Supply Shock and Awe

oil productionMy Comments: The driving economic story these days is about the price of oil. That the sudden and dramatic drop will have global repercussions is a given. The challenge for financial planners is how to help clients take advantage of these repercussions.

Right now, having a few hundred extra bucks to spend on something else or to save is very satisfying. But it will come to an end and the landscape will have changed. This has happened before and when it did, some people profited and others lost money. What will be your fate?

Commentary by Scott Minerd, Chairman of Investments and Global Chief Investment Officer, Guggenheim Partners – January 17, 2015

If the mid-80s’ supply-driven oil crisis is a guide, we should expect further declines and a prolonged period where oil prices remain depressed.

In just one week, oil prices skidded by more than 10 percent, sparking a sell-off in U.S. equities of 3.5 percent, a Treasury rally of more than 20 basis points, and global headlines of growth fears and tumult. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about this week. The week I’m referring to was in early December, and it is rather similar to the present oil price action and market response.

During the week of Dec. 8, oil fell 12.2 percent to around $58 a barrel, the yield on U.S. 10-year Treasuries approached 2 percent from around 2.30 percent, and equities declined over 3.5 percent. At that time, I published a commentary establishing a downside target for oil at $50 a barrel and said that the yield on the U.S. 10-year note would slip further to around 1.9 percent. Many of those predictions seemed pretty extreme at the time, but here we stand. At the time of writing, oil is around $48 per barrel, and the yield on U.S. 10-year Treasuries is 1.96 percent.

Technically speaking, after breaking through the support level of $50 a barrel, the measured move for oil is now $34 a barrel (based on the minimum downside potential price according to the rules used by market technicians). I believe we are in for a prolonged period where oil trades in the $40 to $50 range and possibly lower. In fact, I have the investment teams running stress tests based on oil trading at $25 a barrel for an extended period of time.

Twenty-five dollars a barrel? Isn’t that a bit extreme? I would guess, but so were our stress tests in 2008, which assumed short-term rates could go to zero for an extended period of time. The current bear market for oil is the result of a supply shock brought on by fracking. Based on the unwillingness of global oil producers to reduce production, the current supply shock will take a while to work its way through the system, and oil prices have yet to find a bottom. Better to evaluate the downside scenarios now than to be unprepared.

The difference between this bear market in black gold and the bear market of 2008 or the 1998 experience, which was associated with the Asian crisis, is that both of those were demand shocks. The best historical comparison to what we’re witnessing today in oil prices is actually the supply-shocked world of the mid-1980s.

The 1985-86 bear market in oil was the result of oversupply—too much oil was brought online relative to demand. During that period, prices declined more than 67 percent over four months or so. When oil prices started to rise again in April 1986, credit spreads started to tighten a few months later and within 12 months, the stock market was up over 20 percent. If history is any guide—and in this instance, I believe it may be—we are likely to see a similar situation play out today.

But investors beware in the near-term. Even at $48 per barrel, oil is still a falling knife—I believe there remains another significant downside move. If we hit the $34 a barrel price target, which I believe we could, that would be another 30 percent decline in oil prices. Typically, people would rightly characterize a 30 percent decline as a bear market. We’ve already had a decline of over 55 percent from the high, so we’ve already been in a bear market, but if we started over today we’re going to have another one.

With the development of fracking, we’ve had a huge increase in the supply of oil. By most estimates, fracking ceases to be profitable when oil prices hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 a barrel. Once the frackers stop drilling new wells, the following 24 months should see oil output gradually declining, allowing for prices to stabilize and ultimately rising to something viewed as normal above $60. Until supply begins to contract, oil will continue to languish. Between now and then, anything energy output-related should continue to suffer from weak oil prices.

Over the past 30 years, there have been six major declines in the price of oil (defined as a greater than 50 percent cumulative decline). The current decline now stands at around 55 percent, matching the magnitude of some of the worst historical oil crashes. However, most of the past declines have been due to faltering global demand, whereas the current slump is due to a glut of oil. Therefore, the best comparable decline is that of 1985-86, when a supply shock caused the West Texas Intermediate price to plunge by more than 67 percent over the course of four and a half months. With no near-term signs of supply letting up, oil prices could continue to fall.

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