4 things to watch in oil markets after the U.S. strike
Here are elements to watch for in the oil markets:
How much uncertainty will oil traders tolerate?
Reaction in the oil market has so far been muted because global crude inventories are high and are likely to dampen any short-term price spikes. That was also the case after the September attacks linked to Iran on Saudi Arabia’s oil processing facilities that knocked out about 5.7 million barrels a day of production but had only a short-lived price effect: Within two weeks, much of the production was back, and oil prices were trading at levels seen before the attack.
That global supply overhang and moderate U.S. crude oil prices are so far preventing U.S. drivers from feeling any pain at the pump. But any sustained rally in oil prices will draw the attention of the White House, particularly with the November election closing in.
Oil topped out at $64 a barrel Friday after the Baghdad strike, up about $3 from a day earlier. (Every additional dollar added to the price of a barrel of oil translates to about an extra 2.4 cents drivers pay for a gallon of gasoline.)
For now, oil traders seem optimistic President Donald Trump would not risk sending oil prices soaring, according to Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis for the oil price service OPIS.
“Give Trump some credit on this. [It] seems as though getting into a war or sustained military action in the Middle East is anathema to him,” Kloza said. But any move above $70 a barrel is likely to prompt some action, he added.
“That’s one of the touchstones for his populism. In his very unsophisticated world view, gasoline prices in red states occupy a pretty high spot on the shelf,” he said.
Even though favorable market conditions give the U.S. some leeway for military action in the Middle East, oil traders may be underestimating the risks, and any sudden escalation of hostilities could catch them by surprise.
“The market is still pricing in a lot more Iranian rationality and U.S. restraint than may actually end up happening. That’s the important part. There’s an almost doctrinal faith that President Trump will avoid war at all costs,” said Kevin Book, managing director at advisory firm ClearView Energy Partners.
“There was always room for strategic miscalculation on the U.S. side because Iran has been sending mixed signals for decades, but again the market assumes Iranian rationality. Now the question is: Is there room for Iranian miscalculation of the U.S.?”
Middle East oil in the crosshairs?
Last year’s attack on Saudi oil infrastructure and the June assault on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman show Iran has been willing to threaten global energy trade, and experts predict any reaction from Tehran will be limited to its neighbors.
“The Iranians have shown they can hit a lot of critical oil infrastructure in the region if they want to and could choose this time to cause much more damage than the last few attacks,” Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president and director and senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ energy and national security program, said in an email.
Iran has in the past threatened to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, the choke point to the Persian Gulf that is the shipping route for 20 percent of the global oil trade. But any move to seal that passage would represent a major escalation in hostilities, provoking an even bigger U.S. response, experts said, and would probably not be as disruptive as it would have been in the past.
Nearly 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s exports currently exit the region through the Strait of Hormuz, according to analysts at Dutch bank ING, but the Saudis have expanded the East-West pipeline across the country to increase their ability to move supplies to the Red Sea, which could blunt an Iranian blockage at Hormuz.
Iraqi output, which has nearly doubled in the past decade to approach 5 million barrels per day, could be an easier target for Iran, but doesn’t offer much strategic logic for Iran.
“Iraqi production isn’t a U.S. interest, that’s the thing, it’s more of a Chinese interest,” said Randolph Bell, director of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council. “Iran isn’t going to go in and attack an Iraqi oilfield like they attacked (Saudi Arabia’s) Abqaiq. That doesn’t seem like a particularly likely or a particularly relevant response to the attack itself.”
Still, any escalation of hostilities in the region is likely to hurt Iraqi oil production, and many U.S. citizens who work for foreign oil companies were exiting the country on Friday.
U.S. industry response
It’s no secret that that shale boom that has sent U.S. oil production soaring to about 13 million barrels per day has altered the international energy trade balance. In September, the U.S. exported more oil and refined products than it imported for the first time since records have been kept. But that surge in production hasn’t translated into a big payday for the industry, which struggled to post profits amid soft energy prices, and companies have been cutting spending for new wells as their balance sheets weakened.
Now, if fears of further disruption in the Middle East lift global oil prices, that would ease pressure on the U.S. industry, and could prompt some companies to put restart idled drilling projects.
“There’s plenty of crude in the world. A lot of it is begging for just a little bit higher price to be tapped,” said OPIS’s Kloza.
Global economic ripples
While domestic production may offer the U.S. better security than in the past, other major economies that depend on oil imports won’t have the same protection.
“The big consumer nations that aren’t the U.S. — and there are lots of them — are extremely vulnerable,” Book said, citing China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union. “These are extremely vulnerable importers and a high price is going to affect their economies adversely. … What does it mean for the global economic picture? It means a lot.”
Each $5 increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs the global economy $183 billion per year, or 0.1 percent of global GDP, according to Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. While those costs to the U.S. economy are largely offset by gains in spending from the domestic oil producers, stock markets may be spooked by any sustained rise, and could be at risk of a selloff, he added.
While the Federal Reserve has said higher oil prices present little risk to the U.S. economy, the markets may be less accommodating, Shepherdson wrote in a research note, and “if Iran takes more drastic action than we are expecting, it will become a real risk. In that case, the Fed might have no choice but to ease, especially if credit markets seize-up too.”
Eric Wolff contributed to this report.