In the Spring of 2011, when Libyan oil production -- over 1 million barrels a day (mpd) -- was suddenly taken offline, the world received its first real-time test of the global pricing system for oil since the crash lows of 2009.
Oil prices, already at the $85 level for WTIC, bolted above $100, and eventually hit a high near $115 over the following two months.
More importantly, however, is that -- save for a brief eight week period in the autumn -- oil prices have stubbornly remained over the $85 pre-Libya level ever since. Even as the debt crisis in Europe has flared.
As usual, the mainstream view on the world's ability to make up for the loss has been wrong. How could the removal of "only" 1.3% of total global production affect the oil price in any prolonged way?, was the universal view of "experts."
Answering that question requires that we modernize, effectively, our understanding of how oil's numerous price discovery mechanisms now operate. The past decade has seen a number of enormous shifts, not only in supply and demand, but in market perceptions about spare capacity. All these were very much at play last year.
And, they are at play right now as oil prices rise once again as the global economy tries to strengthen.
The Subordination of Cushing
Through the dominant force of its own demand, the US economy largely controlled the oil price for many decades. For years, it was common practice therefore to gauge world demand through the weekly updates to oil storage at Cushing, Oklahoma as well as total oil storage in the United States. If the US was demanding more oil from the global market, and thus either not adding to oil inventories or drawing them down, then a signal was given, pointing to future oil price strength.
But this dynamic began to break down coming into 2005-2007. That was the period when US oil demand -- because of rising prices -- began its current decline. Now that US oil demand is down over 12% from its mid-decade peak, the fluctuation of oil inventories in the US no longer drive prices.
The chart below shows that US inventories have been on an upward trend since 2005, and are now near decadal highs above 300 million barrels even though oil prices are back above $100:
What we're now seeing is that US inventories and US demand are now subordinate to numerous other factors, ranging from emerging market demand, to market perception of spare capacity.
Lessons of Libya
A useful fact learned during last year's Libyan civil war is that Saudi Arabia does not necessarily posses the 2-3 mbpd of spare capacity which most have assumed for years. Moreover, Saudi Arabia ceded the position of top world oil producer to Russia over 5 years ago in 2006. Indeed, Saudi Arabia made no production response to the loss of Libyan oil last spring. Producing near 9 mbpd, it was only by June that Saudi production was lifted by 600 thousand barrels a day (kbpd). That is a hefty production increase to be sure, but it raised questions as to how quickly spare capacity in the world can be brought online.
By the time Saudi Arabia had lifted production, the OECD countries led by the IEA in Paris had already decided to release oil from official inventories. But this, too, did little to calm oil prices -- and as I pointed out last June, only created further problems. In The Dark Side of the OECD Oil Inventory Release, I explained that, by lowering OECD inventories, the market would correctly deduce that safety buffers had been reduced further. Combined with the Saudi increase in production, this only reduced spare capacity further.
The result was even stronger prices as WTIC ran back to $100 (until all global markets floundered on a flare-up in the EU financial crisis).