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Fear factor and soaring demand blamed for crude price leap

By Kevin Mor­ri­son and Stephen Schurr

LONDON: Since the price of oil began its rocky but seem­ing­ly inex­orable climb above $40 a bar­rel in 2003, there has been wide­spread debate about what is dri­ving it.

Crude bears have con­tend­ed high­er ener­gy prices are heav­i­ly influ­enced by a “risk pre­mi­um” amid fears of ter­ror­ist or polit­i­cal dis­rup­tions to sup­ply. Bulls, con­verse­ly, acknowl­edge a pre­mi­um, but say it is far less impor­tant than the soar­ing demand from devel­oped and devel­op­ing coun­tries amid ever-tight­en­ing sup­ply. So far, the bears have been pun­ished might­i­ly, while the bulls have been among the best-com­pen­sat­ed investors in the world.

“Clear­ly, there is some risk pre­mi­um,” said James Melch­er, man­ag­er of Balestra Cap­i­tal, a New York-based hedge fund that has notched up strong returns in recent years in part thanks to ener­gy relat­ed bets. “If the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian mess sim­mers down, Venezuela set­tles down and the Iran sit­u­a­tion pro­gress­es in a benign way, I think oil will come down to maybe $55 or $60 — but it isn’t going back to the $40s.”

There has been no short­age of events to fuel the fear fac­tor. Notwith­stand­ing the failed attack on Sau­di Ara­bi­a’s Abqaiq facil­i­ty, Niger­ian mil­i­tants closed sig­nif­i­cant parts of the coun­try’s pro­duc­tion ear­ly this year. There are the con­tin­ued attacks on Iraqi oil infra­struc­ture and the nuclear stand-off con­tin­ues between Iran and the west. All of which have kept oil traders busy, and stoked con­cerns about future oil sup­plies, which has helped push oil prices to more than $70 a bar­rel this week.

For hedge fund man­agers such as Mr Melch­er, there are plen­ty of ways to prof­it from high­er ener­gy prices with­out a direct invest­ment in crude.

For instance, Balestra has 80 per cent of its ener­gy hold­ings in oil ser­vice com­pa­nies. “With prices at high­er lev­els, mar­gins for these com­pa­nies are explod­ing,” said Mr Melch­er.

But geopol­i­tics is just one of sev­er­al fac­tors affect­ing oil prices. More mun­dane ones include oil demand, the lev­el of oil inven­to­ries, and refin­ing con­straints. Fran­cis­co Blanch, head of com­mod­i­ty research at Mer­rill Lynch, says that a clos­er look at the oil mar­ket shows that oil sup­plies have not been dis­turbed to any great extent. In fact oil held in stor­age in devel­oped coun­tries is at its high­est lev­el in more than 20 years, even high­er than in 1998, when big inven­to­ries con­tributed to the oil price falling to $10 a bar­rel.

More­over, Iraqi oil exports this month are expect­ed to rise to their high­est lev­el since Octo­ber 2004, as oil from the north­ern Kirkuk oil field starts to flow again for the first time since Sep­tem­ber. The shut­down of about 500,000 bar­rels a day of Niger­ian pro­duc­tion by rebels has been par­tial­ly off­set by pro­duc­tion from the new Bon­ga field.

“I think the geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is prob­a­bly a bit bet­ter than the gen­er­al per­cep­tion,” said Mr Blanch. Even the like­li­hood of Iran using oil as a strate­gic weapon in its nuclear nego­ti­a­tions is remote, he adds, giv­en that the coun­try is actu­al­ly depen­dent on for­eign imports of petrol as a result of insuf­fi­cient refin­ing capac­i­ty.


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