US investment manager Sanford C. Bernstein & Co has warned that oil prices may increase past $150 a barrel if production shortfalls take hold.
This concern relates to a perceived lack of investment in oil exploration, which Bernstein claims is a precursor to a spike in crude oil prices the likes of which the world has never seen.
Analysts said that investors have been pressuring oil companies to boost returns and dividends in the short term at the expense of covering longer-term operational expenditures such as seeking new reserves, thus not allowing for future growth.
This has led to a situation where reserves at major oil-producing companies are decreasing, and the industry’s reinvestment ration has fallen to the lowest level in an entire generation. These activities pave the way for low supply and high demand to send oil prices past their 2008 all-time high of $147 a barrel, according to Bernstein.
Bernstein analysts wrote: “Investors who had egged on management teams to rein in capex and return cash will lament the underinvestment in the industry. Any shortfall in supply will result in a super-spike in prices, potentially much larger than the $150-a-barrel spike witnessed in 2008.”
The world’s largest oil companies, including BP and Royal Dutch Shell, dealt with a price crash in 2014 by implementing cost-cutting measures, selling off assets and borrowing funds to pay hefty dividends to investors. Earlier this year, Exxon Mobil took a beating from shareholders after poor results coincided with a major spending plan.
The Bernstein report said that global oversupply of crude oil in recent years has covered up “chronic underinvestment’ within the industry. Oil prices are now at their highest level in over three years, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an international oil cartel, reduced output early last year in an attempt to compensate for the oversupply. The plan was to turn supply back up to help cool prices. However, unplanned supply disruptions in Libyan and Venezuelan oilfields mean that prices have not corrected as expected.
According to Bernstein, proven reserves belonging to the top oil companies in the world have dropped by an average of 30% since 2000. Only BP and Exxon Mobil have seen an improvement due to their M&A activity. Meanwhile, the global demand for oil is set to drive higher over the next two decades as Asia adds an estimated one billion people to the world’s urban population. This, in turn, will increase demand for road transportation such as cars and trucks, air travel and the plastics industry – all of which require oil.
The report went on to say: “If oil demand continues to grow to 2030 and beyond, the strategy of returning cash to shareholders and underinvesting in reserves will only turn out to sow the seeds of the next super-cycle. Companies which have barrels in the ground to produce, or the services to extract them, will be the ones to own, and those who do not will be left behind.”
Oil prices have been fluctuating this year, going up in April after fears of a reduction in Iran’s production capacity due to planned US sanctions were eased. Earlier today, the price of crude oil fell slightly after US data showed that oil stockpiles were growing.