Everybody in the biz seems to have an opinion, but Barron's caught up with energy analyst Arjun Murti, who has been predicting a big jump in the price of crude. Murti believes that the super spike is in its latter stages, but still sees the possibility of $150-to-$200-per-barrel oil (it's now at $139). That would translate into gas prices of up to $5.75 a gallon, which isn't much of a stretch considering that some stations have already hit the $5 mark. He says we should forget about speculators and bubbles - the real problem is too little supply growth and too much demand. Simple.
You've made the distinction in your research that while the world's oil supply is barely growing, if at all, there is a lot of oil that's not being taken out of the ground. Take Russia, for example. Why aren't they producing more oil?
In a lot of the key oil-exporting countries, the government is the key driver of whether their oil fields get developed. Relative to 10 years ago, Russia is in a very healthy position. So, logically, there is less incentive for Russia to massively grow their supply and bring down oil prices. Frankly, that's true for a lot of these countries.
In terms of your super-spike scenario, what phase are we in?
We are getting closer to the end game here, where despite eight years of rising energy prices, supply looks like it is going to barely grow this year. We have been bullish, but we didn't expect such a slow growth rate of supply. And demand outside the U.S., Europe and Japan has been more resilient than we expected.
Let's talk about the possibility of crude hitting $200 a barrel. If we get there, how does it play out?
Our view has been that the price will keep going up to the level where it meaningfully reduces demand. This is Economics 101; we need more supply or less demand. And because there are various political and geologic constraints on growing supply, we're left with looking for the price at which demand is reduced. We've never thought we knew what that exact number is. But we've tried to look at the 1970s, notably the economic impact of gasoline prices that ultimately led to a reduction in demand.
But if crude does hit $200 a barrel, what kind of prices will we see at the pump?
Oil at $150 to $200 a barrel would imply between $4 and $5.75 a gallon.
At which point you probably see a falloff in demand, right?
We are already starting to see a drop in demand in the U.S., but they are still having demand growth in the non-OECD countries, including China, the Middle East and Asia. The OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries are mainly the U.S., Europe and Japan. The real question: At what point do the non-OECD economies slow down? The other thing about U.S. demand is, at what point do you have sustainable change in consumer behavior? So if the price temporarily goes to $4 [a gallon], but immediately falls back to $3, it's likely that people will keep driving cars with poor gasoline mileage. But if people believe the increase in oil prices is more sustainable, they might shift to taking mass transportation, if available, driving hybrids or taking the other kind of actions that are necessary to reduce demand on a sustained basis.
Do you see a sustained drop in demand at $200 a barrel?
That is the big question. We have always assumed that, at some point, you get a sustained drop in demand. Our long-term oil forecast looking out 20 years is [for crude] to fall back to $75 a barrel, or some lower number. The questions are: How long do prices stay high? How sharply do they rise? And do people truly change their behavior or are they just temporarily driving less? It's an unknown at this point.