Intermediate-term outlook for oil
The oil price surged at the end of August last year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but it had been trending higher for some time prior to that event; Katrina's destruction of oil production facilities just prompted the final flurry of buying that created 'the top' and set the stage for an intermediate-term correction. Interestingly, the price action surrounding the recent top looks similar to the price action surrounding the 2005 Katrina-related top. In the most recent case the Israel-Hezbollah conflict provided the news backdrop that prompted the flurry of buying that MIGHT have resulted in an intermediate-term price top.
We have been and continue to be long-term bulls on oil. Furthermore, we strongly believe that the world desperately NEEDS a much higher oil price in order to make the massive reserves of non-conventional oil economic. We are, however, guilty of not being bullish enough on oil on a short- or intermediate-term basis during 2004-2005. Perhaps we are once again going to be guilty of not being bullish enough on oil in the short- or intermediate-term, but with economic growth looking set to decline over the coming quarters a considerably higher oil price is going to require a major supply disruption. There's always a significant risk of a major supply disruption in the oil market because so much of the world's oil comes from politically unstable countries, and for this reason alone we would never want to be 'short' oil. But even given the current situation in Lebanon, we don't think a Middle-East-related supply disruption is a high probability outcome as far as the next few months are concerned. There is, of course, the possibility that a hurricane will shut-down a lot of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico this year as it did last year, but this, also, is not a high probability outcome.
As far as the next few years are concerned, our expectation is that the oil price will reach the $100/barrel price target that's been bandied about over the past 15 months. We also expect that oil will UNDER-perform some other commodities, most notably natural gas and gold. The reason is that the oil price is extremely high relative to the prices of these other commodities. We discussed oil relative to natural gas last week, so this week we are going to take a look at oil relative to gold and have included, below, a long-term chart of the gold/oil ratio.
Relative to oil, gold has been in a downward trend for about 10 years and hit an all-time low at the end of August-2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In our opinion, the flurry of oil buying in the days following last year's hurricane combined with the weakness in the US$ gold price at the time paved the way for a major trend change. A major trend change would be confirmed by the gold/oil ratio moving above 10.
Not coincidentally, the last big rally in the gold/oil ratio occurred between the final quarter of 2000 and the final quarter of 2001 -- during a period when the economic growth rate was slowing and the yield-spread was widening. Slowing economic growth and a widening of the US yield-spread are what we expect to see over the coming 12 months.
With the gold price being extremely low relative to the oil price and with economic conditions likely to become increasingly supportive of gold relative to oil over the coming quarters we think a substantial rally in the gold/oil ratio is a good bet.
Oil versus Oil Stocks
There is a tendency for important tops in the major gold stocks to precede important tops in the gold price. The relationship between oil and oil stocks is, however, quite different in that tops in the major oil shares tend to occur AFTER tops in the oil price. For example and as illustrated by the following charts, the AMEX Oil Index (XOI) continued to trend higher for 7 months after the Q4-2000 peak in the oil price and for 9 months after the Q1-1997 peak in the oil price. Therefore, even if an intermediate-term correction has begun in the oil market it's quite possible that oil shares will continue to trend upward for several months.
The factor that determines the timing of the next intermediate-term peak in the major oil shares is likely to be the performance of the broad stock market. If the broad stock market continues to trend lower over the coming months then it's unlikely that oil shares will 'buck the trend', but if the broad stock market can rebound over the next few months then the XOI will probably make new highs even if the oil price has already peaked.
1 August 2006
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