Much like stocks, oil prices have been on a rollercoaster ride recently. Triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prices spiked to their highest levels since 2008 this month and then tumbled into bear market territory five days later. (In general, a price drop of 20% from a previous high represents a bear market.)
The recent drop in oil prices is the fastest decline into bear market territory since April 2020. Then, prices fell more than 20% and turned negative in a single day. Yet a dramatic change in oil prices typically doesn’t trigger the same emotional response that a similar change in stock prices would. Perhaps this is because oil markets tend to be even less understood than equity markets.
To put the many headlines you’re likely seeing about oil into perspective, I thought it would be helpful to provide an overview of how oil markets work, why we’re seeing volatility right now, and what this means—or doesn’t mean—for gas prices.
What Is the Oil Market?
There are two primary markets for crude oil: the physical market and the futures market. In the physical market, large producers like Exxon Mobil pump oil from the ground and sell it to processing companies, which then refine it into products like gasoline and jet fuel. A handful of companies act as middlemen, shipping oil around the world through various channels.
Meanwhile, the oil futures market is an electronic financial market consisting of banks, brokerages, and firms that deal in energy. Producers, refiners, traders, and other market participants use futures contracts to lock in oil prices for future transactions. For example, Southwest Airlines uses futures contracts to mitigate rising oil prices and keep costs low for its customers.
In the physical market, private deals between buyers and sellers determine prices. Details of these transactions aren’t widely available, making the physical oil market somewhat murky. Companies like S&P Global Platts publish daily price estimates known as spot prices based on discussions with traders.
The futures market is more transparent. Futures trade on two main exchanges, CME Group’s New York Mercantile Exchange in the U.S. and Intercontinental Exchange in London. The prices of these contracts are widely available.
Types of Crude Oil
Crude oil is graded according to thickness and sulfur content. Light, sweet crude oil is the highest grade and therefore the most sought after, as it is easier and cheaper to refine.
West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the primary oil benchmark for North America, is light and sweet because it contains very little sulfur. It is sourced primarily from inland Texas and is one of the highest quality oils in the world. Because the fracking boom has turned the United States into the world’s largest producer, WTI prices are followed globally.
WTI is similar to Brent crude, which they produce off the coast of Northern Europe. Brent is the main oil benchmark for most of the world. It is also very high quality, although it has a slightly higher sulfur content than WTI. Typically, WTI is ideal for gasoline, while Brent is ideal for diesel fuel.
Meanwhile, countries like Canada, Venezuela, and Russia, among others, produce sour crude oil that has a higher sulfur content. Lower-quality crude oil is cheaper to produce but more difficult to refine.
Global Oil Production & Consumption
Established in Baghdad, Iraq in 1960, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is comprised of 13 nations that collectively control about 80% of the world’s proven oil reserves. These countries supply roughly half of globally exported crude oil by value. However, this percentage has been steadily declining in recent years. Outside of OPEC, the United States and Russia possess the largest reserves.
The following graphics show the top 10 oil producers/consumers and their share of the world’s total oil production/consumption, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In 2020, the world’s top five exporters of crude oil were Saudi Arabia (17.2% of global exports), Russia (11%), Iraq (7.7%), the United States (7.6%), and United Arab Emirates (7.2%). Russia is still a top exporter. However, it’s worth noting that the country’s oil exports by value declined more than 40% from 2019-2020.
In addition to oil, Russia is a major producer, consumer, and exporter of coal and natural gas, as well as the various refined products made from them. According to the IEA, Russia’s fossil fuel industry produced the energy equivalent of 11 billion barrels of oil in 2019.
Currently, Europe and China account for about 90% of Russia’s total exports. Within Europe, dependency on Russian oil and gas varies by country. By comparison, only 3.5% of the United States’ oil imports came from Russia in 2021—the highest percentage in over two decades (but not the highest value).
U.S. Oil Production & Consumption
Since 2008, the value of U.S. oil imports has fallen over 62% due to a surge in domestic production. Currently, about 35% of U.S. supply comes from international partners, compared to about 65% produced domestically.
