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For how long can OPEC talk up oil prices?

By Julieanne Geiger - posted Thursday, 13 October 2016

Not a day passes without OPEC making oil and gas headlines, and today is surely no exception. Seemingly in lockstep with OPEC, the market is once again pacified on the promise that changes to the global oil supply glut are a' comin'.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal quoted anonymous sources close to the matter who had it on good authority that the Saudi's were willing to cut "up to" 400,000 barrels per day (and that they had planned to do so all along, with or without an OPEC agreement). We can assume this figure is off August or September levels, which are near-record highs for the oil-rich country.

Of course, there are 400,000 different possible production cut figures included in this "up to 400,000" range—including a big fat zero—so fundamentally speaking, like so much of the OPEC speak, this could mean nothing.


But this isn't the first time OPEC chatter or supposition or guesswork has moved markets, and it won't be the last. Because, as Oilprice contributor Rakesh Upadhyay pointed out back in August, just a month before the freeze was announced, fundamentals aren't what's driving the oil market—speculation is. And nothing feeds speculators like OPEC.

As Upadhyay wrote, "Though most analysts agreed that a production freeze was not going to alter the fundamentals, prices rose sharply, with the hedge funds adding record long positions," as evidenced by the chart below, which shows what happened in February when OPEC cuts were on the table for Doha. Fundamentals didn't change—the glut wasn't easing—yet hedge funds and speculation on OPEC rumors drove up prices.


The hope quickly faded when the Doha meeting fell short of expectations, but prices continued to climb. Then, the market found new hope in the Vienna meeting. We then wondered—this time quite wistfully—if a freeze could… maybe, possibly… happen in that meeting over the summer, much in the same way one might hold onto hope that we might someday win the lotto. Our hopes were dashed yet again—but not before the market reflexively inched up again.

Soon after, Saudi comments, which indicated that a new spirit of cooperation among OPEC members might be taking shape, sending prices upward yet again. An unofficial meeting was announced. Algiers, they said. "Stabilize the market" they said (which can apparently be done with talk, rather than production cuts). Russia chimed in, vacillating between joining the "market stabilization" efforts and not. We asked ourselves, this time ever more cautiously, dare we hope again? Most thought not, but speculators threw caution to the wind, moving markets this way and that on almost a daily basis in response to every utterance regarding the freeze.


Then the announcement came that OPEC had reached a deal. The earth shook, moving markets again— this time by a large percentage—and this time backed up by a more tangible hope.

Meanwhile, the industry scrambled to make sense of what it all meant. How big would the cut be? Which members would do the cutting? How did Saudi Arabia and Iran reach any kind of consensus when they were worlds apart—on multiple fronts? And then there was the ultimate question that had every analyst from here to Venezuela furiously figuring and calculating and refiguring and recalculating: just how high could prices go?

Speculators continued to largely disregard the ins and outs of the deal, which were absent at the time, and we saw markets tick up happily in response.

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