve deposits of it. This is what I hope to prove in this article.
So what data could I bring to this crowded table?
Well we have one thing we now have that previous entrants into the Peak Oil melee didn’t, which is the recent price crash in oil. Peak oil is often falsely portrayed as a failed idea since it hasn’t resulted in a super squeeze to ultra high prices. These spike prices are viewed as the really critical element by energy investors since they are trying to find the best case. After all, who doesn’t want to own an oil producer if they can identify a spot in which oil prices will rise to some enormous number.
But that is the wrong way to go about it for your oil investments over the long haul. Because what $50 Peak Oil really provides is a floor. In a world where we have passed $25 Peak Oil, it should be impossible, without exogenous events of enormous magnitude (world war, etc.), to press the price of the product below that price. If you could do so, you would immediately disprove the thesis. You would then know the floor provided by whichever peak oil price level you selected was wrong. The same idea seems to hold true for $50 Peak Oil now.
To prove this “floor” we need to choose times of extreme stress in the oil markets, and look at those oil prices and see what the bottoms were. For these examples, let’s select WTI oil, whose weekly average prices are reported all the way back to 1986 by the EIA.
Let’s take the three big crashes in the oil markets. I will use a full year’s average to try to smooth out the various difficulties presented by weather, seasonal effects, or various one-off events (outages, etc.). The first crash I will use as a benchmark is The 1986 Oil Crash. The 1986 breakdown was a supply crash, caused by supply swamping demand. How big a disaster was it for the oil industry?
In 1986, the Saudis opened the spigot and sparked a four-month, 67 percent plunge that left oil just above $10 a barrel. The U.S. industry collapsed, triggering almost a quarter-century of production declines, and the Saudis regained their leading role in the world’s oil market.
This was quite a crash obviously. Triggering a 25 year decline? Not going to find a lot worse than this. So in inflation adjusted dollars what was WTI oil at for the year of 1986? It sold for around $32 a barrel. Now let’s note that at this time WTI crude was actually at a higher price vs. Brent and other world prices. On a Brent basis, crude would have been just around $25 for the year. This will prove to be an important point in a short while.
The next crash we will use to benchmark was the 2008 Financial Crisis. On this website, I should hope that this world crisis will need no introduction and little explanation. This crash in oil prices (and just about every other thing priced by human beings) was a demand crash. The financial disintegration across the world led to massive drops in demand, as jobs were lost across the world by the millions. So with this demand crash what was the average price of WTI crude in the year 2009? It sold in that year for a little over $60.
The last crash I will add is the current drop, starting sometime around October by my reckoning. I would find it hard to imagine any reader of this article is unfamiliar with the current situation in North America or the world regarding oil, at least in a headline sense. This seems to be a supply crash again, where North American-led tight oil drillers have caused an increase in production that the world’s demand couldn’t handle at the $100 price level. Since then, prices have dropped down to a level that suppresses the production of oil and enhances demand.
In the first four months of 2015, the North American oil rig count has already dropped by more than 50% as compared to last year and the demand for oil has begun to increase according to EIA statistics. The current price of WTI oil has been just over $49 as an average for the year 2015. However, let us note that WTI oil now sells for a large discount to world prices, and during the previous two crashes, WTI sold for a premium.
Now we have three data points. Each one is a fairly long period of time, not just a single week. We know that the world in 1986 nearly ended for the oil industry, yet in current dollars, WTI oil was unable to trade for a year below $30 a barrel. Then we had in 2008 and 2009 an economic crisis which was widely described as being the most dire financial disaster since WWII. In 2009, WTI oil still ended up trading well over the 1986 low. In fact it was nearly double that price. This shows just how hard it can be using almost any technique to push oil prices below a true peak number.
Now we have another supply led crunch. One that is widely described as the worst oil crash since 1986, a nearly 30 year time gap. We are attacking the oil price from the supply side instead of 2008’s demand side. Yet thus far, in 2015, oil is still trading more than 50% higher than the 1986 year average, inflation adjusted. In fact, WTI, when adjusted for its current discount to world prices, is trading close to its 2009 average price. Again, nearly double the price of the 1986 crash.
What does this all mean for investing? It means to me that $25 Peak Oil is behind us. You couldn’t really hit and maintain that number in the 1986 crash when many more virgin conventional reservoirs of oil were available. Despite the last three oil crises, not one of them could get WTI oil to $25 and keep it there. Now, using much more expensive oil resources (shale fracing, deep water drilling, arctic development, etc.), it doesn’t seem like the last two disasters have been able to press WTI oil much below $50 for a material length of time. In this recent crash, the $50 floor was able to be reached only with several years of hyper-investment made possible by the twin forces of sustained high prices and access to ultra-cheap capital. Both of these forces are no longer present in the oil markets.
Therefore, I think using a $50 Peak Oil number is a very reasonable hard floor to use when stress testing your oil stocks. It means that when I am choosing a stock that produces oil, it can survive both from supply and the demand led crashes using the worst the world can throw at it.
Some will say this reasoning is simplistic. One could claim any number of variables in the future (technology, peace in the Middle East, etc.) could change all the points I am relying on here. But we have thrown everything at the oil complex between 2008 and now; both from the supply side and the demand sides; breakdowns of the whole world economy, wars, sanctions, natural disasters, hugely stupid governmental policies, OPEC’s seeming fade to irrelevance, biofuels, periods of ultra-high prices, technological progress, electric cars, etc. Yet, here we stand with these numbers staring us in the face.
In conclusion, I feel these price points prove the reality of $50 Peak Oil (WTI). If WTI oil averages more than $50 in 2015 (which I strongly feel the data shows will happen), then it will confirm my thesis that no matter what happens in the world, human beings cannot seem to produce the amount of oil they require for less than that number. Therefore, one will know what the hard floor for petroleum is provided by the hugely complex interplay of geology, politics, economics, and technology by simply measuring those effects on one easy-to-measure point of data, namely price. This version of peak oil also means I have a minimum to test my selections on. I can buy companies that can at least deal with that floor, then make large profits as the prices rise from that hard floor. All oil fields deplete, and for the past twenty years, the solution has universally been to add more expensive technological solutions, exploit smaller or more physically difficult deposits, or use more expensive alternatives. The oil market does not have the same options available to it like it did 1986. Large, cheap conventional oil deposits are no longer available in sufficient supply, which is likely what the oil price is telling us by having higher Peak Floors during crashes. Without the magic of sustained ultra high prices, the investment levels that made this run at the $50 Peak Oil level will not exist going into the future. This means that the Peak Oil floor price should be creeping higher as a sector tailwind, giving a patient and selective investor a tremendous advantage for themselves.