Meanwhile, U.S. oil exports have increased nearly 3,000% after the United States ended a four-decade-long ban on oil exports, dating back to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. In other words, the United States is now less dependent on other countries for our oil and is becoming a more important exporter of oil to other countries.
The United States is becoming increasingly energy-independent. However, it continues to import lower quality oil from countries like Russia to make use of its existing infrastructure. According to Ryan Kellogg, a professor at the University of Chicago, the U.S. spent billions of dollars on its refining capacity in the 1990s and early 2000s. As such, it doesn’t make economic sense to let that equipment sit idle. In addition, domestic production is not yet at the level where the U.S. can stop importing heavier, sour oil from other nations.
What Affects Oil Prices?
Like other markets, supply and demand determine oil prices. Anything that affects either side of this equation can send prices up or down.
Historically, geopolitics have played a significant role in the direction of oil prices as producers jockey for position. In addition, changes in the global economic outlook can affect supply and demand.
Oil prices can also move in tandem with financial markets. For example, it’s not unusual to see oil prices drop when equity markets decline. In the futures market, speculative bets by traders can also influence prices.
What’s Responsible for Recent Volatility in Oil Markets?
In early 2020, demand for oil dropped sharply as Covid-19 cases surged globally. Government-issued lockdowns stopped people from driving to work, grounded airplanes, and slowed the pace of global trade. As a result, oil prices fell to their lowest levels in decades.
Oil prices have been on the rise as the global economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic. However, the Russia-Ukraine crisis exacerbated already inflated oil prices and is largely responsible for the uptick in volatility more recently.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the price of oil surged to over $110/barrel, a 15% increase from the previous week. Russia is the world’s third largest producer of oil after the United States and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, sanctions on Russian exports and reluctance to purchase Russian oil sent prices upward.
The United States is more insulated from the crisis that other countries—Europe, for example. Still, the shift in global trade flows has caused a lot of market uncertainty over the last month. Indeed, the Biden administration has banned Russian oil imports. However, this most recent price drop was due to the realization that Europe wouldn’t be abandoning Russian oil just yet, easing pressure on the rest of the world’s oil supply for the time being.
The Relationship Between Oil and Gas Prices
Gas prices have also been on the rise due to record-high inflation levels. But many consumers are wondering why the recent decline in oil prices hasn’t affected prices at the pump yet.
You may not be as affected by rising gas prices if you drive an electric vehicle or gas is a small part of your budget. However, the average American spends anywhere from 2-4% of their overall income on gasoline, and for lower earners a much greater percentage. When gas prices go up, these Americans then have less money to spend on other goods and services. This, in turn, can affect the broader economy.
Although oil prices influence gas prices, it’s not a cut-and-dry relationship. Retailers set their gas prices based on replacement cost. Therefore, there’s typically a lag between changes in oil prices and changes in gas prices.
When wholesale prices increase, retailers will often take a hit to their margins first to remain competitive with other retailers nearby. Similarly, retailers may hold their gas prices steady despite a lower delivery cost to make up for the margin they lost during the price increase.
In addition, there’s usually a drop in demand when gas prices spike as consumers top off their tanks in anticipation. This slowdown in demand affects when retailers schedule their next fuel delivery—another reason the prices of oil and gas don’t always move in tandem.
What Does All of This Mean for Your Investments?
Though it’s impossible to predict the future, we’re likely to see more volatility as the war in Ukraine continues. And while we’re currently experiencing a particularly painful period as prices rise and our account balances fluctuate, the good news is these things tend to be cyclical. Investors have historically been rewarded for staying the course—especially when it feels most uncomfortable to do so.
If you’re an ESG investor, you will not be participating in the rising stock values of oil and commodities companies due to the supply squeeze. However, I believe the long-term outlook for companies that incorporate ESG practices into their operations is still strong, as I write in my most recent op-ed for CNBC. You can read the full article here if you’d like to learn more.
As always, please feel free to contact us if you’d like to discuss any of this further.