OPEC Is Not the Only Solution to High Oil Prices

November 15, 2021 Updated: November 19, 2021


High oil prices are a symptom of economic and monetary imbalances, not a consequence of OPEC decisions.

Throughout history, we have seen how Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cuts have done little to elevate prices when diversification and technology added to rising efficiency. Likewise, OPEC output increases don’t necessarily mean lower prices, let alone reasonable ones. OPEC helps but doesn’t solve price issues, even if it would like to.

The problem in the oil market has been created by years of massive capital misallocation and underinvestment in energy—the result of extremely loose monetary policies directed by governments that have, for ideological reasons, penalized capital expenditure on fossil fuels.

Misguided activism and political nudging in the middle of monetary injections have created bottlenecks and underinvestment that hinder both security of supply and a technically feasible competitive energy transition.

Massive injections of liquidity have caused a double side effect: rising malinvestment in nonproductive activities and, now, a large inflow of capital into so-called value areas—more money directed to relatively scarce assets. Energy has gone from a consensus underweight stock rating to a large overweight, exacerbating the price increase. The marginal barrel of oil has risen almost 60 percent in a year, despite supply rising in tandem with demand.

According to JP Morgan, the required capital expenditure in energy required to meet demand is $600 billion for the period 2021–2030. This “cumulative missing capex” is part of the problem.

The other important problem is artificial demand created by chains of stimulus plans. As I explained in a previous column, adding enormous energy-intensive infrastructure plans to a reopening economy where some supply bottlenecks have been worsened generates the same effect on energy prices as a huge speculative bubble.

Political intervention has also created an important impact on the price of a marginal barrel of oil. Threatening to ban domestic development of energy resources in the United States or announcing the prohibition of fossil fuel investment in some European summits makes the net present value of the long-term marginal barrel higher, not lower. Why? Because those threats aren’t made with sound technical analysis and robust supply and demand estimates, but with political agendas. Any serious engineer who understands the importance of security and supply and technology development understands that a successful energy transition to a greener economy requires solid and realistic targets as well as policies that avoid an energy crisis. Those have been forgotten.

OPEC is benefitting from high oil prices, but not as much as one would think. The OPEC Reference Basket average is $68.33 per barrel year-to-date, a large 68.4 percent increase over the same period last year, but still massively below the elevated levels prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, OPEC and non-OPEC supply have risen in tandem with demand. Global oil supply in October increased by 1.74 million barrels per day to an average of 97.56 million barrels per day compared with the previous month. The U.S. liquids production growth forecast for 2021 has been revised up by 19,000 barrels per day and is expected to be 17.57 million barrels per day in 2021. Imagine where oil and gas prices would be if the political threats to ban or severely penalize domestic production had been enforced.

Let’s not forget that OPEC has also revised down the estimates of global oil demand to 96.4 million barrels per day in 2021. Supply remains ample, and the U.S. administration should see that Russia and the United States are expected to be the main drivers of next year’s supply growth. Without Russia and the United States, production prices would soar no matter what OPEC partners or Saudi Arabia alone might do.

We’re suffering from the combination of misguided energy policies, excessive money creation, and ill-timed giant construction plans. OPEC and its partner Russia may alleviate this somewhat, but not change it dramatically. Furthermore, as time passes and underinvestment becomes more severe, OPEC’s ability to curb prices will weaken. We can’t forget that OPEC and Russia account for less than half of the total world supply. They matter, but putting two more million barrels a day of supply into the market doesn’t solve the long-term price problem.

Energy prices will decline with more technology, investment, and diversification, not empty political threats.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Daniel Lacalle, Ph.D., is chief economist at hedge fund Tressis and author of “Freedom or Equality,” “Escape from the Central Bank Trap,” and “Life in the Financial Markets.”