Podcast | Thought on the Market

Andrew Sheets: Why Lower Oil Futures Matter for the Shape of the Market

Morgan Stanley
Banking, Finance, Investment Strategies

The market’s long term trajectory for oil suggests a decline in prices, but the ‘why’ matters, and the transition toward more green energy may imply a different outcome.

—– Transcript —–

Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Andrew Sheets, chief cross-asset strategist for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, I’ll be talking about trends across the global investment landscape and how we put those ideas together. It’s Friday, October 22nd at 2:00 p.m. in London.

 

The price of energy has surged this year. While the S&P 500 is up an impressive 21% year to date, that pales in comparison to a broad index of energy commodities – things like oil and natural gas – which are up almost 80%. I wanted to talk today about some of the broader implications of this move and importantly, the somewhat surprising message from future price expectations.

 

Let’s actually start with those expectations. While the price for oil is up sharply this year, future prices currently imply a pretty significant decline in the price of oil over the next one, two and three years. Buying a barrel of oil costs about $84 today. But if you want to buy a barrel for delivery in a year’s time, the price is $76, a full 10% lower. And for those of you looking ahead to Christmas 2023, that same barrel of oil costs $70, 17% below current levels.

 

Those implied declines in the future price of oil are historically large. If current oil prices simply move sideways over the next year, buying oil 10% below current levels in a year’s time will return, well, 10%. That’s more than double the return for U.S. high yield bonds, and one reason commodity investors care so much about the shape of these prices over time. Indeed, it’s a way for investors to make a pretty healthy return, in this case 10%, in a scenario where the day-to-day price of oil doesn’t really move.

 

This dynamic that we see today, where future oil prices are lower than current levels, is called ‘backwardation’. And while it matters for commodity investors, it can also have broader implications for how we interpret the economic outlook.

 

When oil prices are rising like they are today, one of the single biggest economic questions is whether this rise is mostly coming from increased demand or more limited oil supply. The price impact may be the same between these two dynamics, but the underlying drivers are very, very different. According to the work by my colleague Chetan Ahya, Morgan Stanley’s chief Asia economist, higher demand suggests underlying activity is strengthening and higher oil prices are easier to afford. Limited oil supply, in contrast, works more like a tax and can be more economically disruptive.

 

So how do we know which one of these it is?

 

Well, there are a lot of things that investors can look at, but the shape of oil prices over time, what we’ve just been discussing, can be a really useful way to quantify this question. Short term oil prices, we’d argue, tend to be influenced more heavily by the demand for oil. If you’re going to go on a long road trip, you’re going to fill up at the pump today. Longer term oil prices, in contrast, tend to be more linked to supply, as the producers of that oil really do care about selling it over the next one, two, three and five years. So, if demand is strong, short-term prices should be biased higher. And if supply is more plentiful, longer-term prices tend to be biased lower. That downward shape of prices over time, that ‘backwardation’, is exactly what we were discussing earlier, and that’s what we see today. That, in turn, suggests that the current oil price strength is being driven more by demand than supply.

 

I’ll close, however, with the idea that the market might have this long-term trajectory of oil prices wrong. As my colleague Martijn Rats, Morgan Stanley’s chief commodity strategist, has recently argued, an expectation of a green transition towards renewable energy has caused investment in new oil drilling to plummet. That should mean less supply over time, challenging the market’s current assumption that oil prices will decline significantly over the next several years.

 

Thanks for listening. Subscribe to Thoughts on the Market on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen, and leave us a review. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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