An oil price spike is starting to look increasingly possible, with a rerun of 2008 not entirely out of the question, according to a new report.
The outages from Iran are worse than most analysts expected, and bottlenecks in the US shale patch could prevent non-OPEC supply from plugging the gap. To top it off, new regulations from the International Maritime Organization set to take effect in 2020 could significantly tighten supplies.
Put it all together, and "the likelihood of an oil spike and crash scenario akin to the one observed in 2008 has increased," Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote in a note. BofAML has a price target for Brent at $95 per barrel by the end of the second quarter 2019. In 2008, Brent spiked to nearly $150 per barrel.
The supply picture is looking increasingly worrying, with Venezuela and Iran the two principal factors driving up oil prices in the fourth quarter. Notably, the bank increased its estimate of supply losses from Iran 1 million barrels per day (mb/d), up from 500,000 bpd previously.
US shale can partially make up the difference, but the explosive growth from shale drillers is starting to slowdown, in part because of pipeline bottlenecks. BofAML sees US supply growth of 1.4 mb/d in 2018 but only 1 mb/d of growth in 2019.
That means that there isn't the same upward pressure on WTI as there is on Brent, largely because infrastructure bottlenecks in the shale patch keep supplies somewhat stuck within the United States. And it isn't just in West Texas where the constraints are causing problems. "[B]ottlenecks in the Permian basin could well extend to other areas such as the Bakken or the Niobrara, and we do not even rule out temporary export capacity constraints in the Gulf Coast as domestic output overwhelms logistics," BofAML said in a note.
Meanwhile, the demand side of the equation is not as clear. For now, demand still looks strong. The IEA puts demand growth for 2018 at 1.4 mb/d, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch agrees. But BofAML says three important demand-side factors to watch, which could undermine the high price scenario.
First, the dollar is strong, which would likely prevent a run up in prices in the same way as in 2008. Second, higher debt levels in emerging markets means that many countries are in a weaker spot than they were in 2008. Third, capital could continue to flee emerging markets because of rising interest rates from the Federal Reserve, US corporate tax cuts and US tariffs.
Why the focus on emerging markets? Beyond the possibility of contagion, emerging markets represent the bulk of oil demand growth, so any faltering would upset the global demand picture. The strong dollar, higher debt and capital flight means that "significant [emerging market] oil demand destruction could follow if Brent crude oil spikes above $120/bbl," Bank of America Merrill Lynch said.
Nevertheless, there are some ingredients in place that could lead to dramatic price spikes, even if the corresponding demand destruction makes the spike only temporary. BofAML puts total global supply outages at around 3 mb/d, only a bit lower than the recent peak of about 3.75 mb/d in 2014. And that doesn't take into account the unfolding losses from Iran. In other words, if Iran loses around 1 mb/d of supply due to US sanctions, as looks increasingly likely, total global supply outages could balloon to their highest in about two decades, not seen since the roughly 5 mb/d of outages during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War.
Finally, the 2020 IMO regulations will force marine fuels to lower sulfur content from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent. This will lead to a sharp increase in demand for diesel and other low sulfur fuels as the deadline for implementation approaches. "[T]he transition to a lower sulfur fuel specification will not likely be smooth," BofAML notes.
At a minimum, it appears that bearish sentiment from within the oil and gas industry has evaporated. Bloomberg notes that on the earnings calls of 22 major energy companies for the third quarter, not once was the phrase "lower for longer" mentioned, the first time since 2015 that was true. It wasn't too long ago that blistering US shale growth was thought to have permanently lowered the marginal price of production, which would lead to a period of lower oil prices for the foreseeable future.