Rising Oil Prices

Has oil hit its peak price or not? The answer to that question leads us to ask whether or not commodities are a bubble about to burst. Barron’s recent cover story on commodities came down on the side that the party was over.

I believe the charts I have in this column contain some powerful insights. You will want to keep them handy when things get rocky. They come courtesy of Barry Bannister, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, who delivered an interesting talk in Baltimore recently.

I’ll focus on oil, though a similar story holds true throughout the commodity sector. I don’t put a lot of faith in macro predictions — as no one can predict the future. But you can study track records. You can look at history. History reveals some interesting clues about what the future may hold.

The quick take? It doesn’t look like the party is over just yet. But even if it is, past peaks in oil give us clues. When you dig a little deeper into those relationships, you find a great road map for making money.

If you look at the price of oil, you find something interesting. Since January 2001, you can explain the move in the price of oil largely as a function of increasing money supply. As the amount of money grows, the price of oil rises. In fact, almost 87% of the move in the price of oil can be explained by the increase in money supply, as this next chart shows:


Basically, $100 per barrel oil is what we would expect to see, given this relationship between the oil price and money supply. Given that we are still in the midst of a credit crisis of sorts, it seems unlikely the Fed will tighten money in any way at all. That leaves a clear path for the price of oil and commodities to continue to rally in nominal terms.

The other thing to remember — and people forget this by worrying excessively about a U.S. recession — is that the story of oil is no longer a U.S.-centric story. You’ve surely heard about how the rapid growth in China and other emerging markets drives oil demand. Well, it’s good to keep that in mind. See the chart below:


China and India are only beginning to consume oil at any meaningful level. Right now, they are consuming oil at a rate the U.S. did in the early years of the 20th century. But look, we don’t need China to start guzzling oil like we do. Even if it moves half the distance between it and Hong Kong, that’s a lot of extra demand. The way I look at it is this: What’s more likely, China stays at 1910 oil usage or moves somewhere closer to, say, 1950s U.S. oil usage? I think the latter.

Even if oil has already peaked, that doesn’t mean oil is headed back to $40 per barrel or lower. In fact, if this oil boom follows history at all, we’re looking at years of oil prices right around $100 per barrel.

After studying the history of other recent oil booms, what you learn is that in no prior oil boom did the price of oil retreat rapidly toward where it was before the boom began. In each case, the price of oil stayed up for years after the peak. If you’ve got investments tied to the booming oil prices, that means you’ve got plenty of years to make more money.

So where do you go to make that money?

The one obvious place people will automatically look is to own oil and gas producers. That’s not a bad idea at all. But I’ve got another angle here. If you look at the capital and exploration spending of both Exxon and Chevron from 1928-2007, they show spending bottoms in 1948 and 1974. After each bottom, there was a long run of spending.

Spending peaked nine years after 1948. Spending peaked seven years after 1974. If 2005 proves to be the bottom on capital spending — and it seems so, since Exxon only recently announced it would increase its capital spending to $25-30 billion over the next few years, a 25% increase — we won’t see capital spending peak until 2012 at the earliest.

Now, why is this important? Think about what the oil companies spend money on. Where do they go shopping? They go shopping at the oil field services and equipment companies.

So that is where you want to be. Because even if oil has peaked, we’re still looking at years of strong spending by the oil companies. You want to have some exposure to the receiving end of all that spending. Such companies will mint cash. And they give you a little different payoff than owning a straight producer. As Bannister pointed out, it can sometimes be better to own the picks and shovels. You don’t actually own or produce the oil or gas, but your equipment is vital to those that do.

He used Newmont Mining, the big gold producer, as an example of a producer that has profoundly disappointed investors amid what may be the greatest gold bull market in history. Newmont’s costs rose so fast and so much that it never really enjoyed (at least not so far) the higher price in gold. But if you were in some mining equipment manufacturer, you got paid.

So the key takeaways here are these: The price of oil has room to run yet, in part because of the growth in money supply and in part because of pressing international demand. Secondly, even if we already saw oil peak, history says that prices won’t retreat by much over the next several years. And finally, the capital-spending boom by the big oil companies is just getting started, which is great news for investors in oil field services companies.

Chris Mayer
May 20, 2008