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Don’t set too high a hope of $60 for oil

On the plus side there seems a consensus among oil producers on what needs to be done

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The pendulum in the oil market has clearly swung in favour of the producers. Opec members have never pumped so much crude — ditto for Russia — but prices zoomed to a two-month high crossing $50 again.

There are a few forces at play here: demand in China and other Asian import stalwarts like Japan and South Korea is holding up, money is starting to flow back into emerging markets as investors look for a higher return on their money. And there is a wider belief Opec and non-Opec countries may actually do something at their informal meeting at the end of September.

I noted back at the June 2 gathering of Opec countries that the harsh tones evident at April’s meeting of 18 major producers in Doha had vanished and there was a more collective spirit beginning to emerge. Long-time energy markets observer Jason Schenker of Prestige Economics underscored that it was unusual for Opec to send out a formal announcement about an informal meeting taking place in Algiers, but the market is beginning to believe change is in the air.

“Although a cut is unlikely, it is more likely than in the past, given the cooperative nature of the last June Opec meeting in Vienna,” said Schenker in his weekly note to investors.

Perhaps the market should take a cue from Khalid Al Falih, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, who said in a CNNMoney interview after the Opec meeting that $60 oil is “very possible” by the close of 2016. Back then, Al Falih believed the market was about to rebalance and the Kingdom reiterated that point in a statement last week saying “we still see strong demand for our crude in most parts of the world”.

At the same time, he continues to harbour concerns that the oil sector could witness a ‘boomerang effect’ due to lower investment. Numbers from Wood Mackenzie suggest he might be right. In a report ahead of the summer sell-off and subsequent mini-recovery, the energy consultancy suggested that overall investment would drop by $1 trillion through 2020 to $2.4 trillion.

Money on R&D and capital spending is expected to plummet, that was evident in the comments following a slew of poor earnings from the oil majors released during the last week of June. Exxon Mobil saw profits drop 59 per cent, BP by 45 per cent. Royal Dutch Shell witnessed its lowest quarterly earnings in 11 years, and to top it off Chevron posted its worst quarterly loss since 2001.

The CEO of Chevron, John Watson, said his group was still in the midst of adjusting to the new reality of lower oil. Those results will clearly have a knock-on effect. Jessica Brewer, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie, believes “a lot of them (oil majors) are looking at $60 a barrel as the basic price for the economics behind these projects.”

In the meantime, the latest production numbers indicate the fight for market share that had been marked by change of policy in Saudi Arabia going back to late 2014 is very much still in play. The Kingdom’s daily output hit a record 10.67 million barrels in July according to Opec. The 13 member-states pumped out 33.1 million barrels day — a million more than the average in 2015 and two million above the level two years ago.

It should not be too surprising then that Opec’s global market share has crept up to nearly 35 per cent from 32.6 per cent in the spring of 2014. The Middle East players are the standouts at this juncture with their inherent advantage of being low cost producers. Iraq, Iran and the UAE all nudged up their production, filling a void created by the lower numbers from Nigeria and Venezuela.

Having just returned from the US, it would be remiss of me to overlook what is happening in the energy producing states with the rally to $50 a barrel; the number of active oil rigs has leapt 25 per cent since May. Operating costs have been pushed down and a great deal of corporate debt has been cleaned up.

Put these ingredients together and the market may be overlooking what this will mean for the late September meeting during the International Energy Forum. If low-cost producers from the Middle East to Russia are going flat out with production and US players are girding to come back onto the playing field, it would not support today’s bullish outlook.

That however would work against not only market momentum but also a pretty bold prediction from the region’s biggest player — Saudi Arabia.

— The writer is CNNMoney’s Emerging Markets Editor